So for this post I’m going to assume that you’ve had at least a few goes at playing solos and other melodic guitar lines before, and that perhaps you’re in a rut? We’ve all been there. I do a lot of improvising in the various bands I’m in, and every now and then start thinking “I’ve definitely played this before.” Sooner or later everybody’s bag of tricks runs out of things that surprise us and we start falling in to habitual playing. That’s not always a bad thing, but if you want to keep pushing yourself you need to find a new way of thinking about improvising.
One problem I hear from guitar students in my guitar tuition is that they know the sound they want to make, but they’re unable to make it happen. This is largely because guitarists often think simply in scales. We find out what scale works over the chord progression we’re playing over and then either haphazardly throw our fingers at random notes, or revert to pre-practised ‘licks’ that we use on everything. Again, this works to an extent, and you’ll never play a bad note this way. But we’re hopefully setting the bar a little higher than just ‘not playing bad notes.’ So let’s take a look at what effects the notes we play have on the chords we’re playing over.
Hopefully you are familiar with how chords are constructed. If not that’s another post for another time. In a nutshell though, the chords in a key are built from the notes of the scale. Each note has a chord built from it by taking the notes a 3rd and a 5th above it. So if the notes in your scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, B (The C major, or A minor scale) then you end up with something like this.
So when we play melodies, if we land on one of the notes that is in the chord currently being played we play a note that sounds pleasant and resolved. We can build almost all our melodies out of these notes, and it will sound nice. It will also stand a high chance of being boring. Music works best when it contains a mixture of tension and release. In order to get this tension we need to play notes that add something to the chord that isn’t there already. We do this using chord extensions.
In addition to the Root, third and fifth, additional notes can be added to make chords more complex. This is where chords such as 7ths, 9ths and 13ths come from. They are continuing on the process of stacking notes, usually taken from the scale, up on top of the root note. So a D minor 7 would contain the notes D, F and A , like a normal Dm chord. But it would also contain the note C. Let’s try that now. Below is a recording of a D minor chord. Try playing a C note over that chord.
See how playing a note that doesn’t belong in the chord brings a slightly unique sound to it that wasn’t there already?
Now I want you to try and hold that C note, but this time the chords are going to change. Listen to how the chords sound without you playing, and then how they sound when you hold the C note across all three.
What you should find is that the C note is a pleasant addition to the Dm chord. It then creates a level of tension in the G that borders on unpleasant, (because you’re playing an 11th in relation to the chord, a highly dissonant note) but is then released when the chord changes to C and your note becomes the root of the chord.
Using this idea as a starting point, you can create some very interesting melodies by actually playing fewer notes than you would normally, and letting the inherent tension of the changing chords do the work for you.
The ideas discussed in this post are particularly useful when playing over progressions that sit on one chord for a long time. The above recording features four bars of Am and then a bar of G and F. Over those Am bars I used a variety of different ideas to maintain the tension and keep it interesting. In the first repetition I focused mainly on playing around the 9th, (a B note) and having all my melodies return to it. Over the G and F I build tension simply through moving around the scale, resting primarily on notes that don’t feature in either chord. Finally it resolves on the 5th of the Am chord to give that passage a sense of closure.
See if you can work out which notes were used in the other repetitions, and how they affect the chords. Then try to replicate some of those sounds over the recording below, adding ideas of your own as you go along.