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The Woodshed: Escaping from the Pentatonic Prison

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JJ Rocks Article # 50:
From St. Croix Music Magazine, Issue # 9, June, 2007
This month I would like to focus on phrasing. Too many players that Iíve seen lately donít seem to understand this easy but rarely used concept. They are playing lines that are not only have no definite beginning or end, and they couldnít repeat the line if their life depended on it. Because they are mainly depending on geometric shapes on their instrument, the whole idea of melodic concepts fly out the window along with the attention of the listener. And if you add the fact that some players think more about speed than they do phrasing, it just amounts to the running of musical mouths that say nothing.

The only time that I ever found myself in that situation is when I mistakenly joined the wrong band and was so bored that I didnít care to focus on phrasing, only beer drinking. Trust me; if you ever find your self in that situation please leave the band! Itís hard enough to generate the flames of a player with good phrasing, so donít pee on the fire by playing with the wrong people.

Hereís what I do when Iím practicing my improvisation. Iíll create a short line with only four or five notes and try to make it as melodic as I can. The type of line depends on if itís over a stationary chord or a chord transition. The main thing is that you try your best to make phrases that you can whistle before you play them on your instrument. Now repeat the exercise until you have four nice lines.

Itís probably best to try this over a simple blues progression. That way you can make three stationary melodies and one thatís transitional. You would place the transitional line right before you go to the ďfourĒ chord in the progression. So if itís a quick change blues where the ďfourĒ chord is in the second measure you would use the transitional first. And if itís a straight blues with the ďoneĒ chord as the first four measures you would use it last. After you get the idea just apply it to various chord changes, songs, levels and styles that you play

Now donít forget that transitional lines that lead from one chord to another are what separate the players with a seasoned sound from the ones who sound like amateurs because it shows that you are in control of your improvisation. And even though improvisation is spontaneous, it still has to come from a well thatís deep with solo quenching ideas that were perfected at an earlier time. That way when you dip into the bucket of spontaneity you will be sure that there are no unpleasant surprises.

Before you can accomplish that level of playing you must first be able to repeat any phrase that you play. So go ahead and play any lick that comes to mind. Now, can you play it exactly the same way again without fishing for the notes? If you canít then itís not the real you. Itís just a visual pattern combined with gravity and forward motion that hurled you through a mindless phrase. And if you think about it that way it just might encourage you to want to try these exercises. The great Joe Pass often mentioned the fact that if you canít repeat a phrase then itís not your music. It didnít come from your head or your heart. And most you know how many times youíve have heard mindless licks that hide behind speed in order to fool the average listener into thinking that they are hearing a great musician.

As far as transitional phrases, I will go into more detail at a later time. And if you canít come up with any short melodic phrases just try to play four notes of any jingle, TV theme, Christmas song or a catchy pop melody. Then you will at least have intervals that are much more interesting than something that comes from a geometric box. Once you learn some melodies then you can twist and turn them rhythmically, play them backwards or even from the inside out. However you look at it you will still be escaping the dreadful pentatonic prison.

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