Posts Tagged ‘improvisation’

Steve Ray Vaughn
Ahhh… the venerable SRV in a classic guitarists pose. I used to think that was just something rock stars did for publicity shots, and that the poses were contrived. But then as I’ve delved more and more deeply into improvisation, I’ve realized it’s not contrived at all. That kind of pose or expression is all part of what can be called “gettin’ in the zone.” The Zen masters call the “the zone” the state of satori, where thought and action are one; where your consciousness is at a height where whatever enters your mind you do. From the perspective of playing guitar, the awareness of what your body is actually doing is lost. Your focus is entirely on expressing the music you’re playing.

For instance, have you ever been playing one day and just get into the groove of a song, close your eyes, and just let your fingers do the talking? You’re completely aware of the song, but that’s pretty much all you’re aware of; and when you play, it’s pure expression. I had recently had this experience. I was playing on top of a simple chord progression in D, and the song came to a part where I had a rather long lead break. A few years ago, I would’ve been terrified to do play such a long solo, but I’ve really started to get comfortable with my playing to handle something like this. Luckily for me, it was not a fast song. 🙂 But in any case, after the first few bars, I got into this groove where I didn’t worry about technique nor worry about how I was playing a phrase. I just played. It was pure expression.

After the gig, a few people came up to me and said that when I was playing, I had this look of pure rapture on my face. I replied, “Really? I thought I was just playing. Gawd, I hope I didn’t look like a poser weenie…” One of the folks was a guitarist and told me that it was genuine. He said, “Dude, you were in your own world.” I just chuckled because I was totally unaware of my posture or body language. I was completely focused on playing. I was really in the zone.

I think a lot of my latest inspiration is that I now have gear that gives me the tone that I’ve been after for awhile, and while I realize that 90% of your tone comes from your hands, having gear that facilitates your playing just adds to your inspiration. For me, I’m playing what I believe to be the absolutely perfect amp in my Aracom VRX22. The cleans are absolutely spectacular on any guitar I play with it, and that clean channel is the most pedal-friendly channel I’ve ever played. The drive channel on that just sings and sustains beautifully. I know, I know… I rave about this amp a lot, but I’ve searched high and low for an amp like this, and now that I’ve found it, it’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven!

I’d be interested in hearing your “in the zone” experiences. Feel free to share ’em!

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Note: This isn’t going to be an instructional piece… just a sharing piece… mostly…

I’ve been playing guitar for over 35 years, but it hasn’t been until the last couple of years – actually the last few months – that I’ve really started focusing on scales and modal theory. Chord theory I had down cold, but I really didn’t focus on the scales part of the equation. I figured that if I could get some lead patterns and tricks down, I’d be in pretty good shape; and for awhile, that worked just fine.

But then I realized that in many of my recordings, I was using the same patterns and tricks, albeit in different keys and in different combinations, but the same stuff nonetheless. This prompted me to rethink how I approached playing solos, so I started out by learning major and minor scale patterns. I got a couple of books to help me along, and I proceeded to practice them.

But in the back of my mind was this idea of modes. I’d heard them bandied about for years, and pretty much ignored them partially out of the thought that as a rhythm player, they weren’t too important; though that really masked an innate fear that modes were WAY beyond my ability to grasp. But during this past weekend’s study/practice session, I realized that modes are not difficult at all! The names of the modes just scared the livin’ crap out of me! 🙂

Think about it: The mode names are all in Greek: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. From my previous life as a bio-sciences major, terminology in Greek or Latin would evoke feelings of anxiety similar to, “Oh shit! More frickin’ terms to memorize just to regurgitate later on.” 🙂 Such was the case when faced with modes.

I now feel a little foolish about my anxiety with modes. Once you understand what they represent, they’re totally easy to play!

