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Improvising on the guitar

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All musicians want to do this, because there is nothing more spectacular than a nice improvisation on stage. Here is the result of my thinking on this subject in three parts.

Basics required for this lesson : Harmony for Dummies : Intervals, Harmony for Dummies : the major scale, Harmony for Dummies : the notes,
Practice this lesson : None

All musicians want to do this, because there is nothing more spectacular than a nice improvisation on stage. Here is the result of my thinking on this subject in three parts.

The importance of scales

Indeed, to improvise on guitar, as on every instrument I think, knowing your scales is compulsory. Unless you have an innate talent, a tremendous feeling, unless you know to reproduce all the sounds of your guitar, scales are needed to improvise correctly. Sure you can improvise without knowing your scales, placing your notes randomly, but there are two problems you are likely to face:

  • You may not get what you expected.
  • The notes will not necessarily match.

In short: learn your scales!

Scales and intervals

To help, here are the most important scales, in my opinion. Nevertheless, I give you the intervals that make up the scales! (Note: Intervals are the distance between the different notes of the scale. Therefore, there is an interval between each note!)

  • Pentatonic scale : 5 notes + the key note one octave higher, 5 intervals
  • Major pentatonic scale: tone - tone - tone and a half - tone - tone and a half.
  • Minor pentatonic scale: ton and a half - tone - tone - tone and a half - tone.
  • Major scale : 7 notes + the key note one octave higher, 7 intervals
  • Major scale: tone - tone - half tone - tone - tone - tone - half tone.
  • Minor scale : 7 notes + the key note an octave higher, 7 intervals
  • natural minor scale: tone - half tone - tone - tone - half tone - tone - tone.
  • harmonic minor scale: tone - half tone - tone - tone - half tone - tone and a half - half tone.
  • Ascending melodic minor scale: tone – half tone - tone - tone - tone - tone - half tone.

(The descending melodic minor scale uses intervals of the natural minor scale.)

Of course you don’t have to learn all those scales. Personally, I find that the pentatonic scale, the major scale and natural minor scale are the most important and the simplest. By default, familiarize yourself with the natural minor scale before you tackle the harmonic and melodic minor scales. Also, the key note one octave higher, is the beginning of the scale one octave higher...

Of course I will not leave you with simple intervals! I will also give you what you find on your guitar’s neck.

Guitar’s neck

Your fingers will be named as follows:

  • Index = 1
  • Major = 2
  • Ring = 3
  • Pinky = 4

The fret before the index will of course be 0, and that after the pinky is 5.

on the same string

First, staying on the same string, we know that between two adjacent frets, there is only one halftone.

So that’s what we get:

e |---------------- 6-10| -> two tones (one finger (Index) to 5 (the fret that follows the one where you normally place your pinky)
B |----------------------|
G |----------- 3-6 -----| -> one tone and a half
D |----------------------|
A I ----- 1-3 ----------I -> one tone
E | -1-2 ---------------| -> one halftone And so on.

It's easy to find everything back this way. Here is a small example with the major scale, using "1" for half-tone and "2" for the tone.

Major scale: tone - tone - half tone - tone - tone - tone - half tone. Major scale: 2 - 2 - 1 - 2 - 2 - 2 - 1.

Now you know what you should do on just one string, and therefore you are able to improvise on one string! Let’s do it on all the strings now !

from one string to another

To move from one string to another, we have to do a little calculation.

  • To go from E to A:
    Upward (from low to high notes): By using the last finger that was placed on the string, to go from E to A, we go 5 frets up (including the fret where we were ) to be a halftone higher, and four fret to be a tone higher. Downward (from high to low notes): By using the last finger that was placed on the string, to go from A to E, we go 5 frets down (including the fret on which we were) to be a halftone lower, and four frets to be a tone lower.
     
  • To go from A to D:
    Upward (low to high): By using the last finger that was placed on the string, to go from A to D, we go down 5 frets (including the fret on which we were ) to be a halftone higher, and four frets to be a tone higher. Downward (from high to low): By using the last finger that was placed on the string, for the change (from D to A), we go 5 frets up (including the one on which we were ) to be a halftone lower, and four frets to be a tone lower.
     
  • To go from D to G:
    Upward (low to high): By using the last finger that was placed on the string, to go from D to G, we go down 5 frets (including the fret on which we were ) to be a halftone higher, and four frets to be a tone higher. Downward (from high to low): By using the last finger that was placed on the string, for the change (from G to D), we go 5 frets up (including the one on which we were ) to be a halftone lower, and four frets to be a tone lower.
     
  • To go from G to B:
    Upward (low to high): By using the last finger that was placed on the string, to go from G to B, we go down 4 frets (including the fret on which we were ) to be a halftone higher, and 3 frets to be a tone higher. Downward (from high to low): By using the last finger that was placed on the string, for the change (from B to G), we go 4 frets up (including the one on which we were ) to be a halftone lower, and 3 frets to be a tone lower.
     
