An Alternative to Scales – Jigs & Reels

Hello again from Colin Berrido, the independent music teacher based in Bagshot, Surrey, England.

As an alternative to using scales and arpeggios to build finger speed, strength and muscle memory I often teach jigs & reels and the like partly because I’m on a mini-mission to keep the old traditional tunes alive albeit in a modern format.¬† I’m always surprised at how many of my younger students take to them with a passion even though their core genre interest could be something radically different¬† – such as Heavy Rock or Metal. I’ve thought about why this is and whilst I don’t have definitive answer I think it’s because they have strong melody line coupled with a technical challenge to play them well – you have to work hard to get them right on guitar but when my students do I see a real sense of achievement on their faces.

The inspiration for me to start playing jigs & reels on guitar was the wonderfully innovative guitarist Richard Thompson. I can remember hearing him duet and duel with Dave Swarbrick on the 1969 Fairport Convention Album “Liege and Leif”. Now I’d heard a number guitarists play some traditional tunes on acoustic guitars, which was all well and good but Richard Thompson did it on a Fender Stratocaster. What a sound, what a tone! It simply inspired me to both learn to play the tunes (which is another long story!) and I had to have a Fender Strat! Which is still my go-to guitar of choice.

Returning to the comment regarding a strong melody line – I have pet theory that music that has a strong melody line tends to also have a long life and gets passed on to successive generations of musicians. An example being the music of Mozart – superb complex harmonies coupled to wonderful melodies that we can all hum or whistle. Alternatively Bartok wrote some very complex pieces but with much more emphasis on dissonant melody lines. Now it’s unfair to say one composer is “better” than another but if we use the yard stick of who gets played more regularly on “Classic FM” then Mozart is clearly requested more often by their target audience.

The fact that traditional music is in general very melodic in nature it would go some way to explaining why they have been passed down for hundreds of years – plus they were written to make you dance and feel happy.

Now I did have one student who just loved to play scales but after pointing out the he’d could do with “getting out” a bit more I tried him on some traditional jigs & reels and he loved ’em! He found them frustrating at first- getting the fingering right, getting the timing right, not to mention those dammed triplets but once he’s cracked a couple of them he was a “happy camper”. Job done – another convert and I hopefully saved his sanity as well.

So check out some traditional Irish, Scottish or English tunes and have a-go! ‘Till next time – keep enjoying your playing!