jazz guitar hardball

The evolution of the concept of melodic soloing

You will sometimes hear one player say of another, “Her solos are really melodic.” We intuitively value improvising in a melodic fashion. I want to talk in the next two columns about how this concept is evolving in jazz education.

If you have ever asked yourself any of the following questions, you may find this topic very interesting: What should I play in my solo? How do I keep coming up with new ideas? How long can I stay with one idea? How do I develop it? When is it time to move to a completely new idea? What makes a solo compelling for a listener? How do I make my solo interesting through the whole thing?

Keep these questions in mind, and let’s begin by looking at a little history of jazz education, and then we’ll look at how the focus is shifting with a larger spotlight on melodic improvisation.

Formal college-level jazz education has been around a relatively short time, with interest beginning to take shape in the late seventies. This interest was often slow in growing, as many academic programs showed resistance to both jazz and guitar as serious artistic pursuits. Conservative academics tended to look on jazz, and especially jazz guitar, as less desirable stepchildren that did not deserve to be even close to the esteemed place of classical music. That old order is rapidly changing, and jazz and other degree programs in guitar are finding acceptance as legitimate courses of study in the arts. The teaching methods and emphases within these programs are rapidly evolving as well. The early days of jazz education taught a rather pedantic approach to playing the music: “Outline the changes.” “Play this scale over that chord.” “Use this technique to play outside.” “Practice scales.” This intellectual approach to a form of music that was meant to be emotionally evocative is thankfully starting to run out of gas.

In the recent past, books with scale studies and rote patterns have been almost infinite in number. This represents the prior focus on the analytical approach to the music, which tends to be mechanical in playing the right notes against whatever chord. In contrast to that approach, I found a recently written book that I think represents a new trend and a new focus in jazz improvisation, and gives new direction to teachers. The focus is on melodic improvisation and the actual ways one can develop this ability, as well as on improvising meaningful melodies—as opposed to simply outlining the harmony with scales and arpeggios.

Brian Kane’s text, Constructing Melodic Jazz Improvisation, is a breakthrough in this area, getting young players focused on melodic intent rather than playing scales and licks. Kane discusses all the aspects of improvisation that can help move a player’s solos to a new level of meaning: how to develop a solo from start to finish; to be intentional about phrase length; to have melodic intent in a solo; use of techniques that can develop an idea; expanding one’s melodic memory so that previous ideas can be replayed; use of repetition and development of motifs; effective use of rest space; use of inflections to help develop a personal style; and many more innovative, intuition-building ideas. Emphasizing these techniques results in a totally different feeling in the solo—one that focuses on a communicative style. After all, isn’t that our goal, to communicate something meaningful in the music that can move people through listening?

Kane focuses on the 12-bar blues form to practice these techniques (with a CD play-a-long). And while the text is aimed primarily at players who are early in their career, I found the ideas so coherent and meaningful that I believe even experienced players who want to refocus on the craft of creating melodies—would also find this to be a highly valuable resource. Kane’s approach can help players from many skill levels craft more meaningful solos.

When you want to change something about your life (in this case, learning to play more meaningful melodic solos), put your energy in that direction. While you’re waiting for Kane’s book to arrive, conduct a web search for discussions as to what other players are doing to advance this skill. Use search words like melodic development, melodic improvisation, etc. Listen with intent to classic jazz recordings with regard to development of melodies—specifically, where the masters repeat ideas, develop them, make sequences out of them, invert them, and when they move on to a new idea. You can chart an entire solo to study the ways it developed—pay attention to how the contour of the solo unfolds and creates greater excitement by the end. Talk to other players you know about how they advance this skill. Focus more on memorizing melodies rather than playing scales (some advanced players believe scales should not be practiced at all). Above all, maintain persistence in advancing your melodic craft—it will pay off.

Exciting stuff! Come back next time for more in-depth work on melodic improvising and a review of a second text that tackles this topic.

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They’re crazy! They’re exotic! They’re out of control, and they’re showing off for the camera! It’s Pentatonics Gone Wild! Gone are the days when pentatonic scales had to stay

Jazz Guitar Hardball
They’re crazy! They’re exotic! They’re out of control, and they’re showing off for the camera! It’s Pentatonics Gone Wild! Gone are the days when pentatonic scales had to stay in their home key – now, they’re being used everywhere to create dissonant, exotic and colorful sounds. When you start out on the guitar, the first thing you usually learn is the minor pentatonic scale or the blues scale, which is the same thing but with the flatted 5th “blue” note added. Typically, the goal was matching the key of a chord to the key of a pentatonic scale. For example, G minor pentatonic is played over a G7, giving that classic, bluesy rock sound. It’s a well-used sound that has its place, but it tends to be too traditional and predictable for advancing jazz and rock guitarists who want to experiment with more modern harmonies.

