The Power of the Pentatonic Scale

It often surprises me just how musical people are, even people who have no music experience. I have many students come to me saying that have no music ability, or that they have no rhythm, or that they are tone deaf. But after only a few lessons they can already play some awesome songs.

Here is Bobby McFerrin demonstrating just how musical people are. Did you think you could sing the pentatonic scale? I bet you can.

The Motown Sound

I've spent some time lately transcribing and playing songs from the Motown record label in preparation for our "Motown Burlesque Show" and in doing so I began to wonder what it is that make this music so wonderful.

Over time I heard a handful of common elements across many of Motown artists' hits. Here's an in-depth analysis of what I found.

If you want to sound like you're from Detroit in the 60s and 70s, you've got to have these.

The Temptations perform live

Common Motown Elements

Hittin' All Four

One of the defining elements of Motown is its beat. A classic Motown sound makes great use of the snare drum on all four downbeats of the bar. When people talk about "Motown drums" this is what they often play.

Motown drummer Uriel JonesA good example of this is "It's the Same Old Song," by the Four Tops. Listen to the snare drum hit every down beat and how it creates a strong driving force. It's a sound that makes people want to dance.

Another good example of this is The Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." That beat is driving forward like a freight train.

You can also hear it in The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hanging On," and on "I Can't Help Myself," also by the Four Tops. It's not quite as strong in this one because the guitar is hitting 2 and 4. But it's there.

Driving Beats 2 and 4

If all the Motown songs had strong four beats to a bar it would start to sound the same, so of course there are variations. The other most common rhythmic feel is emphasizing beats 2 and 4. This is frequently used in rock, but it's especially common in Motown.

Have a listen to the drums in The Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love." Notice how the drummer emphasizes strong hits to the snare on beats 2 and 4.

Another good example is Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved By You."

A slightly different example is "Heatwave" by Martha and the Vandellas. This is interesting because the drums have a bit of shuffle to them.

The tambourine is also used to accentuate 2 and 4. Get that hip out and shake it against the tambo for The Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love."

Guitar Accents on the 2 and 4

Motown guitarist Marv TarplinThe guitar is often used to further accentuate beats 2 and 4. To do this they played staccato chords in higher registers which helps the guitar to cut through the sound. In some tracks you have to listen closer to find it with your ear. This is something people often miss, but it's essential for Motown.

The Tempations' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" is an easy example and it's fairly loud in the mix. While the snare is hitting all 4 downbeats, the guitar hits 2 and 4 in a crisp, staccato manner.

Another good one is Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved By You." In this one both the snare and the guitar hit 2 and 4.

Chords for Marvin Gaye How Sweet It Is

Syncopated Rhythms

We do find some syncopated rhythms in some Motown songs. The most common is the Charleston rhythm -- a hard staccato on the 1, then a long chord held from the "end of 2." The piano plays this part in Martha and the Vandellas' "Heatwave." Here it is transcribed for guitar.

Martha and the Vandellas Heatwave Piano part

The baritone sax in "Heatwave" adds some extra cool to this with a pick-up to each chord. Here is that part transcribed for guitar.

Martha and the Vandellas Heatwave Baritone Sax part

Hip Riffs

Memorable riffs make up some of the most famous Motown songs. Just about everyone, all ages, knows this song from its opening riff alone:

The Temptations My Girl Guitar intro riff

The tone on the guitar is fantastic on "My Girl." A touch of twang in the lower register notes helps the riff to cut through the mix.

These riffs can then be transposed over the chords of the song, as they are in "My Girl."

The Temptations My Girl Guitar verse riff

The Four Tops had a great song that runs a riff over the entire length of "I Can't Help Myself." It's transposed over each chord and played by the piano. Here it is transcribed for guitar.

The Four Tops I Can't Help Myself riff

A great riff can also be used to shake things up in the middle of a song. The Temptations do this well in the bridge of their song "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." The guitar plays this riff while the horns play a big long C note in the empty space.

Ain't Too Proud to Beg bridge riff

Clever Chord Sequences

Motown songwriters often looked for interesting chord sequences. Much of rock and pop music sticks closely to the I-IV-V chords, or in the 1960's often I-VIm-IV-V. When we play our "Dirty Dancing Burlesque" show so many of those songs are I-VIm-IV-V that it's hard to tell them apart!

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's a great progression. But here are some clever alternatives from the Motown charts.

Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" goes like this:

Eb   Gm   Ab   Bb7 
I   IIIm  IV   V7

That Gm chord is so beautiful in this song. The sequence is played over and over but it doesn't get boring.

The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hanging On" is another great one. Here's a nice way to play that on guitar.

The Supremes You Keep Me Hanging On chords

In the chorus of Stevie Wonder's "Signed Sealed Delivered" you get this awesome Mixolydian chord progression:

            F     Eb   
 Here I am, baby,
Bb                                 F     Eb     
   Signed, sealed, de-livered; I'm yours.
Bb               F     Eb   
    Here I   am, ba-by,
Bb                                F     Eb    Bb
 Signed, sealed, de-livered; I'm yours

Sidenote: I know two other great songs that use this chord progression -- they're not Motown, but worth a listen: "Sympathy for the Devil" and the last half of "Hey Jude."

