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.

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Dressing up standard chords

Click for larger examples

My fifth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Jackson, went to the board one day and wrote the word GO for all of us to see. She then said, “This is the generic word ‘go.’ I would like you all to write as many specific words to replace the word ‘go’ as you can think of.” We came up with quite a list: Walk, run, fly, skip, drive, amble, stroll, hurry, split, boogie, and on it went. Each specific word carried with it an image that showed us details about the act of going. Each word showed us the mood and the spirit of the going. The going now had some intention.

Guitarists are often provided with a generic chord chart to follow, a harmonic map that gives us creative freedom to turn the basic chords into something more specific to fit the musical context.

A great exercise to break away from generic chords in our playing is to start with a chord you know well, and then dress it up. This accessorizing involves adding or subtracting notes to create tensions. If, after fretting a chord, you have a finger left over, drop it down somewhere and see if you like how it sounds. Remember, if you don’t like what you hear the first time, you might love it in a new context, so don’t immediately rule anything out.

Let’s use a C triad—the generic chord C, if you will—as an example to work with.

Since it’s a major triad, we need to keep it in the major family of chords. Fig. 1 shows some ii-V-I progressions that each resolve to a different form of C major. Going from left to right, the sounds and fingerings become more interesting. We’ve just found eight ways to express C more specifically, not to mention the variety of Dm7 and G7 chords we’ve used.

Fig. 2 shows some tricks with a D major triad on the first three strings—you know, the D that looks like a triangle. Normally, you’ll have one finger left over to try out new things. But let’s make a half-barre instead, so that you play the first three strings with your first finger and the note D on the 2nd string with your second finger. Now you have two fingers left over to find interesting sounds. You’ll find the G on the 3rd fret of the 1st string a fairly comfortable sound here, making the triad a sus4. But what happens if we raise that extra note to the 4th fret on the E string, or G#? Sounds funny at first, for sure. But now play an A chord and then go back to that D chord with the G# on top. Sounds beautiful, right? Check out the short example in Fig. 3. Because we give it a context, the chord takes on a new sonic identity that makes it work. In the key of A major, G# is the seventh degree, and it gives us a wonderful #4 sound on the IV chord, D.

When it comes to dominant chords, we have many options for adding tension. The “rule” to follow is to keep natural tensions natural and altered tensions altered. That means if you want a substitution for G9, try G13, or if you want to play G7#9 some other way, try G7b13. There are a number of voicings we can find using fretted notes exclusively, thus making the chord movable (you’ll see a few in Fig. 1), but I’d like you to be even more adventurous and find as many as you can with open strings too.

Fig. 4 will get you started with a G9 that uses an open string followed by a G7b9 in the same open position. Listen to each as you play them and think about what chord you want to come next. Then draw from your specific chord collection to resolve (or not resolve) the dominant.

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Warmups and stretches to keep your hands and wrists in shape

If you have not had a guitar-related injury of some sort, you probably know someone who has. Your wrist? My shoulder! Oh, my aching back. Ice it. Put some heat on it. Rest it. Use it. Stretch it. Ah, the athleticism of being a guitarist. Around final exam time in the Guitar Department at Berklee, those volar wrist splints start to look like a fashion trend. The power of observation and awareness of your technique can save you from injury, as can careful and deliberate warm-ups, stretches, and rest.

Most of the muscle strain I’ve experienced in my hand came from my early days of practicing bebop heads, searching for the melodies and memorizing patterns that my left hand had never been asked to do before. Finding new and interesting chord voicings added to that tugging and pulling on the pinky side of my hand. When it got so I could aggravate my hand simply by a slight turn of a steering wheel or by pulling up a blanket at night, I knew I had to get some rest—and advice. I visited my friend, guitarist, and teacher, Rich Falco, of Worcester, Massachusetts. He gave me some great stretches to try, and admonished me to use my right hand to carry my amp if my left hand was hurting, for heaven’s sake.

First stretching lesson: Open your hand wide, making space between each finger very slowly, then hold it. Close your hand into a gentle fist and hold that. Do that several times, as often as you think of it throughout the day. It’s a convenient stretch—no guitar necessary. I do it on my way to gigs in the car, while walking, and any time I have a moment to sit and relax.

