"Medieval" sounding guitar in rock music

Listen to the first twenty seconds of Summertime by Janis Joplin. This song has been covered by about a million groups. But this is the only version of it I’ve heard that has this…well, medieval-sounding guitar solo in it.

What do I mean by “medieval”? It’s the specific scale, the minor notes used, that does it.

My question is twofold:

  1. When and where did this specific scale originate? England?

  2. When did it start showing up in rock music?

Sorry, can’t help. I thought I knew a bit of Joplin but don’t immediately recognise the music from the link. To be honest I never understood the appeal of Janis Joplin but each to their own.

The reason for posting is that my immediate reaction was “harpsichord”. It doesn’t sound like a guitar.

This is one of the most recognizable pieces from the American operatic canon, which I guess puts it on a par with the best-known Japanese professional wrestler when it comes to vying for the mass consciousness in this country.

I like her for the same reason I like Robert Plant or, to take this to an extreme, Joey Ramone: She can convey certain emotions so well the beauty comes through that, as opposed to the vocal skill.

I think this is it: It’s an electric guitar, but it does sound like a harpsichord. I think it’s the difference between being plucked and strummed, but I could be wrong.

It sounds a lot like classical guitar. Now, I’m no expert, but it seems to me that this is based on two elements:

First of all, each note is individually plucked, probably by finger.

Second of all, while blues, jazz and rock is played after the beat, this is either on or before the beat. Hence its seemingly formal and anachronistic sound.

I think it’s based on a minor pentatonic scale.

I think the key to it is that it’s in a minor key and uses a major seventh which is unusual in rock music*****, Richie Blackmore does this occasionally.

I’m prepared to be shot down in flames, I don’t have a guitar to hand right now to try it out.
*****unless your initials are YM in which case you run it into the ground


Yngwie Malmsreen


I used to be a huge fan of his, circa 1984-1987. I still whip out Rising Force on rare occasions, mostly for a quick run through of Far Beyond The Sun and Evil Eye. Sometimes even Now Your Ships Are Burned (despite the cringe-worthy singing and lyrics)!


I never know enough theory to state specifics, but yeah, that is a folky-Celtic-y scale. I think of it as medieval British and perhaps Irish - I don’t want to step on toes in terms of who was using it first.

As for showing up in rock, well, in the 60’s there was a big folk-rock movement in the UK as much as the Seeger/Kingston Trio/Dylan/Baez movement in the U.S… Folks like Bert Jansch, Pentagle and many others. A number of the British blues guitarists dipped into that side of things - of the Yardbirds Big 3, Clapton really did not, but Beck included Greensleeves on Truth and Jimmy Page famously cribbed off Jansch on a number of songs…

On this YouTube video of the song, you can actually see how the guitarists are playing it. (It looks to me as though the part that I think we are being asked about is being played quite conventionally, with a pick.)

May I add that I absolutely love this, and much more for the guitar work than for Janis’ vocals, amazing though they are.

Ok here’s the deal. First off, this “Medieval sound” that you hear (more accurately a “Renaissance” sound) is only partially based on the scale, partially based on meter, and partially based on the even-note rhythm of the melody.

The scale is melodic minor (minor with a raised 6th and 7th degree ascending, natural minor descending although I don’t know offhand if it maintains this throughout). This is actually the standard minor scale in tonal music. (i.e. all “classical” music before the 20th century). In rock and pop and blues and 20th century music in general we’ve gotten used to hearing minor scales without that half-step between the 7th and the tonic. But in tonal music, that half-step is necessary to create a sense of gravity towards the tonic. (I realize this might sound like a lot of theoretical mumbo jumbo if you don’t understand the vocabulary. I don’t have too much time right now or else I would search for some musical examples online to show you what I mean).

The meter is 6/8 so you count it: 1 2 3 4 5 6
with accents on the 1 and 4. This is very common in early music, and not so common in popular music.

The rhythm of the melody is very straight 8th notes. The melody often justs runs right up and down the scale in step wise motion in these straight 8th notes. Every note is even: da da da da da da…

This is all very characteristic of Renaissance and Baroque music. After that melodies become more like themes (tunes which are hum-able and are more distinct in character).

Akk! How embarrassing. This is Gershwin’s Summertime innit?! I’m afraid Janis took it somewhere else LOL and I prefer Ella Fitzgerald’s version. Besides, Janis vs Grace Slick?..or Michelle Phillips?..call me shallow. :smiley:

Agreed and a fan of Robert Plant. Joey…? Always liked the Ramones and Punk/New Wave in general but haven’t specifically focused on Joey whom I realise is honoured by aficionados.

Just a note of appreciation for your exposition and you may be interested to know that the OP’s question is also asked on Youtube about this version of the song. Not answered either. Clearly its an unusual and attractive arrangement.

Richard Thompson taps into medieval/Renaissance motifs fairly regularly. And his (woefully short) acoustic take on “Oops I Did It Again” is priceless.

I love Flo and Eddie’s remark that he billed himself (on his early albums) as Yngwie J. Malmsteen to differentiate himself from all the other Yngwie Malmsteens in the music business.