Let’s look at the minor pentatonic in five positions, which will allow you to easily cover the neck. Most of us learn position 1 when we start taking lessons – this is a good start, but now, using the scale diagrams, add four more positions. If you follow the fret numbers on the diagram you can play the G minor pentatonic in five positions, over the entire fretboard. Once that is learned, you can begin transposing it into other keys.

Now the fun begins. Instead of simply matching a scale key to a chord key, such as D minor pentatonic to Dm7, we can begin to think in terms of borrowing pentatonics from other keys in order to create more color in our solos or for composing and songwriting. There are many types of pentatonic scales that this can be applied to, but today we are just going to apply it to minor pentatonics.

Technique 1
A classic Wes Montgomery technique is to play the D minor pentatonic over a G7 chord; think of it as II over the V. This adds the chord extensions of the G7 – the 9th, 11th and 13th – providing more color than simply playing a G7 arpeggio. If you apply this technique to all the dominant 7 chords of a standard 12-bar blues form, your solo immediately becomes more colorful, adding a chill factor that only those chord extensions can give.

Technique 2
Playing F# minor pentatonic over a Gmaj7 chord gives a very modern sound to a chord that can sound too tonicized or resolved. The effect of this application is less of a resolved feel, adding a darker color than by simply playing all the diatonic notes of G major or the Gmaj7 arpeggio.

Technique 3
To take an altered dominant chord more outside and emphasize the dissonant nature of the chord, try playing a minor pentatonic scale that is a minor third away from the root of your chord. For example, play a Bb minor pentatonic over a G7 chord. This will emphasize the altered notes – b9, #9, #5, and b5 – creating greater dissonance. This application will definitely want to resolve to some type of tonic C chord.

Technique 4
Play a minor pentatonic scale one whole step up from a tonic minor chord. For example, play the A minor pentatonic scale against a Gm7 chord. Once again, this emphasizes the color tones of the tonic chord – the 9th, 11th, and 13th. This creates a much more interesting and modern harmony compared to simply playing the G natural minor scale.

Technique 5
Play a minor pentatonic scale that is a major third away from a tonic maj7 chord. For example, play E minor pentatonic over a Cmaj7 chord. By emphasizing the 9, major 7, 13 and 5, this gives a more interesting modern sound over a traditional maj7 chord.

Lay down your own rhythm tracks for some play-along practice. Really hearing how the different scales sound over the chords will help in internalizing this new application of the scales.

Finally, these are all good applications that can add a modern twist to your soloing. The most important element, however, is always the melodic nature of the improvised line. Rather than simply playing scales over chords, a solo really works when it has a melodic or compositional quality to it, rather than just being a string of scales. The ultimate aim is to use the scale material to craft melodic ideas, resulting in a more mature and moving improvised solo. After all, our goal is to improvise in a way that is inspiring, exciting and tells a melodic story.

Jim Bastian
A clinician and jazz educator, Jim Bastian is a 10 year veteran of teaching guitar in higher education. Jim holds two masters degrees and has published 6 jazz studies texts, including the best-selling How to Play Chordal Bebop Lines, for Guitar (available from Jamey Aebersold). He actively performs on both guitar and bass on the East Coast.

An avid collector and trader in the vintage market, you can visit Jim’s store at premierguitar.com (dealer: IslandFunhouse).

Jim Bastian weighs the importance of original cases in vintage value

Jazz Guitar Hardball This month I thought we might have some fun and do some rambling about our vintage collecting fetishes and the concept of “originality.” We all have different parameters in deciding what is collectible: whether an item or model fits in with our personal collection, the degree to which we will actually play the instrument, what level of restoration, if any, is acceptable, and so forth. One of my criteria is that if I won’t play it – if it is just too minty and unplayed, belonging more in a museum than on the bandstand – I then treat it more as an investment and eventually resell it. To search out and find the archtops that I am not afraid to take on the bandstand, that are close to original and have a straight neck, are some of the peak moments of life!

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