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So I have seen a lot of guitar players playing fusion rock but never understood what is actually going on in the theory.

When watching them play, it sounds like they're not in key and just essentially playing random notes with no musical thought to the backing track. Yet it sounds like it is in key as well.

So what is the idea of fusion? Here is an example of rock fusion: Rock Fusion : Tom Quayle

How do they know what notes to play? Is there a theory that explains what will / won't work ? I find it pretty confusing.

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If fusion players sound to you like 'not in key' or 'playing random notes', then you're either listening to bad players or you're not yet accustomed to the sounds they use. The latter may also have to do with the development of your musical ear. I suggest to listen to good fusion guitarists (e.g., Alan Holdsworth, John Scofield, Scott Henderson with Tribal Tech, Mike Stern, Alan Hinds, ...), but also to other instrumentalists, in order to get accustomed to the style and to be able to appreciate what they're doing.

There is no secret theory or scale used in fusion. The scales are mainly the church modes and the modes of melodic minor. There are mainly three things that might sound strange or unexpected to the uninitiated:

  1. the chord changes may be unconventional. If the soloist simply plays the appropriate chord scales over unconventional changes, then the melodies may sound a bit random to you even though the player is always perfectly in key according to the changes.

  2. Fusion players frequently use quite a lot of chromaticism (approach notes, neighboring notes, etc.) to add more tension to their playing.

  3. Fusion players sometimes use the concept of outside playing, which is just a generalization of the common musical principle of tension and release.

Referring to the example that you gave (Tom Quayle), he is mostly playing inside, i.e. using the appropriate chord scale over the current chord. However, there are quite some unexpected chord changes, which might make it sound strange to you. Note that he also uses the blues scale quite a bit (listen to the part starting at 3:33). And of course there's a bit of chromaticism to spice it up, but actually not a lot.

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  • So they are basically just changing the mode they play over for each chord in the rhythm, rather than playing the mode that the overall key of the track is in ? – Dave Nov 18 '14 at 19:54
  • That's part of it. I would also add that in standard rock, the minor pentatonic scale can be used to solo over almost everything, and our ears hear those notes as pleasing. Fusion players usually expand their solos with diatonic notes as well as uncommon modes that sound more foreign, not to mention the chromatic notes they throw in. – Charles Nov 18 '14 at 20:44
  • @Dave: The thing is that many times there is no such thing as an 'overall key', but there are different tonal centers. – Matt L. Nov 18 '14 at 21:54
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Fusion originated with Miles Davis's "Bitches Brew" album. Pat Metheny, Larry Coryell and John Mclaughlin are probably the avatars of fusion jazz, but there are many many other practitioners of the genre, including Martin, Medeski and Wood, Bird Songs of the Mesozoic and the "downtown sound" of Bill Laswell and John Zorn.There are very interesting ideas that go on with fusion but the idea is to break away from the chains of mainstream or bebop jazz. As Miles Davis famously put it, "Don't play that bebop s*** !" Goodness, such vulgarity! But those are the emotions that came from fusion.

Fusion, like free jazz, attempts to reinvigorate a genre which was becoming fossilized and something like classical music. Don't get me wrong, I love mainstream jazz. I grew up with mainstream jazz. I also love classical music, but I feel that Monk, Bach and Stravinsky would have been appalled by the rigidity that jazz and classical music have taken.

Fusion was an attempt to break the rapidly rising walls that defined what jazz was. Walls that Wynton Marsalis has successfully rebuilt and maintained at the Lincoln Center. I have enormous respect for Marsalis, but I feel that his attempt to elevate and enervate jazz in the style that classical music has been elevated and enervated is a mistake.

In a way, fusion jazz came out of envy. Miles Davis was amazed at how much lesser musicians could be making so much money playing rock and he would be opening for the same musicians at such low wages.

But it became bigger than envy as some great artists led the way, other artists continued to build on the work that was being done. There are a lot of fusion guitar players who are terrible. I am truly sorry that you have been forced to listen to them. But listen to people that have come out of fusion jazz, such as John Scofield and Mike Stern and even Jim Hall and his protege Bill Frisell and tell me if you don't think that fusion has led to some amazing things over the years.

