I first got into Noel Johnston’s amazing harmonic explorations via his first book, Voicing Modes – A Chord Voicing Approach to Hearing and Practicing Modes which I reviewed back in 2017. Since then, he’s been a busy bee sharing his work over the years. This book in particular is something that he’s been sharing the progress via his Facebook page for awhile now.
Modal Etudes is a collection of 36 etudes across 35 tonalities, within 5 different parent scales:
- Harmonic Minor
- Melodic Minor
- Harmonic Minor
- Hungarian Minor
The book opens with a chart sharing the formula for each of the modes explored. Then, Noel shares his thoughts on the etudes, the tonalities, sight reading the etudes, key signatures and chord symbol notation considerations. This is all very geeky & insightful stuff of course. I mean, if you’re reading a review about a book called Modal Etudes, you’re probably a very particular segment of the guitarist population to begin with right? High five!
Dweezil Zappa wrote a really nice foreword to the book talking about Noel’s modal dice approach and strategies to digesting this material. Dweezil’s explanation of ‘knowledge of technique vs musical knowledge’ is an important thing to realise as a musician.
The etudes are notated in both standard notation & TAB. Noel has also recorded videos demonstrating the etudes. These help out a lot! I found the etudes that I enjoy via the videos & that helps me decide which ones to learn next. Then, I go deeper into each tonality by writing my own (little) etudes based on what I learned from Noel’s work.
In addition to demonstrating how the notated etudes sound, Noel also recorded single line improvisation over some of the etudes. It’s worth noting that Noel goes through different grooves and styles in the etudes. Some are funky, some are ambient and atmospheric & some are swinging!
You can learn a lot of different kinds of ideas in the book, be it funky rhythms laced with these tonalities and even nice legato jazz lines. One particular etude, the F Locrian one lives in that world where ECM meets Tim Miller (or is that the same universe?).
The A Harmonic Minor etude reminds me of The Legend of Zelda meets Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” with the sustained 10th intervals and inner moving lines. The G Ionian #5 is in that Frisell area with the Americana vibes. Great sounding stuff.
Going into the melodic minor mode etudes, the C Melodic Minor one and F# Locrian natural 2 are personal highlights for me.
Noel is an accomplished guitarist regardless whether he’s picking on solidbody electric or playing fingerstyle on a nylon string guitar. I love the fact that Noel recorded the videos on a variety of different guitars with tones that range from clean to overdriven rock goodness.
Overall, there’s so much to dig into with this work. On one side, you could just learn fragments of the etudes to add to your vocabulary. On another side, some of the sections could be great shorter exercises for a variety of different purposes separately. Alternatively, I could see these etudes being assigned pieces for private students as part of their private lessons. Music college guitar instructors (and students) interested in supplementary study material may benefit from this book. Could this be a common future textbook for guitarists?
Composers curious to explore new harmonic ideas can benefit from Noel’s etudes too. Noel’s use of different textures (single note lines, chorale style block chords, funky bassline + chordal stabs, rock grooves) are very inspiring too. These show the myriad number of possibilities of applying these modes in different styles.
In the end, this book really demonstrates elements that I see in the best music books I’ve reviewed recently. It has a strong sense of personality (Noel’s personal style), a lot of musicality (great sounding etudes), and a good mix of theory + application. In short, this is great sounding music packaged in a compact 77-page book.
In conclusion, I feel that this book is a great and unique resource for the harmonically curious guitarist. Some books have generic regurgitation of common ideas. This is not one of them. This is a good book with a lot of cool unique ideas. If you love chords and harmony, get this book. It’s a no brainer and a worthwhile document of a brilliant musician’s exploration of these tonal possibilities. I have gotten some new ideas to explore from this book, you might too.
Pros: Great musical ideas in a great musical package. The videos are great to assist study of the material too.
TLDR: If you’d like to expand your harmonic & melodic vocabulary on the guitar, this book is a worthwhile investment. Not just for jazzers, this book is worth checking out for rockers, blues guitarists, metal & neo soul guitarists too.
I wrote a lot of other book, course and video reviews too.
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