We want to play phrases that are entertaining to listeners and have strong musical grounding. Since improvising a phrase is an instantaneous form of composition, one way to strengthen this area is to compose and write out phrases. We don’t necessarily want to use the composed line in our improvisation. Though if something we write is appealing enough then we may want to internalize the material.
Try taking a chord progression from your repertoire or one of your originals. We want to have about four bars. Analyze the progression, understanding how the chords relate to the tonic. Also look at how they are functioning at a given time. Are they suggesting a different key area?
Once you have looked at the progression think about rhythm and places, in time, where you might want to begin and end phrases. One approach is to pick a rhythm, write it out, then assign notes later. Whatever you decide, use a strong rhythm that is fairly dynamic.
Next, think about which guide tones you may want to use. Thirds and fifths are good starting and landing points. Mixing in other tones as well can help make the phrase more interesting. Remember tensions as well. The eleven, for example, is a strong tension on major chords.
As we take time with the composition process, understanding of harmony, melody and rhythm will increase. This will work to help the improvisations that we play in live situations. Consider taking time for composition.
Both musicians and non-musicians generally appreciate music that has a steady tempo and solid rhythm. So why is it a challenge for instrumentalists to play with steady time and solid rhythm? There are likely a couple of reasons for this; thinking while playing, not knowing the material well enough and so on. In this article though we will talk about the spacial and time issues that contribute to shaky time and rhythm.
Distances between notes vary and time is steady. We need to practice moving from one note to the next while keeping very steady time. Pick an interval and decide to play that interval on one string or crossing over to a different string. This gives us a spacial shape to work with on the guitar. Next set a metronome and try playing that shape in a variety of positions.
Since the fret distances get shorter further up the neck and strings widths vary as well, we find that conditions change for the shape we are working with. Our constant is the tempo and rhythm we are working with. The hand needs to compensate for the varied distances while maintaining the time.
- Work with one interval shape at a time.
- Keep it to two notes.
- Practice the shape with a several tempos.
- Use triplet and sixteenth note subdivisions.
Move the hand quickly to the next note location making fret hand attack the note at just the right time. We want to make sure that the fret hand plays the time and doesn’t rely on the picking hand for time. Guitar is very challenging for this reason. Try these ideas out and take your time with every interval and practice at slow tempos.
Help develop tension in your lines by using symmetrical arpeggios like the augmented triad and diminished seventh chord. Let’s take a look at how they work and try an exercise.
Augmented triads and diminished seventh chords both have equal interval distances between tones. Because of this we find that we can assign a root to any of the notes in the chord or arpeggio and end up with the same chord type and collection of tones. Another way to look at it is from the perspective of inversions. Since the augmented triad and the diminished seventh chord both are symmetrical, all the inversions have the same shape as the root.
Let’s look a little further into each type. The Augmented triad has three notes separated by major thirds. This means that there are four augmented triads total to work with given that there are twelve notes. Similarly, the diminished seventh chord has four notes separated by minor thirds. So it follows that there are three of these total.
Try this exercise while working with these symmetrical chord and arpeggio types:
- Improvise with an augmented or diminished seventh arpeggio.
- Play one interval that is not part of the arpeggio.
- Begin playing a new arpeggio.
- Repeat the process.
- Experiment with alternating between the augmented and diminished seventh chords.
This exercise is fun and challenging. Doing this exercise will help to improve your knowledge of chords and intervals. It will also help develop tension in your lines and touches on what John Coltrane was able to do with some of his progressions and playing. Having a little harmony in the background is a good idea. Even just a single major chord.
Improvising with an Intervallic approach is a great way pull from the chromatic scale and achieve an outside or modern sounding phrase. Choose a few intervals and a starting note, then play a phrase. Notice that direction in pitch, up or down, and rhythm are open to whatever you might choose.
If you are new to this way of playing or practicing try starting with two intervals and a simple harmonic background. Alternate between the two intervals and remain aware of the dissonance or consonance each note has with the harmony. Try choosing the interval direction, up or down, to regulate dissonance. For example, if the chord is Cmaj7, the current note in the phrase is E and the interval played is a minor 3rd. Then ascending to G is consonant while descending to D flat is dissonant. Here the interval is the same, but the directions are opposite.
The Intervals min2, maj2, min3, and maj3 are a good place to start and are a staple of many phrases. Notice what happens when pairing certain intervals. In some cases we find that particular interval combinations will have an associated scale other than chromatic. The maj3 and maj2 will tend towards the whole tone scale. So an occasional min2 or min3 interval will help break out of that.
Keep in mind that when playing any single-line phrase we are really playing intervallic. Here we are deliberately thinking about the intervals and choosing which to play based on a set or series of intervals. Enjoy and let me know how it’s going.