Thursday, 10 April 2014

37 Super Handy Tips At Your Disposal: The Ultimate Blues Guitar Improvisation Crash Course

Hey there ! How have you been ? :D

I've been really busy with super packed schedules for quite some time, and now I'm back with a pretty comprehensive blog post that I hope would inspire and help you guys in many ways *smiles*. 

For this blog post, I would be writing about all the cool lesson points I've gathered from another guitar lesson I attended, the focus topic of which is on Blues Improvisation.

Do you like to improvise over the blues ? That's a question that I'm really curious to know your answer to hahaha.

Before I start proper, I guess I should start off with this really cool but profound thing I learnt from my guitar lesson. My teacher first asked me "Why do you like your most favorite music ?"

My answers are:
1. The music feels good
2. The music makes me feel good
3. The music sounds good

It made me realize that whenever I record a song or compose a song, I can just ask myself these simple questions:
1. Does my music feel good ?
2. Does my music make listeners feel good ?
3. Does my music sound good ?

Number 2 strike a chord particularly with me because I really never thought of it that way. All along it has been a process of just playing whatever I want to play and recording whatever I want to record, as simple as that. But I realized I really have to consider whether my recordings actually do make listeners feel good when they listen to them.

Az actually asked me those questions because when learning new material I have an inclination to play at a tempo that is faster than needed which results in a less than perfect execution of the notes. When playing, just bear in mind you want whatever you are playing - be it just normal scales or arpeggios - to sound really pleasant to the ears. 

And I know that as guitarists, most of us have a tendency to speed up whatever dry material we are playing because it is relatively easier to speed up in a sloppy manner on guitar; and that speed is really something close to the hearts of many guitarists.

As usual, I have to lay out some background details for you first just so you know the context and relevance of the lesson content.

I have to admit Chord Changes really ain't much of my thing. For my upcoming Berklee audition, I swear I stuck to G Blues as my teacher gave me the G Blues framework on the very earliest lessons. And I have been practicing over that ONE arpeggio shape for quite some time now, and since for a blues progression in the key of G, it goes G7, C7 and D7 - all I did is to transpose that ONE arpeggio shape from the 3rd fret to the 8th fret and then to the 10th fret.

Could you predict what are some of the possible problematic areas when trying to master chord changes for blues in this context ?

Well because it involves position switching, for a while I was stuck in a rut and pretty much didn't know the best methods to transition from position to position especially when the fretboard gap is supposedly "far".

So the first question I asked my guitar teacher during the lesson was "What are the techniques/methods to connect phrases and lines especially when traveling bigger distances across the fretboard ?"

Here's the first method: Slides and Articulations

Yet another cool thing is that I realized a lot of limitations we guitarists encounter in our playing or otherwise are usually built on our own perceived restrictions.

I have always been a player who jumps from position to position or stays in a position, I never really practiced MOVING across the fretboard. So for me, when I have to jump a 5-fret gap to reach the 8th fret position from the 3rd fret position, I would perceive it as far. Hahaha.

So my teacher gave a couple of exercise when involves jumping from this end of the fretboard to the other end, then he asked me again "Do you think it's that far now ?" when referring to the same distance. My answer is "No", hahaha so I realized it's all just practice, knowing the right thing to practice and not being fooled by preconceived notions. 

Don't perceive something as "far" or "difficult" or anything of the sort until you try it :D

Az gave another pretty cool interval practice exercise, and here's the TAB I wrote for it:

This exercise is based on the minor pentatonic, and really I think it's one of the simplest scales for anyone to start with or to base a new exercise on.

So this interval exercise serves to break down any barriers a guitarist has towards string skipping. Because really, usually if a guitarist does string skipping, the norm would probably be a 4-strings distance at a maximum. How often do you see a guitarist play lines and jump from the 1st to 6th string or to the 5th string - UNLESS you are an acoustic guitarist of course and you play melody and chords at the same time. But that is different. 
For this exercise, it targets soloists. The idea is to include lines that jump that far in our solos.

And trust me, I heard it used in a solo, amongst other cool sequences and lines and I absolutely LOVE the sound of the lick. To me, when my teacher did a quick improvisation and added the vast string skipping thing at the 5 to 6 strings-length distance, the line that caught my attention and that came across as the most outstanding is really and actually the string skipping lick. 

So guitarists, time to add that into our practice repertoire. I will practice it along with you :D :D

Alright, going back to the TAB: 
There is a pedal bass note starting with first the "A" note in this case of A minor pentatonic. And then for the 2nd example, otherwise labeled as lick B, the pedal note changes to the next note of the scale, which is the "C" note, ie. 8th fret. And then for the 3rd and last example of the TAB, the pedal note becomes the "D" note. And so on, to the "E" note, to the "G" note etc.

Along with this, my teacher also said that as much as we shouldn't self-conceive limitations across the fretboard, we also shouldn't think there ought to be any restrictions when making up lines along the distance of the 6 strings. 