  • To go from B to E:
    Upward (low to high): By using the last finger that was placed on the string, to go from B to E, we go down 5 frets (including the fret on which we were ) to be a halftone higher, and 4 frets to be a tone higher. Downward (from high to low): By using the last finger that was placed on the string, for the change (from E to B), we go 5 frets up (including the one on which we were ) to be a halftone lower, and 4 frets to be a tone lower.

Here are two diagrams to summarize this long stage of reading that has probably confused you:

 

Changes of strings: tones. e|-----------------------5--5-----------------------| B|------------------5--8------8--5------------------| G|-------------4--7----------------7--4-------------| D|--------5--7--------------------------7--5--------| A|---5--8------------------------------------8--5---| E|-8----------------------------------------------8-|
Changes of strings: halftones. e|-----------------------4--4-----------------------| B|------------------4--8------8--4------------------| G|-------------3--7----------------7--3-------------| D|--------4--7--------------------------7--4--------| A|---4--8------------------------------------8--4---| E|-8----------------------------------------------8-|

Improvising

The key note of a scale

Well, now I'll show you how to spot on your guitar’s neck, the key note of a scale, or, how to know where you start for your Impro '. (yes, it is easier when you start from the key note ...)

Everything we do is quite simple. We will tackle a small harmonic interval (two notes played simultaneously; you can also play melodic intervals, ie, separating these two notes). We have probably all done this as it is quite simple. However, this interval will vary depending on the string on which the first finger was placed. In fact, we will tackle the same note twice separated by an interval of an octave.Here is the fingering I am referring to: 

 

e|----------------4-| B|-----------4------| G|------3---------1-| D|-3---------1------| A|------1-----------| E|-1----------------|

Here, "1" is the index, "3" is the Ring, and "4" is the pinky. That’s where you now find the key note. In fact, you play exactly the same note, with an interval of an octave.

I hope you understand me ... But please tell me if you do not understand! ^^

Improvising: use your brain !

Yes, contrary to what one might think, improvising is not a total music less and senseless barbaric coincidence ... Almost everything needs some prior thinking, or even some anticipation. To improvise, the band must play in the same scale, in the same kind, on the same tempo.

This anticipation step is very important because it gives you the constraints for the improvisation:

  • Scale: If you do not play all in the same scale, there’ll be no coordination in the sounds and therefore, it will be very unpleasant to hear. By default, at the beginning of your improvisation, play the scale up and down. If your band fellows have a good ear, they will recognize the scale, and at least, you would have played! And the first and last fingers give the key note, it is not that bad to have that.
  • The kind: yes, we must define the kind of improvisation. If you, guitarist, play in a Hardcore kind, but the drummer is on the sweet pop ballads, and the bassist on a nice little blues, it will not be pleasant to listen at all. Better to define the kind in which the band should play.
  • The tempo: the drummer will finally have the opportunity to be the king of the stage, because it is thanks to him that you will be able to improvise. He will of course give the beat at the beginning of the improvisation, in order to give you the tempo, and he will normally keep it until the end. It is up to you to follow!
  • The background: if you have two guitarists in the band, you'll need a little rhythm pattern. Well, no matter how many guitar players you are, you must set a rhythm pattern. This rhythm pattern, you have to play it during the solo, when you are not in the impro. It is generally simple and repetitive!
  • The solo: and yes, you have to reckon, your solo will not be endless. You will need to define with your band how long it will last. Although it is not mandatory or very important, it helps a lot when you are two guitarists in the band, to know when the other guitarist will end his solo. By default, we define a number of measures limiting the soloist, a mandatory end note, for example a solo that always end on a whole note, or, in the rhythm pattern of the other soloist. Let me explain: the first soloist makes his solo, and then starts the rhythm pattern. The other soloist waits for one measure and starts his solo in his turn, for example.

It’s very useful to know these constraints in order to be able to make a beautiful improvisation, and it’s convenient when you play live!

Case study, go!

So now, you know the traditional position of the fingers in your scales, but it’s too restrictive. That's why I only give you the intervals. If you focus on just four frets of your guitar, you restrict yourself to play on these four frets properly. However, you will struggle to get a little higher ... It would therefore seem too academic. So you have to learn to think in intervals.

Instead of remembering I don't know how many positions on your guitar, you'll just have to remember five, seven intervals, which can be applied on all scales! The intervals of the major scale are the same for all major scales! By default, play your scale on one string, to assimilate the intervals. You will note of course that a fret is equivalent to half a tone.

If you tune your guitar by ear you will not have too much trouble to play on another string, because you know that the fret 5 of the E string is a A, the fret 5 of the A string is a D, that the fret 4 of the D string is a G, the fret 5 of the B string is a E. Basically, to go from E to A, you must simply go to the next string and shift your finger 5 frets towards the nut. Same for the switch from D to G, and in order to pass from E to G, you need to shift four frets in the same direction.

Train yourself to play your scales on different parts of the neck and you'll get used to it. My explanations, no matter how long they are, will never replace the practice. Enjoy your guitar playing!

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Music is the wine that fills the cup of silence
(Robert Fripp)