Calling Elvis chord analysis – Major, minor, no-third, power chords

Posted on 6 CommentsPosted in Easy stuff for beginners, MK guitar style and licks, Understanding music

This time I will start with some very basic stuff: major and minor chords.

Every guitar beginner soon learns that there is e.g. an A major chord, and an A minor chord. Obviously they are similar, they just differ in one single note (in case of the first position chords, in the example it is either the 2nd (A) or 1st (Am) fret on the b string).

The minor and major chords only differ in one note, this is the third note of the corresponding scale.

You need to understand that both a major and a minor chord consists of three different notes: the first, the third, and the fifth note of the corresponding scale.

Example: Take the C major scale (C D E F G A B C), notes number 1,3 & 5 are: C E G
These are the notes a  C major chord consists of

The C minor scale is C D Eb F G Ab Bb C, notes 1,3 & 5 are: C Eb G

Since a guitar has 6 strings, any guitar chord can consist of up to six notes, but in case of a simple major or minor chord, there are only three DIFFERENT notes (e.g. the first position A major chords has the notes – low to high – E A E A C# E  = three different notes.

Let’s leave the basics now. Besides major and minor, there is another possibility: Any major or minor chord can be played in such a way that there is no third (=the third note of the scale) at all, e.g. play a normal open position A chord, but dampen (or do not hit) the b and the high e string, or press down the d and g string on the 2nd fret (with your index finger), and the b and high e string on the 5th fret (with the pinky).

Whenever a chord only consists of the root note and the fifth note of the scale, it does not ponly sound better with heavy distortion, it also allows you to play lead licks both with major or minor scale licks
Whenever a chord only consists of the root note and the fifth note of the scale, it does not only sound better with heavy distortion, it also allows you to play lead licks both with major or minor scale licks

In both cases the chord will consist of only TWO different notes (E and A), which are 1 & 5 of the scale, but no third. Since it was the third that determines whether the chord is major or minor, these chords are neutral so to say – they are neither major nor minor. Often these chords are called power chords.

So, why this name, and what are they good for? Especially in combination with a lot of distortion, the third often adds some weird sounding harmonic effects, in other words, power chords sound better for heavy stuff. For this reason they often replace both major or minor chords in all kinds of music that rely on distortion. Mark Knopfler also uses them a lot, e.g. most chords in Money for Nothing are power chords.

Another aspect is that – as the chord itself is “neutral” – you can play lead with major scale or minor scale licks, as you want, both will match the chord nicely – but of course sound completely different. This is something that happens in the Dire Straits song Calling Elvis quite a lot. The key of the song is B (major or minor would indeed be a valid question here). The third note of the scale can be a D# (major) or a D (minor). Note that in fact both appear at differents parts of the song, e.g. the verse makes use of the D (just listen to the vocals melody), or the guitar run at the stop in the middle of the song also contains the D, while that fast, repeating pedal steel lick between the verses has the D#, but no D. We can say the song moves from minor to major, and back.

Similarly, it is really a question whether Money for Nothing is G major or G minor. Most other chords in this song are a hint towards minor, but the E chord at the end of the refrain points toward major. It is important to be aware that nobody in the band plays the third of the G chord*, be aware that a Gm on the rhythm guitar would really spoil this effect. The G is rather neutral here.

*The riff itself however contains the minor third – a Bb note – and is thus an indication for minor, but the minor third can also be played over major chords in blues style music, where it is called a “blue note”

I remember reading somewhere that Mark used to direct the band shouting “no thirds, no thirds” on a recording session. It is really helpful to be aware of this often neglected aspect of song writing, and of some new possibilities resulting from it.

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The Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer compressor – Did Mark Knopfler really use it?

Posted on 27 CommentsPosted in Effects, Mark Knopfler gear, MK guitar style and licks

Today the Orange Squeezer compressor by Dan Armstrong is an almost legendardy guitar effect. An essential portion of this fame is probably due to the fact that it is often named as an ingredient for the early Mark Knopfler / Dire Straits sound. Ironically this goes back to my old Dire Straits Guitar Page which was the first site in the web to mention the Orange Squeezer as part of the MK gear, so today it should be up to me again to clarify what is really sure and what is rumour.

What is sure, what is rumour?

First of all, there is no clear evidence that Mark Knopfler really used one of theses on any DS or MK album. The first hint however I got was from Andy Brauer’s column in I think Guitar Player magazine in the late 80ies where he claimed that Knopfler’s famous Stratocaster sounds were achieved with an Orange Squeezer and an Aphex Exciter. He didn’t give a source for this information, but I meanwhile know that he worked for Mark Knopfler when he was recording Randy Newman’s Land of Dream album (Andy runs a shop for amp repair and gear rental in the Los Angeles area, his article did not clearly state whether the Orange Squeezer was used on the Randy Newman session, or on the first Dire Straits albums, or is generally a part of Knopfler’s gear).

Source number two is the official tour program book of the Communique tour. It features an equipment list, and the last item in this list is the Orange Squeezer. However, this list was not specified for the tour or any particular album, it just said “Mark Knopfler plays…” Strangely Klaus Dewes, the author of a German book about Dire Straits published in 1980, also included the same equipment list in his book, but this time without the Orange Squeezer!

Thirdly, I once asked David Knopfler about it who mailed me that he believes they had one, but he didn’t remember for what or when it was ever used.

