• Learn how to tackle the I and IV chords in a blues progression.
• Develop an understanding of modal relationships.
• Create more “compositional” lines using motifs.
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. Simple, right?
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 half-step.
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 IV chord.
In Fig. 1, you can see our major motif, and in Fig. 2 we lower the 3 to create the minor idea.
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 theory buff.
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, visit coreychristiansen.com. Photo by Jimmy Katz