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The Secrets of Blues Guitar Improvisation

May 9, 2008
The only way to be able to invent as you go is to really know the layout of your fretboard and to be able to access the music anywhere on the neck at any time. There are a few ways to do this, but some are more effective than others, in my opinion.

Learning where all the notes are

It is, of course, imperative that you are able to name any note on the fretboard, to be able to say That's an A or that's a C#. To simply plough away by feel or intuition is a beautiful thing, but if you're serious about playing music, you've got to know what you're doing. Music is a system with rules and regulations, and you must be able to follow them to really make music. However, having said that, knowing where all your notes are at all times is not going to help all that much because music is context. Knowing where all your notes are reveals no context, so don't spend too much time on that task. There's a better way of learning where all your notes are than just memorizing their positions and I'll describe it down the page.

Knowing your scales

Ugh! Scales. How I hated the idea of learning my scales when I was a beginner. Do, Re, Mi... too much like school. Way too boring. I shunned the idea for years, and I'm happy to say that I did finally learn my scales, but from the inside out: from my knowledge of chords. I love chords -- they ARE music, they ARE the context I mentioned before. Scales do nothing for me. I see chords as crystallized scales and now, when I look down at my fretboard, I see my chords first, then, weaving their way through and around the chord, I see the scale. I see it as major or minor, or augmented or diminished or as the appropriate mode. To me, when I'm playing, there's only one scale, the one that belongs to the chord of that moment. If the chord is major, then it's a major scale; if the chord is dom7, then I see it as a Mixolydian mode; if the chord is minor, then I see the scale as minor; if it's augmented, I see that raised fifth there, ready to be incorporated into the music. Not only that, I see the chord/scale everywhere on the fretboard, and I can dip in and out of it at any time, either melodically or chordally or harmonically.

Knowing your chords

This is where to start. If you concentrate your efforts on knowing your chords, all the above will fall into place automatically. The task of knowing your chords, and I mean REALLY knowing your chords, is made easier on the guitar by the fact that you can move shapes up and down and retain their quality. It's much easier than it sounds. I've spent my whole playing life, 43 years now, reducing the amount of information I have to process down to the least possible. That's my thing. I don't want to clutter my thinking with anything that can be incorporated into something else. In a very real way, I see chords as just one "cosmic" chord. It's a major triad: I, III and V. One, Three and Five; if it's minor, the III is one fret flat; if it's sus4, the III is replaced by a IV; if it's augmented, the V is raised by one fret; if it's major 7th, then there's an extra note added: the VII. Etcetera, etc. The trick is "seeing" the pure "cosmic" chord there the whole length of the fretboard so that the modifications can be done to it. Most people see chords as clusters of notes like you see in those little diagrams. I see my whole fretboard as the chord. We all know that there are several positions for the same chord. What I'm seeing is all of them together, all joined up continuous.

The trouble with explaining the workings of music is that by calling different aspects by different names -- notes, scales, chords, double-stops, harmony, melody -- the beginner rightfully thinks they're all separate elements that need to be learned independently. In fact, they're all the same thing. When I hear the words "G seventh", my mind's eye conjures up a fretboard... a G7th fretboard. I'm seeing the I, III, V and flatVII in G. Now my fretboard is ready for action. I can play chords, triads, double stops, melody -- whatever I choose -- and it will all be G7th. If the words were "G minor 7th" then the fretboard adjusts itself to Gm7th. Again, I'm ready for anything. I can see all possibilities.

The chord says it all.

I once had a bit of a debate with a fellow twanger on one of the forums out there. I was advocating that the chord says it all, he was saying that scales/modes were the answer. I asked him to analyse one of my instrumentals and tell me what scale/mode I was using. He wrote back saying something like "as soon as I heard the D9th chord, I knew you'd be using the Mixolydian mode..." My point exactly: the chord said it all. The D9th chord obliged me to play certain notes, in this case a mode. To me, I was just playing against a D9th chord, using the notes relevant to that chord. I have never once thought of "modes" in all my years of playing. All I do is know which key I'm in and follow the chord of the moment, and the mode simply is. No need to think about it, let alone ascribe to it some Greek name.

Once you REALLY know your chords, you'll be able to name every note on the fretboard really quickly AND you'll be able to name the III and V of that chord too. If, for example, I'm asked to name all Bb's on my fretboard, I "see" my Bb fretboard and pick out all the tonics. I can also instantly name and locate all the D's and F's, because they're part of the Bb chord too. Context. Music is context, and the more you can learn about the context, the quicker you'll be inventing and creating as you go... improvising.
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