Sometimes all it takes is a suggestion or a new perspective to jump-start your improvisation skills or give your solos a new lease of life, especially if you’re stuck in a rut. As guitarists we tend to fixate on scales, technique and chops when there are far more important areas to pursue when it comes to improvisation. In this article we get into some of the subtleties of improvisation and how to apply it to your playing to get better results.
Here’s an interesting concept for you to try out. I remember playing around with it unintentionally when I first began to look at major scale patterns and their modes across the whole neck to see how they laid out. I thought that I could play them 2 notes per string like pentatonic scales but then saw that I was missing out notes. Years later I realized that this is actually a pretty good phrasing exercise for modes and that purposely leaving notes out of the scale forces you to be more creative, among other benefits.
You hear this phrase a lot in guitar-related media, learning material and sales-type rhetoric – it’s the idea, or the promise that some kind of insight in the form of a lesson, course, or book will provide you with the tools to take your guitar playing to the next level. The ‘next level’ is somewhat of a vague concept and most guitarists probably take it to mean that after completing said lesson, course or book, their playing will be noticeably better. This is no bad thing, and I probably use the phrase myself from time to time but in this post, I’d like to go into the actual thing that made my playing undeniably better and did indeed take me to that ‘next level’.
In Part 1 we looked at the basic theory behind the harmonized major scale and how to learn four sets of root position chords that will give you over 300 if you include all 12 keys. These chords, and a solid understanding how and why they go together, will give you a firm basis to tackle pretty much any chord progression that’s thrown at you. In Part 2 we’re going to build on these basic chords by learning plenty of inversions that will give you even more options when comping, coming up with parts, or arranging with other instruments.
A great way to learn chords and chord progressions is to learn them in context, whether it be a song or the chord chart for a backing track (yes, don’t just wail over them, learn the chord progression). Chords are more easily understood and absorbed when you hear how they function in a progression as oppose to learning them in isolation from a chord book. In this quick lesson, we’ll look at an exercise to learn the harmonized major scale in a variety of keys.
Knowing what scales to use over a given chord progression was always shrouded in mystery for me until I understood diatonic and non-diatonic harmony. Don't worry though, this isn't a full-on theory lesson because what I want you to come away with is how to analyze a chord progression and have a solid idea of what scales you’re going to play so that you’ll be able to instinctively find the information on the fretboard, rather than just blowing over it with a pentatonic scale and hoping for the best. This kind of knowledge is incredibly useful in any band situation where you have either more than one guitarist, or you're trying to come up with guitar parts based on yours or someone else's ideas.
While the pentatonic scale is an incredibly useful tool for guitar players of the rock and blues variety, the standard method of learning the scale in five box shapes doesn’t do a lot to distinguish you from the next guy. So, what can you do to make your pentatonic playing stand out from the crowd? Well, you’ll be pleased to know that this isn’t another of those breaking out of scale boxes lessons; in fact, in this lesson I’m going to encourage you to stay well-within the confines of those beloved boxes.
You’ll find a lot of stuff on the internet about breaking out of scale patterns; some players suggest learning the modes (more boxes?) or throwing other intervals into the mix (still a box), playing horizontally up and down one string (not practical), and even learning arpeggios (yet more patterns). These approaches are all well and good, but don’t really get to the crux of why it’s so hard for guitarists to break away from those incredibly comfortable box positions, especially those of the minor pentatonic variety. Let me just say that there’s nothing wrong with playing in boxes; many guitarists have made lifelong careers out of it, and it might just be that you’re not melodic enough, and you need a more melodic approach to scales such as this one. If that doesn’t do it for you, you might want to consider the following…
We’ve been talking a lot on the blog lately about improvisation methods and systems. The guitar is a double-edged sword in this regard as a solo can be approached in many ways depending on the player and the desired result. Whatever your style or genre is, and if you’re going the scales over chords route, you’ll want to consider these two golden rules to make the most of your moment of glory.
