Even if you don’t know much music theory, the sound of target notes has already been etched into your psyche. Listen to Ex. 7 to hear a simple D–A–E progression and discover how easy it is to build a line by focusing on a few essential chord tones.
Simple, right? I’m hitting a D over the D chord, C# over the A, and G# over the E. We will treat these notes as somewhat of a starting point to create longer, more interesting lines. First, just try to play simple, melodic lines that hit our target notes on the downbeat. Soon you’ll find a mix of scales and arpeggios that will make you sound like you. For me, it comes out something like Ex. 8. I’ve also included some backing tracks below to practice bridging target notes in your improvisations.
After practicing this idea for a while, you may find you’re able to weave the concept of bridging target notes into your soloing. It may seem calculated at first, but soon it will feel like you’re throwing a ball at something, rather than simply throwing a ball. Let’s expand on this idea with the next set of examples.
In Ex. 9, we have a Dm7–Bb7–Dm7–G9 progression. The harmony here is a little more expansive, but the concept still holds true. My target notes are A, Ab, A, and B, respectively.
The chords in this example are a tad jazzier than previous ones. For those of you that hate jazz, I apologize. Sort of. For the rest of you folks, let’s try to unpack the method behind this madness. For Dm7, I’m using the D Aeolian mode (D–E–F–G–A–Bb–C), and then going to a Bb Lydian b7 scale (Bb–C–D–E–F–G–Ab) for Bb7. Notice how these two scales differ by only one note—the A drops to Ab. Why is that important to know? Because it busts the myth that for every chord you must learn an entirely new scale. Also, you can use D Dorian (D–E–F–G–A–B–C) over the Dm7 and G Mixolydian (G–A–B–C–D–E–F) over the G7. And what do you know? Both scales contain exactly the same notes; the only thing that makes them different is their starting point.
Tip: When improvising, I find it easier to concentrate on the notes that need to change when the chords change (Ex. 10), rather than wiping the slate clean and mentally assigning a fresh scale to every chord. It’s a subtle conceptual difference, but once you start looking at progressions this way, it can transform your playing.
Our final set of examples tackle a simpler route through a common progression. In Ex. 11, you can hear a D–A–Bm–G progression with a target-note line that goes F#, E, D, and B—the 3, 5, 5, and 3 of our four-chord progression.
In Ex. 12, I went for simple. I started with the four target pitches and just “walked” from one to the next. Though it’s the simplest of solutions, I’m always surprised by how good it sounds. Never overlook a melodic move just because it’s easy to execute.
There’s no magic formula or method for selecting target notes. It’s simply about choosing a few notes that sound good with a given chord. Once you’ve explored these examples, come up with your own target notes and work out some licks that “walk” from one target note to the next. To do this effectively, you’ll need to experiment, and this requires time and patience. Pay attention to what you like and discard what you don’t, but keep at it.
Learn all the licks in this lesson as written. Then focus on understanding how they work. Finally, invent your own variations of these licks using the same principles. You may be surprised how different yours will sound—and that’s a good thing.
Here are few other ideas to investigate:
- Imagine that when you’re playing guitar, you’re speaking. Think about the story you’re trying to tell, and what it would sound like if someone was telling the story in a way that’s engaging and exciting. Mimic the pacing of that with the phrases you play. Even if you’re the only one who knows the story that’s being told, your audience will understand that you’re “speaking” rather than just showing off.
- Put your hand in an unfamiliar place on the fretboard, and force yourself to find things that sound good. It’s useful to learn to operate outside your comfort zone. Remember, progress is never comfortable.
- Take any lick you’ve played a million times, and play it using a completely different rhythm. If you always start on beat 1, try starting it on the “and” of 1 instead, and pay attention to how the notes get accented differently.
- Play the same lick four times, but end on a different note each time.
- Imagine yourself as someone else, and play accordingly.
True improvisation takes on a life of its own. Usually when I’m improvising, it feels like I’m not thinking at all, that the music is just coming out of me with no effort on my part. Typically, I’m thinking about the story I want the song to tell and how the solo might contribute to the emotional arc of the music. I’m not consciously thinking about notes, scales, picking, or amp settings. Those things happen in practice at home so I don’t have to think about them when improvising. I work a lot on a concept I call ear/hand coordination, where ideally what I hear in my head emerges from my fingers without any obstacles or hesitation.
When truly improvising, there’s always the risk that what I play won’t sound good. But I think it’s important to be willing to risk playing wrong notes because I might stumble onto something unexpected and cool. Yet as I do that, I have to be sure I’m listening to what’s actually coming out, not what I think is coming out. It’s important not to judge what I play, other than whether or not I like it. I can’t control the thoughts or opinions of others, so I don’t bother trying.
When writing this lesson, at first I was hesitant to notate licks because the surface message might seem to be “learn these licks and you’ll be improvising.” But then I remembered I’m writing a piece that digs into the deeper levels of being a guitarist and that musicians are smart enough to recognize the difference. The licks are here to demonstrate an example of each concept. Of course, the next step is to use these ideas to create something of your own.
But then, you already knew that.