• Create flowing lines that
include intervallic ideas.
• Incorporate different rhythmic
devices into your improvisations.
• Outline chord changes clearly
with a series of eighth-notes.
I’ll never forget first hearing Pat Metheny’s
solo break on “Third Wind.” After about
a minute and a half of developing an actively
growing harmonic progression with incredible
rhythmic intensity, the whole band
comes to a complete stop and Pat plays an
eight-measure break filled with big intervallic
leaps, slurs, dynamic changes, and colorful
harmonic implications—all in the blink
of an eye. Before you know it, the band is
back in and his solo is officially under way.
Pat’s ability to take an eight-measure phrase
of 16th-notes and bend them like a rope
around a curving path blew my mind.
And the deeper I got into the master
improvisers—like John Coltrane, Bill Evans,
Sonny Rollins, and John McLaughlin—the
more I heard this approach being repeated,
each time with unique and stunning variations.
So today I want to explore ways to
approach improvising long, fluid, rhythmically
A great way to begin this process of
discovery is to start within a given scale or
tonal center. For this exercise, we’ll use the
key of A major. Often when we practice
scales, we’ll start from the lowest note and
move in sequence up to the top and then
back down. The drawback to this approach
is that we unconsciously condition ourselves
to improvise in the same way. This is why
your soloing can start to sound like you are
running a series of scales rather than creating
musical phrases with a clear narrative.
To counteract this tendency, let’s
try a different approach. First, set the
metronome to a comfortable tempo for
eighth-notes—perhaps a quarter-note at
about 66 bpm. Next, designate a time
frame (five minutes, for example), and
then begin improvising within the A major
scale, but using random sequences of notes.
In addition to the tempo and tonal
parameters that are in place, include in your
awareness the physical parameters of the guitar.
By making all seven notes of the A major
scale fair game, you begin to break down preconceived
ideas of positions. You can see an
example of this in Fig. 1. Although I think
positions can be of great benefit to a guitarist,
I have found tremendous freedom in viewing
all As or C#s or F#s as equal. The fingerings
presented in these examples are merely a suggestion.
I encourage you to explore and find
and explore your own fingerings while not
becoming locked into one shape. Your hand
should be free to move to anyone of them in
the spirit of honoring the musical statement
you’re making at any given moment.
Once you begin to feel an increased
sense of agility and free movement in both
hands, shift your focus to playing lines that
move entirely in a given direction. One of
the attributes that all my favorite improvisers
seem to share is the ability to play long
fluid lines that move entirely up or down
the neck. It seems they are unobstructed by
any physical barriers set by the instrument,
or at least they’re able to deal with them in
a way that is not obvious to the listener.
So let’s practice alternating two measures
of a line in A major that goes entirely
up—meaning every pitch is at least one step
higher than the last—followed by a twomeasure
line that moves entirely downward
(Fig. 2). This exercise is especially tricky
on the guitar, because so often we’ll reach
the high string and still have another measure’s
worth of notes to play. In this case,
the biggest challenge is pacing your line so
you move as much horizontally on a given
string as you do vertically. This strategy
helps you avoid getting stuck on the 1st
string in the home stretch.
So far, we’ve kept the rhythmic parameters
constant by playing only eighth-notes. Now,
it is time to add the eighth-note triplet to
the mix. One of the ironies of playing long,
impressive-sounding lines is that even if the
content is interesting, if the rhythmic delivery
is constant (da-da-da-da-da-da) it can be easy
for the listener to tune out. So rhythmic variety
is essential. Let’s continue alternating lines
that go up with lines that go down, but this
time we’ll add at least one eighth-note triplet
per line. In Fig. 3, you can see an example of
an improvisation using this idea.
In addition to keeping your line sounding
active and dynamic, this can prove to be
a wonderful study for your picking hand.
When I first started incorporating triplets
into my lines, it got me to start combining
alternate picking and sweep picking,
to accommodate the shift back and forth
between eighth-notes and triplets. As this
becomes more comfortable, try creating your
own rhythmic patterns. For instance, try
accenting every fifth eighth-note or playing
four triplets in a row. As you do this, keep
moving up the neck and try to incorporate
slower subdivisions. Soon, you’ll be able to
switch between slower and faster subdivisions
with tremendous ease—all while maintaining
the melodic integrity of your line.
Finally, let’s apply these lines to a chord
progression. When improvising lines over a
series of chords that change every measure
or two, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed
by the harmonic variety and result in
your lines sounding choppy. In Fig. 4. we
will use the following chord progression:
Here’s the most important thing to
remember when encountering a harmonic
progression like this: The integrity of your
line shines above all. If the line has a clear
direction, rhythmic variation, and great
execution, it will be a knockout.
Let’s try it. With a recording of this chord
progression in place, practice playing a line of
constant eighth-notes (occasional triplets are
allowed) that ascends for the first two chords,
followed by a line that descends for the next
two chords. Finally, play a line that moves
in any or all directions for the last chord. Of
course, in performance you might not want to
always solo in this style, but it can be a great
way to get your hands moving in a new and
free way. This approach can make a useful
starting point for practicing new scales, new
chords, or new harmonic progressions.
is one of those rare musicians who
feels equally at home in acoustic and jazz circles.
He has been a member of legendary vibraphonist
Gary Burton’s group since 2004, and
also regularly collaborates with pianist Taylor
Eigsti. Lage’s latest album, Gladwell, reflects
his wide-ranging musical interests and talents
by incorporating chamber music, American folk
and bluegrass, Latin and world music, traditional
string-band sounds, and modern jazz. For
more information, visit julianlage.com