Premier Guitar features affiliate links to help support our content. We may earn a commission on any affiliated purchases.

The Sky's the Limit

A rut-busting exercise using restrictions to move into new territory

What begins as an inspired, creative groove can sometimes become a rut over time. Once our ears hear something new, we train our fingers to go there, and it’s an exciting time musically. We learn new ideas for improvising and create new compositional ideas that way. At some point, however, it’s bound to happen: Our ears aren’t feeding us any new ideas, and our fingers are playing the same melodic lines that they learned back when we practiced with cassette tapes.

Think It Through

I wrote the song “Once Around the Sun” as an exercise that came from a concept I was turned onto by jazz guitarist Emily Remler. The idea was to create lines that only use the intervals of fourths and seconds as a way to force myself into new territory and away from familiar licks. You can change the exercise to use any one or two intervals as a restriction. The idea is to think it through intellectually, rather than simply letting your ears or fingers guide you as they habitually would. As a result, your ears and fingers both learn something new, sending you on a creative path full of fresh melodies and ideas.

Fig. 1 is an excerpt from “Once Around the Sun.” As you can see, once I put the ideas from the practice into a song, I allowed myself some latitude with the restrictions of the intervals. The idea is to have a fresh place to start that will lead to a new musical story. Start by playing in the seventh position. Shift to the sixth position on beat 3 of the first measure, and with your first finger, stretch back for the D on the “and” of beat 2 in measure two. Shift back to the seventh position on the “and” of beat 2 in the third measure, which is in 3/4 time. The meter change was not planned, by the way. This is an example of letting the melody present itself, as it seemed to want to be played. It was only after I learned to play it and listen to it that I figured out the quirky time scheme.

The line shown in Fig. 2 comes from the song’s coda. You can see that the ties from the first section of the song are gone. The result is the phrases now seem to run together, rather than having the clear separation they had in the first line, which was made even more clear by the accents on the lowest note of each phrase. You’ll notice the accents are still on the lowest note of each phrase, but they fall in unexpected places.

Making Friends with Seconds and Fourths
If you analyze the intervals, you’ll find fourths played forward and backward, making fifths descending, such as A to D and back down to A. The occasional third seemed to set up a new section of fourths, so I let it be a way into a new melodic section in spots.

As for the intervals of a second, you’ll see a minor second descending in measure 1 (E to Eb) and a major second ascending in measure 2 (A to B). Measure 5 has a descending major second (F# to E) as a characteristic sound.

Learning the fingering to this melodic example could show you new patterns that involve fourths and seconds—along with thirds and fifths—that could work their way into your improvised lines. Keep your ears alert for the sound of these angular lines and listen to your own new ideas develop.

Jane Miller
Guitarist, composer, and arranger Jane Miller is has roots in both jazz and folk. In addition to leading her own jazz instrumental quartet, she is in a working chamber jazz trio with saxophonist Cercie Miller and bassist David Clark. The Jane Miller Group has released three CDs on Jane’s label, Pink Bubble Records. Jane joined the Guitar Department faculty at Berklee College of Music in 1994. You can reach her at