What separates good improvisers and soloists from amateurs? I remember having an experience when first learning to improvise and thinking – this sounds lame, just like scales over and over. Meh. It only took one shift in perspective to make a huge difference though. Once I figured out this key element, I sounded legit!
The key is ‘vocabulary’. I’m not talking about learning the words about blues, or jazz, or country. But the ‘words’ of music – the small phrases that make up solos.
While clearly not the same thing, it is difficult to give useful independence exercises which don’t involve some degree of pick control.
It’s a tricky ‘chicken or egg’ situation, but we have to start somewhere. As many apparent ‘picking’ problems are caused by a hidden fretting hand weakness, we will start with finger independence in the fretting hand.
The most common problems I see regarding finger independence involve a lack of dexterity between the 2nd and 3rd fingers, and weakness in the 4th finger.
Chromatic approach notes really deserve an entire book to themselves. They form a massive topic and we can only really explore the tip of the iceberg here.
A crude explanation would be to say that “the melody notes that fall on the strong beats should be chord tones and the notes that fall between the strong beats should be scale tones or chromatic approach notes”.
While even the shallowest exploration of the previous statement will find it to be untrue in many circumstances, it is nevertheless a useful starting point to learn one of the most important concepts in bebop.
We will explore soloing with scale tones in a later lesson, but for now let’s examine the concept of inserting chromatic approach notes before rhythmically strong chord tones.
Rhythm guitar playing isn’t just about playing chords, it is important that we learn to decorate the chords we play to provide movement and counter melody to the singer or soloist. When we provide lead guitar fills the art is to never over-play and to make sure what we play is appropriate to the music. There should always be space for the melody to shine through. Cluttering the melody is one of the easiest ways to get kicked out of your band! Aim to play in the spaces left by the singer, don’t fill every possible gap and turn your volume down a bit so you don’t overpower everyone else on stage!
Lead Guitar Fills on the I Chord
The following rhythm fills work well on a static (held) A7 chord.
The following rhythmic and melodic exercise is one of my favourites to give to students who struggle with developing a melodic line throughout a whole solo. This exercise requires quite a lot of concentration in your practice time, but you will quickly notice an improvement in your ability to naturally build a strong melodic thread throughout your improvisation.
The exercise sounds simple on paper but in actual fact it takes a lot of discipline and patience to master.
1) Take a short, fixed rhythm and use it to improvise a melodic line
2) Repeat the rhythm once per bar for three bars, varying the melody each time
3) In the fourth bar, play the rhythm again however this time freely develop the rhythm
4) Use the rhythm you created at the end of bar four as the set rhythm for the next four bars
The secret to making this exercise work is to keep the rhythms short and uncomplicated at first. I think this kind of exercise is much easier to see musically than it is to explain in words. Take a look at this example:
Developing a melodic line for blues guitar audio example
I begin with a very simple phrase; just a couple of notes and then repeat that exact same rhythm for the first three bars. In bar four I trust my ear and allow myself to develop the idea very slightly. A small variation is much better than a full bar of improvisation here.
The tricky bit is to remember the last couple of notes you played in bar four. Take the rhythm of the notes in bar 4 and base a short phrase around that rhythm in bar five. Once you have your new, developed rhythm stick with it and repeat the process.
Compare bar 12 to bar 1. These lines are very different but we have arrived at the complexity in bar 12 through a natural, organic process.
While not strictly the blues, you can easily hear how he develops a four note phrase into one of the most important pieces of music ever written. Listen to how the phrase develops rhythmically throughout the piece and changes with subtle and not-so-subtle use of orchestration and dynamics. It’s the perfect lesson in creating something massive out of the smallest of rhythmic fragments.
While it isn’t as explicit as Beethoven’s Fifth, a bluesier example of all the techniques in this chapter, including the rhythmic development ideas in this section is Lucille by B.B King
There’s an extremely strong question and answer theme running throughout the song, especially in the longer solos, but if you listen attentively you can clearly hear how he rhythmically develops his melody from one phrase to the next.
Many people will turn around to me at this point and say, “yes, but he just feels it, he probably never even thought about it like this”.
I’m sure those people are right, however if we are to learn to develop as musicians, we often need to break down the ‘unconscious’ skills of talented musicians into tangible, learnable chunks and work on them as exercises before they eventually become ‘I’m just feeling it’ to us too.
Imagine you were going to learn a magic trick from an illusionist. They would be an inadequate teacher if they just said “it’s magic!”
The written example revolves around your awareness as a player, not just rhythmic development.
You have to be in control of what you’re playing for it to work and you need to consciously remember the previous rhythm you played. It’s a fantastic exercise to move away from just ‘noodling’ on the guitar and working towards actually being in control of what you play.
In the blues, great importance is placed on phrase structure and keeping a musical dialogue running between each successive line. The easiest way to explain this dialogue is by the phrase ‘question and answer’ or ‘call and response’. In the early spiritual music I referenced in the introduction this is easy to hear. The first phrase is a call and sets up the response. This structure continues throughout the whole piece of music.
