I have gotten several requests to go into the pitch axis theory and write about it, kind of like do a mini-lesson. Now, in case you are not familiar with the term – pitch axis is an approach or method in music theory that can result in some very refreshing and interesting melodic and harmonic possibilities. Joe Satriani is often associated with this method, even though some claim he invented it. He didn’t, but he used it very efficiently and creatively on the electric guitar, kind of introducing the rock guitar world to it.
If you’d like to hear the system being used, check out the infamous tapping break in Satriani’s trademark song “Satch Boogie”:
Or his tune “Not Of This Earth”:
Before we get started with some basics on the pitch axis theory, here is a disclaimer:
This system, like so many approaches and methods in music theory, will take some time to get used to. You will probably have to practice and experiment a lot until it feels natural to use it, and to actually create MUSIC with this. Also, it’s not something that’s easily useable… even Satriani didn’t use it THAT often. As with many other things (like scales for example), don’t bother with it until you really feel like you want to explore this.
A lot of times, we tend to learn and practice things because we feel like we HAVE to. Now, don’t get me wrong, practicing and learning never is a bad thing. However, if you don’t have the goals or lack the fundamentals before you work on something more advanced, it can get frustrating and discouraging. Look at playing-techniques – before you have a decent picking- and legato- and muting-technique, trying to sweep-pick on all six strings will probably end up too difficult or disappoining, as the necessary fundamentals aren’t quite there yet.
Or- at clinics and workshops, I get asked about learning scales a lot. And yes, they can open up so many doors, and knowing a lot of theory will help you to get out of ruts and develop new ideas. However, if you still are struggling with writing and soloing with the major and minor scale or the pentatonics, memorizing and trying to apply all the modes or even symetrical scales will lead nowhere… or simply end up a disappointing detour.
So, if you really like what Joe did in those songs and want to understand how, or if you feel like using this technique will help you turn those ideas in your head into music or unlock new doors as you are ready to move on to new sounds, save pitch axis etc for later.
What is it then?
Pitch Axis basically works like this: You pick one pitch which is your axis. A single pitch, such as A or E. Now, you combine different chords from “families” related to that pitch.
Let’s say you take a maj7 chord (based on A Major or A Lydian (4th mode of E Ionian)), and follow it up with a min9 chord (taken from A Aeolian), followed by a Dom9, taken from A Mixolydian (5th mode of D Ionian). All these chords were taken from a different mode (even those some may occur in more than one), and the connection, the axis, is the A you picked.
Let’s take one of the songs I mentioned above, “Not Of This Earth” (which you can hear in the video).
The Pitch Axis here is E. The bass plays a constant E, which is a great method to “point out” that E over the chords. The guitar is playing Emaj13, Emin7#5, Emaj13 and E7sus4.
The first chord (which also is the third) is taken from E Lydian, the second is from E Aeolian (natural minor) and the fourth is taken from E Mixolydian. So, if each chord lasts for one bar (as in the actual song), your melody or improvisation would go through one bar of E Lydian, then 1 bar E Aeolian (or E diminished, E-F#-G-A-A#-C-C#-D#-E), 1 bar E Lydian and finally one bar of E Mixolydian.
If you have the tools to do so, maybe loop those four chords from “Not Of This Earth” (either by playing them into a loop pedal or by looping the beginning of the MP3).
Here are the chords from “Not Of This Earth”. Note that I added an open low E-String to each chord, while on the record, Joe played those chords only on the upper four strings while the bass played the low E. I also changed the tempo to 90 from the approx. 110 in the original…
If you don’t have a looper pedal or can’t loop the intro of the song, here is a MIDI-file of the chords played 12 times.
You can experiment using two approaches… either playing Joe’s original melodies and solos over those chords in order to “get into it”, and develop your own ideas from there. Or you can simply try to improvise over it. I’d recommend not to go into “full noodle mode” right away, where you try to play advanced, tricky, intricate lines. Play the scales or parts of them slowly over each respective chord.
When you go from one scale to the next, either in a “pitch axis progression” like this, or any other musical part where you change scales, the goal should be to make it sound natural. Don’t just play one scale up over one chord and then the next scale descending over the next. Try to come up with simple melodies, and emphasize the modes you are playing.
Example: In E Lydian, try to focus on the root, major third and #11 (E, G#, A#), then, in E Aeolian, emphasize the root, minor third and minor seventh (E, C, G), and the root, major third and minor 7 in E Mixolydian (E, G#, D)
Take your time with this. Start with only a few notes, then try to smoothly move from one scale to the next (maybe through the fifth, which is present in all three scales… B)
Here is another example for you, this time with an A as the pitch axis:
The chords are: A5#11 – A7sus4 – Fmaj7/A – A7sus 4
YOu could solo over this with the following scales:
A Lydian – A Mixolydian – A Aeolian – A Mixolydian
I tabbed out some possible scale patterns for each of these under the respective chord. In the video below, I play the progression twice, so if you’d like to, grab your guitar and start experimenting! (Again, slowly at first… listen closely, try to get a “feel” for all this, then try to embellish more).
These are just a few simple steps to get into this method. The legendary tapping-break in “Satch Boogie” weaves through even more scales and keys (the whole part consists of 13 arpeggiated chords, connected by A as the pitch axis). The sky is the limit here, pretty much – there are so many possibilities even though some of them will sound odd or very unusual.
As with everything else (scales, chords, techniques, styles etc.), it’s important to slowly and carefully explore, and to keep it musical. Sure, eventually you will be able to shred over this just like Joe did in those songs, but consider it a melodic and harmonic tool for exploring new sounds first, keep it slow and melodic, listen to what happens, and then try to go for more intricate and fast stuff.
There is much more to explore here, but maybe, this quick lesson will help you understand the basic concept. For a list of chords linked to the different modes, check the table on this website.
Most of all, have fun exploring, and keep it musical!