Miles-Davis Montreux 1986:

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Well, it's basically using the principle of embellishments with chords. For instance, using a Lydian over a I chord has one slight difference in tonality, but otherwise has "mostly" the same notes. This slight change(which is super common practice in jazz/fusion) holds together because of the other consonant notes that lydian and Ionian share. Now, when thinking about the use of chromatic notes, remember that the rhythm is EXTREMELY important. Many people teaching the subject are doing it VERY wrong. You have to be aware of what beats are strong and what beats are not. Some say that you can use "outside" playing when on the end of a phrase, but this thinking is not always right and doesn't actually speak to the core of what's actually happening. What's important is whether you land on a strong beat with a consonant note, or not. Chromatics and "outside" notes are typically reserved for the weaker beats, whereas the consonant notes(preferably chord tones, but not necessarily) land on the stronger beats. This makes your outside playing not sound like shitty music and actually really sends home the resolution correctly. Remember that tonality is not the only place in which resolution is important, but the beat on which the resolution happens, and the harmonic rhythm for that matter, are equally important.

A great place to start are called "enclosures". This is the theory that the notes a semitone above and below can be played around chord tones. This is usually the first place to start and you can already get some great sounding playing without much effort. This theory alone can be expanded on and produce some really great results if you are aware of what someone like paul gilbert calls "chord scales". Just use arpeggios/chords that have 4 or 5 tones and add this concept of enclosures and you will be playing most of the 12 notes, but in a particular order, along with the rhythm that will make your playing sound crazy, but good. This also is really helpful for legato, tapping, sequencing arpeggios(not r35 sweeps = gross).

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when getting into jazz the music theory expands a bit. "regular" western music theory largest structure is the key, but in jazz theory "evolution of western music" there are much larger structures than a key, in other words everything about keys and below still applies, BUT you treat keys much in the same as you would notes or chords . this means there is a larger structure of music, in this larger structure the key is representation of a single note say key of C major. even though it is 7 chords, CEGB,DFAC,EGBD,FACE,GBDF,ACEG,BDFA, where any given chord is tonic or dominant , anything you play is relative to the note C or in other words a more detailed version of a single note playing the whole time. so....how do these larger structures work? it is based off 2 scales first the augmented scale and the diminished scale. the shapes of these 2 scales is how you connect keys themselves. for instance lets begin with the large structure of C augmented or CEG# we take the major key of each so C maj, E maj and G# maj are all related by the augmented scale

here is a website that goes into more detail http://www.javierarau.com/augmented-scale-theory/

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  • if you need to brush up on your basic music theory first here is a full course for free on yotube that covers a music theory education in western music theory, ( you need this before you expand into the more evolved jazz theory which uses ALL of this PLUS evolves further into larger structures)youtube.com/watch?v=ICDPWP6HUbk&t=4s watch all the videos on this channel for a free music education – John Jacquard Aug 8 '17 at 12:03
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To answer the question typical scales used say for E minor E Dominant would be: Dorian, Mixolydian, Aolean, Phrygian, Locrian, Lydian, Pentatonic Mix of at least 5 different ones in minor starting on the root, 2nd, min 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, Melodic Minor and Harmonic Minor Mix say starting on the root- minor second- 4th- 5th- 7th, Blues Scales, 1/2 step up Diminished Scale, Neapolitan Scales on 1st and 4th, Whole Tone, and many others. These have altered notes and passing tones in them. Sometimes it is just a mix of notes that do not fit any one scale and is more of a jumble.

Fusion sound is a mix of everything. Modern music and fusion uses any chord to the next chord changes and patterns. These will sound weird or wrong or like a surprise to the untrained ear. Even when the music stays in the same key say in E-minor all 12 notes can be used and many modes and chromatic notes such as 3,4 and 5 in a row to give it a more unusual sound. For the most part Jazz and Fusion is almost all referred to in Minor.

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