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The Woodshed: Scales, Arpeggios, and modes in improvisation. When is too much

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JJ Rocks Article # 216:
From St. Croix Music Magazine, Issue # 42, March, 2010
Every real musician out there knows that all music is built upon the elementary design of the diatonic major scale. That simple sequence of whole and half step intervals not only defines melody and harmony, but also gives birth to all other scales, arpeggios, and their modes. Its a true miracle of sonic proportions and should be the foundation of all your musical inventions, not the outcome. So why do so many players allow these fundamental musical elements to overpower their solos? Maybe its the security of a certain safety zone that someone depends on when they cant think of anything original to play.

I was watching a guy taking a solo over Charlie Parkers Au Privave the other day. And even though he showed great chops, (mentioning his instrument is not important to the point Im making) I heard only tiny bits of true melodic improvisation. Just about every one of his lines consisted of fast scales, arpeggios, or modes. These are elements that should only be used for creating or connecting your ideas together, and maybe even showing a little speed to impress your audience. That brings up another point.

Most non musician audience members dont really know what they are listening for in a solo. And even though some of them have a little melodic sense, most of them are only impressed with speed or special effects. Thats an easy catch for someone who sits around all day playing scales and testing their speed limits while stepping on their favorite pedals. But in my opinion, setting your musical standards to the level a normal bar crowd just to make them happy is a complete sellout as a musician. There are many people who appreciate good tasteful playing. You just have to find them.

So as far as when is "too much" when it comes to scale content in your solos, it's not just deciding what you want to play, but also the audience that you want to play for. Who you are, or can be, should be based on the results of your imagination, not the sharpness of your tools.
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