In Part 8, we look at the last of the upper chord extensions: the 13, and we'll also be walking you through the process of analyzing a set of changes in order to approach soloing over them using everything we've covered so far. If you still feel unsure about locating intervals on the fretboard, check out 'Melodic Soloing in 10 Days', which is a 10-day program to help you learn every interval all over the fretboard.
You might be feeling somewhat overwhelmed at this point, so it would be a good idea to take a breather and take stock of what we’ve learned so far.
Nowadays, I play in fourths tuning (EADGCF) around 75% of the time because I love it, and the rest of the time I use standard (covers gigs, teaching, etc.) because it’s just more practical. However, one of the things I miss about standard tuning when I’m in fourths is the sheer variation of scale patterns available on a non-symmetrical fretboard. Ironically, this was one of the things that used to annoy me about standard tuning, but I’ve come to see it in a different light. If you’ve ever learned those clunky 3NPS or CAGED patterns and not felt you were really able to make music with them, read on…
So far, we’ve looked at our core intervals, the 1, 3, and 7 (plus the b3 and b7), the 5 and the natural 6. Let’s turn our attention to the 9; the 9 is the same as the 2 but it’s almost always referred to as the 9, b9 or #9 when we talk about chords. This is not true when it comes to scales, which are mostly spelt in number order when referring to their interval structure. Hook your looper pedal up and let's check it out...
In Part 4 of this series of blog posts, we look at how to decode chords and compare improvising with scales to thinking in intervals. The latter approach allows us to have more control over what we play while understanding the chord we're playing over. This sounds fairly logical on paper, but you'll find that most guitarists don't put this information to good use. Don't forget to treat yourself to a looper pedal if you haven't got one already as this will speed up the process no end!
In Part 3, we start soloing over chord changes using the four base sequences from Part 2. Remember, this is a much more efficient process if you have a looper pedal at hand. If you don't have one yet, you deserve one so treat yourself to one on Amazon. I recommend the tc electronic and Boss RC-1 loopers but I've yet to find a bad looper, so they're all great value for money.
In this series of blog lessons, we're looking at how to solo over chord changes by using a simple system I came up with based on four sequences of notes. Check out Part 1 if you haven't already, and if you don't have one already, treat yourself to a looper pedal as it will speed up this entire process and have you wailing over chord changes in no time.
Chord tone soloing and soloing over changes on guitar is a complex area which can be approached in many ways, and where even a cursory search for online resources is likely to leave you with more questions than answers. It’s particularly difficult on guitar because guitarists tend to arrive at this point with varying amounts of knowledge and gaps in their playing, whereas other instrumentalists approach soloing over changes in a more uniform way. For example, you may have learned how to improvise using scale patterns, or arpeggios; you may improvise entirely by ear and not even be aware of the theory behind what you’re playing, or you may have had a more academic approach to the subject. While it’s true that everyone learns differently, I believe that a solid approach to soloing over changes requires a system that is a) not based on patterns, b) develops the ability to locate notes on the neck either by interval or by the name of the note, and c) develops the player’s ear to the point where he/she is able to fully express themselves and truly improvise on their instrument as oppose to a formulaic, calculated and somewhat cold approach to something that should be, insofar as is possible, spontaneously created in the moment; and this is what I hope to achieve with this series of blog lessons (also available as a PDF eBook here).
I recently got my hands on a copy of Wayne Krantz’ Improvisor’s OS book; weighing in at a little under 100 pages and barely a centimeter thick with no fancy cover, and not a single diagram – fretboard or otherwise – you’re left wondering what exactly it might contain. You’re in for a treat because it’s one of the most mind-blowing books you’ll ever read on guitar improvisation, or improvisation on any instrument for that matter, IF you’re ready for it. Are you?
We all know that one of the biggest challenges faced by guitarists, after putting in the hours to learn all those scale patterns, is how to play seamlessly up and down the fretboard and meld all those patterns into one unit. There are many ways to do this, and we’ve already covered a fair few ideas right here on the blog; these ideas, however, are particularly useful if you know your scale shapes like the back of your hand, but your fingers won’t let you play outside of well-worn patterns. This is a common problem, and it’s a difficult one to spot…