Here’s my explanation in a nutshell, just in case you too have the same anxiety about modes as I did:

  1. Modes are simply starting points within the scale of a particular key.
  2. For instance, if you’re playing in the key of C and want to play in the Mixolydian mode, you’d start and end on the 5th degree of the C scale which is G.
  3. Now don’t get confused here: You don’t play a G scale. You merely start at G, and play the notes of the C scale, so: G A B C D E F G

So what’s the big deal? Lots of players don’t give a whit about this stuff. For me as a teacher, this stuff is pretty important. But from a player’s standpoint, it gives you a much deeper understanding of the fretboard, and also, playing in a mode gives you a different tonal center to play from, which actually has an effect on how a solo sounds and feels.

I found that a great example of this is to play the Lydian mode. The Lydian mode starts on the 4th degree of a scale. Going back to the C scale, this means that the Lydian will be F. If you’re familiar with chord theory, a chord with an added 4th is notated as Csus4. The sound of this particular chord connotes a feeling that the chord must be resolved – it’s not something you’d finish with; you’d typically use a “sus4” chord before either the major root chord or minor root chord. In our case of a C chord, we’d do something like: Csus4 – C. In playing in the Lydian mode, you’ll evoke a sense that you have to resolve your scale somehow. After all, starting and ending on the 4th creates a feeling that your phrase is unfinished. The point of all this is that where you start will have a huge effect on the general coloring of what you’re playing.

Note that this discussion only brushes the surface of modal theory. For a much deeper discussion, check out Guitar Noise or this excellent article that I found on Modes of the Major Scale.

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I was reading several interesting threads about technique and improv the other day. I have to admit that I was quietly embarassed by the fact that I don’t have a large library of techniques that I can tap into while I read the posts and articles. There are so many things to learn with respect to technique out there that it’s daunting!

But after reading those articles, I realized that a lot of the technique I have developed – especially over the past couple of years – has come from stumbling upon how to play a certain phrase through experimentation. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a disciplined improv dude that can instantly tap into a library of patterns and apply them. I’ve never taken guitar to that intellectual level. My approach to soloing tends to be fairly experimental; primarily because I don’t have a lot of techniques on which to fall back. But that doesn’t mean the process of experimentation isn’t cool in an of itself.

In fact, that process, at least for me, has been absolutely rewarding, and after I’m done with an “experimentation” session and play back the different takes, I often say to myself, “Did I actually play that?” It’s mildly amusing, but it’s also a bit scary because I’ll eventually have to play that or at least something similar to that when I play the song live. But that gets me to practice the technique until I have it down.

For instance, early on when I started my experimentation, I stumbled upon the minor pentatonic scale just by playing what fit. At the time, I didn’t know that it was the minor pentatonic scale. I just know that what I played fit with the song. I’ve since learned the other patterns of the minor pentatonic, and it’s something I tap into regularly. In another instance a few years ago, I was playing a solo, and one of the other musicians in my band asked, “Hey man, did you just do that in Mixolydian mode?” I replied, “Mixo-what? I don’t know, I just thought that it would be cool to start the lead a fifth above the root and play within that relative area.” Mind you, I still don’t know all the modes by heart – I think I stick to Dorian and Mixolydian a lot, or often start playing a minor pentatonic in the relative minor of the root chord (if it’s a major chord).

The point is that I don’t go out to specifically learn and practice a technique or mode or scale. Admittedly, that has probably slowed my technical advancement to a large degree, and I’ll have to admit that for the more organized and discplined among us, that approach is probably unacceptable, but it works for me, and I’ve learned a lot of things that I was later able to identify as formal techniques.

I know that there thousands of guitar players who are a whole lot better than me, but here’s a glimpse into my experimentation process:

  • GarageBand or some other package where you can easily set up loops and record rhythm parts is kind of essential. Having this is akin to having a basic chemistry set to mix chemicals.
  • Once you come up with a loop, play it continuously and jam to it to see what falls out of your experimentation. Never mind trying to be intellectual – just let it flow.

I’ve literally spent hours at a time practicing using this method, and a lot of these progressions have turned into songs.

To get you started, here’s a Jam Track that you can use. It’s a simple, 3 minute track in the key of A. I laid it down because I wanted to practice chord soloing… er… actually to see if I could do it. 🙂 In any case, have a go!

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