I love this concept because for many guitarists who have been wanting to break out of all the pre-existing habits that have been formed due to finger-muscle memory, it reminds us that there really ought to be no limits.

Okay, onto slides. So now, instead of just shifting hand positions fluently in a 5-fret distance, you have to slide across 5 frets. Wow, to me that's really a feat LOL. Of course the typical thing is sliding in a half step distance or one step distance. How often yet again do you see guitarists sliding up to 2 and a half step distance. 

So an example would be me holding the "G" note at 5th fret, in the G7 arpeggio 3rd position, sliding all the way up to the "C" note at 10th fret, thus settling into C7 arpeggio 8th position.

A very simple but super handy tip to make this sliding technique more manageable would be: LOOK at the note you want to slide to.

Really simple, but everyone needs such reminders - Because I didn't do that until my teacher told me to. Before that, my slide was really inaccurate, and I overshot and came short of the intended fret multiple times - and then after my focus was shifted onto the GOAL-fret, woohoo it became a whole lot easier and I hit the note pretty accurately. Remember, don't look at the EXISTING fretted note - look at the fret you are aiming. 

Wow, does that sound like an advice that totally applies to everyday life too ? Hahaha yup, it's best we focus on our dreams and goals rather than occupying our minds too much with current problems.

Onto another method my teacher showed me: sometimes we can just shift our first finger down the fretboard by playing some "in-between" notes that allow our hand to transition from a position to the other.

For example, we are at the 8th position, using our first finger ONLY, we can play the 2nd string 8th fret, then 6th fret then 3rd fret, thus moving our hand position all the way down the fretboard already.

Also as advised, it is great to play the 6th note of the arpeggio as my teacher said gives a more blue-y sound, which is the "E" note of G7, "A" note of C7 and "B" note of D7.

After so long, finally we are onto the SECOND method: Sequencing - This is probably the most common method used and the easiest. It simply refers to transposing the same lick pattern over the fretboard.

3rd method: Double Stops.

The first lick under the double stops section shows a D minor chord fragment. Without thinking, I asked my teacher "What has a D minor got to do with a G7 ?"

And he replies that yes, it is related to G7 and I instantly recalled all my theory knowledge. LOL how often do we blurt out questions sometimes without thinking, but often we actually DO know the answer hahaha !

Yes, the "D" note is the 5th note of G7; the "F" note is the b7th note of G7 and the "A" note is the tension 9th of G7. Hahaha so Az went on to explain that by playing fragments of the D-7 chord whilst on G7, it could facilitate some form of hand position switching, as it allows our 3rd finger to travel to the 7th fret and thus nearer to our C7 chord at the 8th fret. 

Really there are tons of inventive and cool ways to travel across the fretboard and oftentimes we really just need to sit down and think twice, and we would know the answer :D

The 2nd example under the double stops section just shows a simple double stop lick traveling down the G7 chord. And I personally love the sound created so I am going to add that into my guitar practice routine hehe !

A little reminder here on a really important tip to take note: No matter what type of transitions used, always make sure hand position changes don't give themselves away, ie. Don't attract attention to the position change itself because oftentimes when it is not fluent enough, people notice the break in the flow.

Thus, position changes have to sound as smooth and fluent as when NO position changes are done.

Alright, now I have to admit too that usually I shun any scales or arpeggio shapes that involves playing the open string - because technically speaking, you can't transpose the entire shape across the fretboard.

But now, what my guitar teacher advised me is that open string position or not, it's good to practice. Moreover, we can definitely find some good lick/shape fragments that can be applied elsewhere too. So this again goes back to the basic idea that EVERYTHING can be an inspiration and a take-off point for more greatness.

Now here's another cool thing: you can control whether you want a more clean or more "messy" playing. When you play the guitar with your fingers too near to the fret wire, you get a more muted sound rather than a fuller sound. I feel that this is such a great concept because this is really zooming into all the finer details of guitar playing. 

Thus sometimes when you want to switch up your playing to be that much more edgy and attitude-laden, be sure to start playing nearer to the fret wires and remember to record yourself, you will hear how different it makes you sound :D :D

Now onto the biggest topic (in my opinion) covered in the 1-hour lesson: Surround notes.

It's great to have a lesson that clears up all my questions and doubts on the topic. Without further ado, here we go ! This is a big topic and be prepared to spend a lot more time practicing this hahaha.

Let's look at the exercises for surround notes:

This TAB is based on the G7 arpeggio.
The first example, Chromatic From Below simply refers to playing a chromatic note right below the chord tone (or target note) and then hitting the target note.

Alright, you have 3 choices on how you want to approach the target note here:
1. Pick both the notes
2. Slide to the chord tone
3. Hammer-on to the chord tone

My teacher demonstrated all 3 to me and here's my take on them:
1. Pick - Sounds pretty ordinary/normal, nothing that special due to no articulation present
2. Slide - The hardest to master out of all 3 techniques
3. Hammer on - Articulation gives it dynamics differences and thus more expressive-sounding

My personal favorite would be using the Hammer-On, and thus I would choose to incorporate it in my surround notes practice routines. 