For a slightly more up to date and ‘guitarry’ illustration listen to the guitar solo in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Lenny The whole thing is packed with this call and response idea. Even though both the call and the response are both played on the same instrument there are definitely echoes of the early gospel blues phrasing structure. B.B. King is another great exponent of this idea.
Practicing call and response by yourself can be a little challenging so if you can work on the following ideas with a musician friend you might find them a little more beneficial.
In this first set of exercises I will give you a set lick as a question and you will be providing an answering phrase.
Begin by getting very familiar with the following lick.
The line in the previous example is going to be your question phrase and will form a repeating figure throughout the 12 bar blues. Notice that it begins on beat two of the bar.
The first exercise is to play this lick in every alternate bar (bars one, three five, etc.) and improvise your own answering phrase in the gaps in bars two, four, six, etc.
The ‘scheme’ of your solo will look like this:
The first exercise is to improvise any answering phrase you wish, with the only rule being that you must be ready to play the question phrase when it reoccurs in the following bar.
Again, there are no wrong answers to this exercise. Here is one of the infinite number of possibilities that I came up for this exercise.
Try to play as many choruses of blues as you can, and find many answers to the exact same question phrase each time. By having to answer the same question in many different ways you will force yourself to become more creative in your answers. You will start to see your solo as one story full of connected ideas rather than just a series of short random ideas.
Even in this seemingly restrictive exercise I am still really giving you ‘free rein’ to fill in the answers as you please. You are simply being told to ‘feel’ what should come next with very little in the way of limitations or structure.
In one sense, this is good because it will help you develop your own voice on the guitar, however in another sense, playing this freely is a little limited as a learning exercise because I’m not forcing you to play too far outside of your comfort zone.
In my life I have been fortunate enough to have some exceptional guitar teachers, and one sentence from Shaun Baxter has always stuck with me:
“It’s a paradox; but the more you limit yourself, the more creative you are forced to become”.
An analogy could be that if I sat you in a restaurant, you’re not going to have to think too much about how to find food, but if I dropped you in a desert you would have to get pretty imaginative about finding your next meal. You may even do things that you never thought you were capable of to find sustenance.
With exercises designed to enhance creativity I firmly believe that if we are to find new ways to play our notes we have to isolate one very small creative aspect at a time and try to exhaust its possibilities before we move on.
Creativity by Limiting Rhythm
Let’s look at some ways we can force ourselves to play something new within the above question and answer structure.
The first thing we can try is to create our answer with exactly the same rhythm as the question. This requires strict discipline and will quickly show us when our fingers, not our ears, try to take control of the guitar.
Here is just one example of using the same rhythm in the answering phrase.
Obviously this is just one possible answering phrase, but I encourage you to play through many choruses of the blues and stick to answering the question with exactly the same rhythm but with many different melodies.
Next, how about using the same rhythm for your answer but displacing it earlier or later by one or more 1/18th notes?
This example shows an answer that is one 1/8th note early.
Here is just one example where we use the same rhythm starting one 1/8th note later.
As you can see, the rhythm is identical but it starts one 1/8th note later and uses different notes.
Try to see if you can find ten different answering phrases beginning on beat two, then one 1/8th note early and finally one 1/8th note late. This is difficult but the idea is to force you to come up with new music on the spot. These exercises do get easier over time.
When you feel you have exhausted all your possibilities try beginning your answering phrase two 1/8ths earlier or later while still sticking to the same rhythm.
If I was to write out even just a few possible answers here for each displacement I would fill the book so it’s up to you to get creative.
Do you remember how displacing a lick in chapter three completely altered the phrase’s meaning and line that you were inspired to play after it? When you get tired of the previous exercises, try moving the question phrase an 1/8th note early or late and see how this effect your answer.
Example 4f: (Early)
Example 4g: (Late)
You have been locked into this rhythmic format for a while so now try allowing yourself to freely improvise an answer to the set question. You don’t have to worry about keeping the same rhythm; just see what comes out.
After a few days of this kind of playing you will find that you’re playing ideas spontaneously that you would never have thought possible.
Each day improvise a new melodic question and see how many ways you can find to answer it.
Try working with another musician and ask them to give you a completely different question every two bars and work on improvising answers.
This lesson is an extract from The Complete Guide to Blues Guitar Book Two: Melodic Phrasing now available on Amazon
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Hi there, I’m currently busy working on the second part of ‘The Complete Guide to Blues Guitar’. This book is focusing completely on soloing, specifically phrasing and melodic rhythm. The premise is that it’s better to be able to play one blues lick in 100 different unique, personal ways than it is to spend your life memorising and ‘chasing’ blues licks around the guitar.
I originally thought that my Complete Blues Guitar course would be just one book: it looks like it will be three by the time i’m finished! So far i’m 60 pages in but there are already over 90 examples and audio tracks!
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