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The Woodshed: Melodic Guitar Improvisation

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JJ Rocks Article # 29:
From St. Croix Music Magazine, Issue # 5, February, 2007
Has your improvisation become a stock pile of licks that you have learned off of records? Are you stuck in a pentatonic box that from which there is no escape? Are you having a hard time sounding like your real inner self? Well, its easy to fix. First you have to stop thinking like a guitar player and start thinking like a musician. And thats because guitarist are captured by the mechanics of their instrument more than any other player. They are also the least melodically trained.

Did you ever notice that a horn players solos are more melodic than a guitarist? Thats because horn players are raised on melodies and guitarist are raised on licks that come from geometric patterns played across the neck. Thats what gives a guitar solo its distinct sound, but also puts it in a very un-unique box of licks that are just a little too recognizable, and as a result boring to the listener.

Sure, there will always be a party crowd that doesnt know the difference, but is that where you want to set your limits? Now Im not saying that you should ditch those immortal classic blues and rock guitar licks, but you can add other elements that will put you above every other guy at the local blues jam.

The first thing have you to do is to start to learn as many melodies as you can. Start with simple melodies that you know by heart like jingles or Christmas songs. Then more on to a higher level and learn jazz melodies. Even most of the so called jazz guitarists on this island just play grooves, solos, and a few simple melodies. There are only a few that can play the more intense jazz melodies. Learning these jazz heads as they are called, can be a long term commitment, but its definitely worth the effort. And for those who dont have that kind of time, I would just stick to simple melodies.

Now maybe some of you are probably wondering what the benefits are. Well, learning a melody takes thought and emotion because its structured compared to the usual visual patterns played by guitarist. And normally emotion comes from bending notes without any thought to the structure of the solo other than patterns. But when you study melodies you carry over a different kind of concentration to your usual solos. Even if youre playing the same licks, you find yourself phasing and playing with more intellect than you did before. Because after putting in the time to learning a structured melody its hard to go back to letting gravity and geometric patterns rule your playing.

Heres a little exercise that you can try. Learn a handful of simple melodies like happy birthday, a few cartoon themes or TV show songs. Then take the notes within the first two beats of each song and splice them together. Now it goes without saying that you have to choose one key for all of them. You will wind up with a cool little original sounding phrase. Then start to piece them together in as many ways as you can but still only using a few notes from each melody. And when you get good at that then you can learn more advanced melodies (try my version of Charlie Parkers Au Privave in our October issue). Now when you think off it, piecing these melodies together is no different from piecing together the classic pentatonic licks that you use now.

After you got the whole idea down, you can put them together with the licks that you play now and your playing will sound more intellectual opposed to the normal thoughtless guitar licks that always come from jam sessions. And dont forget; dont set your goals by the easy to fool musical limitations of your audience, set them for yourself. In the long run its yourself that you have to face in the mirror.

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