One thing I always notice when I work
with guitarists all over the world is a
lack of attention to melodic phrasing. Lots
of cats have chops. Lots of cats have impressive
lines and vocabulary. However, the true
pros can be identified by how well their
ideas sit in the groove and the quality of
their melodic statements.
This lesson is an extension of one I wrote
for November 2011 issue [“Phrasing—ALost Art”] and will help you continue to
play ideas over blues progressions that are
more engaging than just licks and scales.
We’re going to take a look at some techniques
and ideas for compositional playing.
Just the mention of “compositional”
playing will make many blues guitarists
skeptical—the early pioneers would have
never used the c-word. The fact is, they did
play compositionally, but in a natural way.
Since many of us don’t play this way naturally,
we’re going to use the word as a means
to an end.
The smallest component of a composition
is a motif. That’s the hook—the idea or
the little melody that sticks with you when
you hear something you like. Once you have
an established motif, it needs to be developed
through compositional techniques.
There are many techniques to use:
repetition, alter the rhythm (for example,
lengthen or shorten the rhythmic pattern,
change its time values, and so on), play it
backwards (retrograde), elaboration, fragmentation,
intervallic alteration, invert the
idea, sequence the idea through the scale,
and change the tonality. This is a lot to
think about at once, so we’re just going
to deal with an easy trick by changing the
tonality for now.
Here’s the short end of things: On a
blues where the first four bars are on the I
chord (C7, for example) you play an idea
with a major tonality. When the chord
changes to the IV chord (F7) you play
the same idea, but lower the 3 to give the
phrase a minor tonality, courtesy of the b3.
Getting more theoretical, if we are in
the key of C, you can play an idea against
the I chord using the C Mixolydian mode
(C–D–E–F–G–A–Bb–C). When the chord
changes to F7, we’ll transpose the same
scale to the key of F (F–G–A–Bb–C–D–Eb).
Notice that the only difference between
these two scales is the Eb, which happens
to be b3 in relationship to the key of C.
So, any dominant idea played against the
I chord can work against the IV chord
perfectly—as long as the 3 is lowered a
Theory Disclaimer: We’re going to get
deep for a second, so if modes make your
eyes gloss over, skip this paragraph. When
the 3 is lowered in the Mixolydian mode
it creates the parallel Dorian mode: C
Mixolydian becomes C Dorian (C–D–Eb–
F–G–A–Bb). C Dorian has the same exact
notes as F Mixolydian, because they are
both modes of Bb major.
I must mention, however, that it’s a
good idea to keep the idea major against
the I chord and minor against the IV chord
for now. This means that in measures seven
and eight (when you return again to the I),
the idea must be changed back to major—
even if it means only manipulating the
original idea to minor for the portion of
the phrase that rhythmically falls over the
In Fig. 1, you can see our major motif,
and in Fig. 2 we lower the 3 to create the
We then apply this technique to an
entire chorus in Fig. 3. For now, don’t
worry about making the idea fit perfectly
for the last four bars. Just finish the chorus
with something simple from the blues scale
that accommodates all the chords well.
Here’s another tip: Many times blues
progressions will feature a “quick change,”
meaning the second measure will go to the
IV chord, as you can see in Fig. 4.
Hope this has helped you out and that
your melodic blues playing goes to another
level by employing these techniques.
One parting suggestion: You can also
use this technique without being so
“academic” by simply playing the pentatonic
blues scale with a major 3 over the
I chord instead of a b3, as you typically
would. In the key of C, that’s E instead
of Eb. For those who aren’t playing modes
yet, this is a great way of getting the
sound of the changes without being a
Good luck and practice smart.
Corey Christiansen, a former senior editor
and guitar clinician for Mel Bay
Publications, is known for his fluid jazz
improvisation and instructional chops. He
teaches full-time at Utah State University
and is an Artist-in-Residence at the
Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington,
Indiana, the Atlanta Institute of Music, and
the Broadway Music School. To learn more
about his CDs and DVD, and see his current
workshop and performance schedule,
. Photo by Jimmy Katz