Once you think you have mastered that ONE technique on the ENTIRE surround note topic and can pretty much play without needing to think about it, you can go ahead and add a different articulation technique to your practice. And there you are, you have to start all over again in all your exercises just applying a DIFFERENT way of playing the notes. Woohoo ~~~ 

Now onto the "Scale From Above" line from the TAB. Since it's G7, it's scale would be the G Mixolydian Scale. Scale From Above means that we would play the note from the Mixo scale that is directly above the chord tone of the G7 arpeggio then play the note from the original chord. This adds spice to the sound since we would be playing tensions.

In this case, the 3 technique choices would be instead:
1. Pick
2. Slide
3. Pull-Off

For this, I would actually settle for merely picking the notes hahaha because my pull-offs ain't that strong, plus sliding across a whole step is still pretty challenging for me to maintain perfect accuracy and tone especially when at faster tempos.

The 3rd line from the TAB: Chromatic From Below, Scale From Above simply refers to playing a chromatic note directly below the target note and playing the scale note from above then landing back on the target note. So it's adding an extra note before we resolve to the end goal.

The Scale From Above, Chromatic From Below is similar, only difference is the order of the notes. For these licks, you can actually mix and match the Picking, Sliding and Hammer-on/Pull-off to give variety. 

For all 4 types of exercises shown above, you can actually treat the G7 as a G triad when you first practice it so that it is more manageable. Eventually after you get more comfortable, go ahead and add that "F" note into the equation haha !

I asked my teacher regarding a Chromatic From Above variation that I've seen some people play as well, and this is how he explains it: Usually books will introduce Scale From Above simply because it sounds more melodious. 

And I noted as well that Chromatic From Above actually gives an altered sound, that my teacher points out that only certain specific notes give rise to that altered sound, not all chromatic notes from above.

Also, a really important note on the Surround Note TAB above is that you would have noticed that despite requiring hand position shifting, it is encouraged (according to my teacher) to have the Scale From Above note on the SAME string as the target note, because a tendency would be to play the note within the position and thus on a different string - AND !! I've actually done that pretty often until ... this lesson hahaha !

Another cool trivia on this Surround Note topic: 
Az was saying that this Chromatic From Below, Scale From Above or its counterpart actually already uses up 10 notes from all the available 12 notes !! For the case of G7, all notes are used except the "Ab" and the "Eb" notes. 

For "Chromatic From Below & Above" combined with "Scale From Above", it would mean ALL available notes from the chromatic scale would be used for soloing !

Note that there are a lot more even more complex options under the Surround Note topic that are not yet given in the examples in the TAB above, that includes 
1. "Embellish Whole Step From Above"
2. "Chromatic From Below, Embellish Whole Step From Above"
3. "Embellish Whole Step From Above, Chromatic From Below"

These when used really gives a really bebop sound.

Other handy tips from the lesson: When soloing (as long as it's applicable and done tastefully), you can combine different positions throughout the fretboard for soloing, for example to solo over the G7 chord, you can use the G7 arpeggio shape at 3rd fret combined with the shape at 10th fret - Don't be restricted simply because of the perceived distance. 

You will be surprised as to how much more spice it adds to your lines during your solo by soloing a single phrase over at least 4 octaves.

Other fun learnings from the lesson: --
My teacher is really into gypsy jazz in this period of time, so he demonstrates and explains gypsy jazz techniques for quite a bit and I found them really interesting. 

Here's one: 
They pick using rest strokes, whereby you don't alternate pick, but instead whenever you play a different guitar string, you have to play a downstroke all over again. You never consistently go "down, up, down, up, down" and so on. This technique really does need some getting use to.

The rest strokes give a much heavier sound that thus makes it sound more authentic if ever anyone wants to play gypsy jazz guitar.

Pretty much one of the final points for this blog post: You can and should practice playing wrong notes and hear how it sounds like against the prevailing chord. 
How relevant is this in today's lesson context, you may ask.

It is totally relevant as my teacher demonstrated that for example "Chromatic From Below", we are playing a note that is not in the scale before we resolve it to the target note. It will definitely sound wrong to us if we are not used to it and we may even wonder whether we can start the lick on downbeats.

But my teacher has shown that really, it doesn't matter whether you start the licks on the downbeat or upbeat - as contrary to what I was taught when I was back in school !! Last time I was taught not to play the "wrong note" on the downbeat so I must always start the lick on the upbeat. But I'm glad this lesson cleared many doubts LOL.

Upbeat or downbeat, when done tastefully, both sounds great !

To end this blog post, I will end with a cliche but one that is well worth repeating to ourselves in our music learning journey, that "Music is a language" - No matter how hard or tough, we have to master the nitty gritty details the same way we would learn grammar and vocabulary if we were learning a new language - there are no shortcuts.

All the best for your guitar practice and all your endeavors in life !!

Catch you again :D

Take care and love ya,
Sapphire Ng <3 <3 <3

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