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The Woodshed: The Melodic Bait

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JJ Rocks Article # 113:
From St. Croix Music Magazine, Issue # 24, September, 2008
Theres one technique that I find myself constantly teaching my students who are in the habit of playing fast scales for solos. And even after they break their scales into segments and show some promise when it comes to playing a decent solo, their phrases still have a staircase effect that just goes up and down without any adventurous or melodic moves what so ever. This bad habit comes mostly from students who think that speed (which is easier to execute within a scale shape) is going to get more them attention from a crowd than tasteful phrasing. And in many cases they are right. But an old man that I used to play guitar with when I was nine years old put it in a way that made the most sense to me. He said one day you will realize that its not what kind of music that you want to play, its the kind of audience that you want to play for.

So I guess if you want to play as fast as you can for people who like that kind of thing, then maybe you should go for it. But if you want to leave any permanent tracks you might want to do some research on your music history and see just how many players were known for their speed only, and what kind of respect that they received. Then compare that to other artist that were known for their compositional skills or ground breaking improvisational lines. The proof is in the pudding and the respect goes where it belongs. Now if are you are looking at a time span of only the last 25 years, you may find a decent number of players that were known for their speed. But where is the longevity? More people eat in fast food joints than quality restaurants, so if I was talking about food instead of music, I would want to be remembered as a broiled lobster rather than a big Mac! So lets get to this simple lesson that players on any instrument should at least think about.

First of all, when you approach a solo you have to set up the listener. That means if you want to play something fast and scale like in character, you might want to save it for the end of your solo as a peak point. Because if you just start playing fast at the beginning, the only attention you are going to get is from people looking for musical acrobats and not tasteful players. This opening speed demon approach also looses the attention of the average non musical listener because to many ears it sounds like a bunch of gibberish. So if you start out slow and try to dangle your melodic bait, you will be sure to lure them in instead of using speed which is the fastest way to loose your fish. But dont forget that opening with slow scale segments instead of melodic phrases is like putting a fake worm on your hook. You wont catch anyones attention.

This is because the average listener is more comfortable with something that resembles a melody, rather than something that sounds symmetrical. To them scale segments sound like humorous exercises and leave them waiting for the punch line. And if you listen to and learn from some of your favorite melodies, you will see that most of them are created by not playing up and down the musical scale staircase (with the exception of some very old classical pieces). So by studying the great melodies of the world you will see that the intervals are created by skipping certain scale steps and combining them with a variety of rhythms. So why do I feel like a bird trying to teach a fish to swim? Well, I guess its because this technique is so oblivious that it should be natural to anyone who has ever jumped into musical waters. The only people that I have ever seen that swim fast as soon as they get in the water are Olympic swimmers and thats because its a contest for speed and not just a pleasing and artistic visual experience. A good solo should involve many different events and should show the valleys and peaks of your imagination.

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