Subvert muscle memory and discover fresh ideas.
This month’s exercises can help you expand your melodic ideas using octave leaps—and that’s not their only benefit. They stretch your fretting fingers in new ways. They give you greater confidence navigating the fretboard while improving the speed and accuracy of your position shifts. And perhaps most important, these exercises subvert stale muscle-memory playing.
Might as Well Jump
Now, we’re not talking about playing melodies in parallel octaves in the style of Wes Montgomery, though that’s a beautiful technique worth studying. Instead, we’ll work on leaping between octaves over the course of a melody.
Does that sound contrived? It shouldn’t. That’s usually what happens anytime male and female singers trade lines in a song, be it an operatic aria or an R&B ballad. When we hear those duets, we don’t think, “Why is the tune leaping between octaves like a grasshopper on meth?” We hear a continuous melodic line, regardless of octave. Meanwhile, those range changes add interest and drama. You can play registers (that is, portion of the guitar’s overall note range) against each other, creating “dialogs” within your melodies.
The Dying Cowboy
For practice purposes, let’s use the old cowboy ballad “The Streets of Laredo.” It’s got a simple but unforgettable melody, plus it’s public domain, so we don’t need anyone’s permission to mess with it.
The first step is easy: Learn the simple melody in three different octaves. We’ll be working in the key of C, and Ex. 1 shows one possible fingering in the lowest available octave. Of course, you could play this using open strings. But for now, play it in 2nd position. (That is, with your first finger parked near the 2nd fret. Play 3rd-fret, 4th-fret, and 5th-fret notes using your second, third, and fourth fingers, respectively.)
Once you’ve got the tune under your fingers, the octave-up Ex. 2 should be a snap. If you play in 9th position (that is, with your fretting fingers stationed between the 9th and 12th frets) the fingering is identical to Ex. 1.
The fingering is nearly identical in the highest octave (Ex. 3) except for the lowest note, due to the narrower interval between the 2nd and 3rd string.
Okay, that’s the basic material. Now comes the fun part: leapfrogging between octaves.
Think of a Vocal Trio
Our melody consists of four phrases, each two measures long. Let’s try switching octaves between phrases, using the same fingering as in the first three exercises. It may help to visualize Ex. 4 as three singers with varied vocal ranges exchanging lines in a song. Go with the same fingerings you used in the first three examples. Forget about speed—play slowly enough to make confident leaps, and make the melody sing.
The same advice about fingering and phrasing applies to Ex. 5. But this time, we switch registers every two measures instead of every four.
By now you’ve probably guessed where this is going. We change octaves every measure in Ex. 6. Even though the technical challenge has increased, strive for the same smooth, voice-like effect you aimed for in the previous exercises.
Now forget about cowboys and Laredo, and try some freestyle playing. Can you integrate similar octave shifts? You might not jump around so restlessly, but can you insert a few sudden leaps to add surprise and heighten drama?
You can refine this skill by retracing the above steps. Pick a melody, any melody. Learn to finger it in multiple octaves. Then try integrating octave leaps with increasing frequency.
Extra Credit for 6-String Masochists
What happens if you try changing octaves with every single note? Interesting things! The jagged melody in Ex. 7, full of awkward sevenths and ninths, almost feels like a modernist classical piece, maybe something out of a Bartók string quartet. Still, if you connect the notes smoothly, the simple melody shines through. It makes me think of a familiar object viewed under a disorienting strobe light. (At this point I stopped trying to replicate the fingerings from the early examples. I went with whatever positions yielded the smoothest melodic leaps. Other fingerings might be a better fit for your hands.)
You probably won’t find much use for the Ex. 7 techniques in an REO Speedwagon cover band. But I found it to be a fun and beneficial exercise. (Yeah, I definitely had to practice a bit before recording it.) It gave me fresh melodic ideas and stretched my fingers in unfamiliar ways. And that’s almost always a good thing.