Conclusion: it seems likely that the Orange Squeezer was part of the gear, but noone knows any details.

Some facts about the Orange Squeezer

Anyway, so what exactly is the Orange Squeezer? Dan Armstrong developed a whole series of guitar effects in the 70ies. All of these were little coloured boxes with a plug to put it directly into the guitar output jack (after swapping two internal cables they could also be pluuged on the amp side, what makes more sense with a Strat because they don’t fit into the Strat’s recessed output jack). There was the Blue Clipper (fuzz), Green Ringer (an octaver), Yellow Humper (boost of certain frequencies), Red Ranger (booster, tone modifier), Purple Peaker (boost of certain frequencies), and of course the Orange Squeezer.

The official (yes, it is available again as a reproduction) product description of the Orange Squeezer says:

The Orange Squeezer compresses the dynamics of the music or of the individual notes without adversely affecting the attack of the note and without adding any significant noise or distortion to the signal. An internal adjustment lets the user adjust the output level to suit his instrument and his playing style, while the compression threshold is pre-set at the factory.

In other words: it is a simple compressor that works with a fixed compression setting, the user cannot control any parameters like compression ration, attack & release time etc. (for newbies: a compressor equalizes volume differences, your playing sounds smoother and remains at a constant volume, as a side effect, the sustain of a note becomes longer, for more information see this Wikipedia article)

What does it sound like?

It is not really true that it does not add any distortion, not much, but there is a subtle distortion that adds warmth to the sound. Many players who tried it agreed that it sounds knoplflerish so this is another hint that it was indeed used (leaving out the question if the same players would have said the same if they hadn’t known that Knopfler used it !?)

The compression is rather subtle, it is difficult to get heavily compressed sounds with a Strat (which has a rather low output, the louder your guitar, the more compression you will automatically get). However, some early Dire Straits songs – such as Down to the Waterline, In the Gallery, or Lady Writer – feature guitar sounds with much compression. The only way I found to get this amount of compression from the Orange Squeezer is to use some booster before it in the signal chain. Of course it is still possible that Knopfler used one on these songs, and that more compression was added with outboard gear, which is from the mixing desk (and it is also possible that all compression was done alone during mixing).

There is another aspect to consider: compression – even a slight compression as from the orange Squeezer – can avoid a lot of distortion from the guitar amp. This is because louder signales – for example when you play two or three notes together instead of a single note – are compressed more, which means lower in volume. For this reason the amp distorts less on these notes. Have you ever noticed that many early Dire Straits guitar sounds are not that ultra-clean as most people think? In fact there is often a good deal of subtle distortion, e.g. on Down to the Waterline, Southbound Again, but also on Sultans of Swing. But what happens when you try to adjust your amp to such an amount of distortion – without using a compressor? Well, when it sounds right for single notes, it automatically distorts too much when playing more than one string, you will loose that clean sound. With compression it is different, you can adjust the amp to a warm subtle distortion, but the sound remains rather clean and Knopfler like no matter what you play. Try it out! This behaviour can be considered as another hint that in fact a compressor was used before the amp, which means as a guitar effect instead of outboard gear during mixing.

(you will find a sound clip at the end of this article)

Different clones compared to the original

An original Orange Squeezer from the 70ies is hard to get, and prices went up during the last decades (I am sure partly thanks to me). In the 90ies a company called WD offered a first OS clone which I bought and still have. Unfortunately they did not copy the circuit with 100% accuracy, so their copy sounds somewhat different (brighter, but still great because it has a warm sound with that nice little punch that any compressor adds). Later there was a flood of companies who copied it (the original circuit is really simple, even a good start for any DIY newby). I also got one from General Guitar Gadgets later but for some reason I don’t like this one that much. It doesn’t sound that “open” to me, hard to explain in words. A few years later I managed to get an original vintage Orange Squeezer on ebay, and in fact this one sounds the best. The GGG clone was built into a floor stomp box by the way and had the volume control on the outside, which was very handy. I built the original circuit into this box and this combination is what I still use a lot.

Finally, a sound clip can say more than a thousand words, so listen to the following sound clip to hear the Squeezer in action. I demonstrate the aspects explained in this article, the last few minutes is me jamming on some Mark Knopfler tunes.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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Mark Knopfler licks around the 7/9 chord

Posted on 6 CommentsPosted in Easy stuff for beginners, MK guitar style and licks, Understanding music

The last poll about what you would like to read here is still running (so vote if you haven’t yet), but it seems to be clear that many readers want to read about licks (or rather want to see something as video I guess). So here a quick reaction (to be honest, I started to work on this video anyway 😉 )

This post is about a typical Mark Knopfler lick which is based on the notes of the 7/9 chord, the chord we are talking about is the following one (in this example a E7/9):

This chord is nothing special, special however is Mark Knopfler’s way to fret it, which is often like this:

The difference is the bass note, instead of an E (the root note) he plays the B on the low E string (the fifth note o fthe E major scale).

Now add the following notes which are played before the chord is played. First play the red notes, then the blue notes, then the chord (black notes). The left hand fingers remain the same on all those notes on the low E and D strings, if you want you can slide from one position into the next.

Watch the following video to see what kind of licks you can do with these notes (excerpts from The Bug / Eastbound Train, Mississippi Blues, Lions).

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