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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

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April 3, 2008 | Improvising: A three-pronged attack

Improvised solos can sound marvelously ingenious, or strained and sterile. The very essence of improvisation is freshness and spontaneity, but in order to be "spontaneous," you must be first equipped with the material to begin construction. The ability to play a sequence of notes is certainly a start, but what to do with this sequence is where the rubber meets the road.

We want to propose three different approaches to developing better improvisational skills. Each in their own way are great jumping off points, but the best way to solo will be a combination of each approach. Individually, they contain the components of melodic creation, but only in tandem will they start to sound like music coming out of a mature player.

We will assume you've already dived into the FFcP materials, and have at least a cursory feel for what these exercises do for your fingers and ears. Scales are at the very rudimentary end of nurturing melodic material; hopefully you're already using major and minor scales and modes to improvise. We want to go the next step and not sound like the music is coming out of scales. All of these are previous exercises introduced on the website; now it's up to you to figure out how to work them into a regimen of practice time. Our suggestion is to spend a day or three on one, move to the next for the same period, and move to the third, and rotate them. Work them in different areas of the fretboard, and most importantly, inject them into songs you are already attempting to improvise over. Keep it simple to start; you'll get better and more "subconscious" with their application as you get better.

Guide and Gravity Tones: Introduced in our April 2004 Mandolin sessions article, Critical Decisions in Improvising: 'Gravity' Notes, we uncovered the importance of identifying the "gravity" notes of the scale, the 4th and 7th notes, and the 2nd and 6th--how they pull the music along. Understanding, hearing, and communicating this pull through your improvising gives your melody a harmonic context. It drives the phrase.

Exercise: G & G

Arpeggios: We must think chords as we blow through a solo; we need to "be at one" with the harmonic and vertical construction of the changes to be effective, let alone consistent with the accompaniment. Knowing where the leading tone (7th), the third and emphasizing these important tones is essential. Practicing Arpeggios is a great way to do this so that they become familiar and automatic. We have 4 different versions of 7th chords in our upcoming book, Major, Minor, Dominant, and m6 (half diminished), but until then, try a sample from the Major 7th exercise. You can map out your own for the other chords

Exercise: Major Arpeggios

Jazz Pentatonics: We've avoid inserting Pentatonics to the end, because so many beginning players overuse and abuse these. You have to understand why they are useful in jazz before diving in, or you never get to use them to their potential, especially if you don't have them cold in all 12 keys. There is a strong foundation here, with the root, third, fifth all so apparent, a couple of benign passing tones added. Read our thoughts on Jazzed Pentatonics and some of the jazz specific uses available. Then dig in and learn them in all 12 keys and up the fretboard.

Exercise: Jazz Pentatonics

Also, read our latest MandolinSessions, Enhanced Pentatonics.

Three ways to skin this hep cat!

Posted by Ted at April 3, 2008 12:08 PM

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