Stevie Wonder found a lot of great chord progressions. The end of each verse of "Superstition" goes like this:

          B7         C7              B7         Bb7   
 When you believe in things that you don't understand, 
          A7        B7 SHOT 
 Then you suffer...    Superstition ain't the way

Smokey Robinson's ballad "Ooo Baby Baby" has a few lush chords that make the song so dreamy:

 Bm7              D11 
 Ooo  la  la  la  la 
 I did you wrong 
 My heart went out to play 
 And in the game I lost you 
 What a price to pay

Octaves on the Guitar

Another technique used in some of the later Motown recordings uses octaves on the guitar played in quick, funky rhythms. They're played high pitch so it cuts through.

The Jackson 5 do this perfectly in "I Want You Back." The cool thing is that these octaves are played over top of a long chord progression, but the Ab octaves just keep going.

The Supremes also used this to great effect in "You Keep Me Hanging On." Getting the rhythm just right is essential. A touch of delay can help, and usually all, or most of the rests are played with scratch.

The Supremes You Keep Me Hanging On guitar octaves

Funky Wah-Wah

Later Motown incorporated some great wah sounds. The perfect example of this is "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" by The Temptations. Amazing how different this song is to their earlier numbers like "My Girl"!

"Rolling Stone" has just one chord, but it's such a powerful song. Again, work on getting the rhythm just right or it won't fly.

And of course there are the first four notes of "Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye. Most people recognize that song as soon as they hear those first notes from the wah guitar. There's a whole lot of "naughty" in that sound.

First notes of Marvin Gaye Let's Get It On

Vocal Harmonies

It wouldn't be a "Girl Group" if it didn't have the vocal harmonies -- or a "Boy Band" for that matter.

The Supremes and the Temptations are obvious examples of this. Sometimes the main melodies are harmonized, sometimes it's the response to "calls," and sometimes it's just some sweet "ooohs" and "aaahs" to flesh out the chords.

The Miracles' "Ooo Baby Baby" is one of my favourites of this. Smokey Robinson's voice soars over the gentle and rich chords produced by the Miracles.


The Temptations Dance choreoAnd if you've got the harmonies, you need the choreographed dance moves to go with it! There's nothing like seeing three talented singers gently swaying back and forth, with a quick turn every 8 bars and a synchronized "snap" of the fingers.

The choreo was quite simple in those days, not like the boy bands of today. It was basic, but I'd say far more effective and a lot easier to actually sing if you're not jumping around the stage all night -- and of course we know the boy bands of today don't actually sing, do they?

Invest in some matching suits or dresses, and now you've got a show!


Finally, the 70s Motown really brought in the funk. Stevie Wonder had this in spades. "Superstition" just might be the funkiest song ever recorded. There's something about the tempo of this song that makes it so cool. It's surprisingly slow and it's actually quite hard to keep it to that tempo.

Another obvious example is The Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." Again -- one chord, great song!

Final Thoughts

There you have it, all the common elements I could find in the Motown records vault. Since Motown was around so long, the sound changed of course, but that's also what makes Motown Records so exciting.

One final thought -- I had coffee with former Temptations member Riley Inge a couple weeks ago and I asked him if he had any advice for a younger musician playing this music. He said, "Just focus on the music because that's what it's all about."

Experiences as a Musical Director

Oliver Fannie

The amount of work involved in theatre is astounding. I am in awe of how much energy and time the director, actors and many others have put into Oliver Fannie.

And there's something else wonderful about spending so much time and hard work on something together: the camaraderie is beautiful. Standing outside the stage door after dress rehearsal, all of us huddled together listening to the director's final "notes," I felt so excited and thrilled to be a part of it.

This summer I had my first opportunity to be the Musical Director for a play. When I first agreed to this job I honestly didn't know all that was involved. It was a lot more than I expected, but I've thoroughly enjoyed the experience and tonight is the opening night!

The play was written by burlesque genius Melody Mangler and directed by the ever-talented Violet Femme. I've worked with both these two on my Beatles Burlesque show, but a theatrical play is quite a different thing. The show is produced by the Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society.

The play is called Oliver Fannie and it's an around-the-world story focusing on the somewhat salacious adventures of a spirited young woman trying to seek her place in the world. It's Annie and Oliver with a twist. And boy is there ever a twist!

Here are some of the things I've learned....

Read more: Experiences as a Musical Director

The Real Book for beginning jazz players

Real Book

So you just bought your first real book. And you probably bought "The Real Book" volume 1. Well it's a good enough place to start as any. But once you got home you probably looked through it and wondered where the heck to start.

The Real Books are great for many reason, though they have their downsides. One is that they do contain a lot of songs that people don't really play. For example, how many times have I ever heard anyone play "Peaches En Regalia" by Frank Zappa? Um, never.

Also, just because it's volume 1 doesn't mean it's the easy stuff. It's just the first collection they made is all.

If you're in this boat, here is a short list of songs from this book that are good places to start because 1) they are fairly easy, 2) they contain fewer chord changes and require fewer scale changes for soloing, and 3) they are more familiar songs to many.

  • Autumn in New York
  • Autumn Leaves
  • Blue Bossa
  • Cottontail
  • Don't Get Around Much Anymore
  • Easy to Love
  • Freddie the Freeloader
  • Green Dolphin Street
  • I Could Write a Book
  • I Got it Bad

Read more: The Real Book for beginning jazz players