After many years of playing my full-sized jazz box on gigs, I recently decided to try using my 3/4-sized jazz guitar, which I had only been using for teaching to that point. Since I had been having some shoulder trouble for the past two years, I thought downsizing might be worth a try. Throughout the set, I noticed the funny little way my left shoulder would shoot up and out and around, as if it were trying to help my arm reach around some giant structure to allow my fingers to land on the strings. Once I adjusted, I began to wonder if I had been unnecessarily flailing about on my larger guitar for years and never bothered to notice. I preach economy of movement to my students—had I not practiced it in my own playing?

I turned to Katherine Riggert, D.O., a sports-medicine specialist at UMass Memorial in central Massachusetts (who, by the way, lives with her guitar-playing husband and all of his guitars). We shared a few dos and don’ts, confirming the validity of the stretches I’ve been doing for myself—and teaching my students— since my meeting with Rich Falco.

“I consider musicians a type of athlete,” says Dr. Riggert. “You have to develop good habits. If you want to play guitar for a long time, you have to develop good form, or you’ll develop overuse injuries.” She encourages us to consider the whole body rather than just the fingers when assessing our guitar playing habits. What affects the elbow, affects the wrist, affects the hand. We fall into the position of doing whatever it takes to get the sound out sometimes. “If you’re not paying attention to your posture, that can lead you to rely on how you hold your wrist.” Standing with a strap that is adjusted too low, for example, can lead to over-flexion—or bending too much inward—in the wrist. Posture problems and the weight of the guitar can lead to “degenerative joint disease in the neck, which itself can cause problems in the hand.”

Dr. Riggert cautions: “Before stretching, get some circulation going in your hand. You shouldn’t stretch a cold muscle.” She recommends an assisted stretch with your other hand helping. Very gently and slowly bend each finger back and hold for a few seconds. Then hold all four fingers back together. You can also use a table to facilitate the stretch— try it palm up and palm down with your fingers on the edge of the table. Dr. Riggert also recommends shoulder shrugs and a gentle neck roll before performances.

I get all of my students to join me in a meditative warm-up using the guitar (note: not a tennis ball, or any other sort of hard-to-squeeze device). Start with your first finger on the fifth fret of the high E string. Hold it for four long beats, then add your second finger to the sixth fret. Hold each finger down this way until all four fingers are down, separated at each fret, pointing in a parallel direction to the frets. Repeat on each string and take your time—feel the gentle pull.

If it’s too late for prevention and you’re dealing with discomfort or injury, but you can’t cancel an upcoming performance, you may have to find ways to recover while still playing. “There’s rest and then there’s relative rest,” Dr. Riggert points out. “Relative rest is something you can do early on when you sense an injury coming, so you cut back your practice time and take lots of breaks.”

Complete rest, however, may be what’s necessary until symptoms resolve. “It’s easier to treat overuse injuries early on in the process. Tendonitis can take years to resolve. Chronic tendonitis, or tendonosis, is a disorganization of the tendons rather than an inflammation, and that is much harder to treat.”

To make a safe return to playing, Dr. Riggert recommends a gradual approach, with rest breaks and rest days. Use the time to “figure out what happened in the first place. It’s gradual. That’s how it has to be. That’s the frustrating part.”

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Talking modes and how to use them right.

Let’s do a quick review of the names of the major modes beginning on the first degree and continuing in order to the seventh: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

There are some well-intentioned folks who will tell you that to play over the chords C-FG, first you play C Ionian, and then you play F Lydian, then G Mixolydian. I say lighten up—just play in C Major over the whole progression. It’s an “audio illusion,” if you will, since each of the modes mentioned are actually the same notes as the C major scale anyway. The context is the most important thing in determining what key or mode we’re in. As I like to say, “Same tie, different shirt,” meaning any one melody over different chord progressions will sound pleasing … or not, just as a tie that looks great one day will clash with the “wrong” shirt on another.

There is a time for thinking modally if the music calls for it. A quick and easy example of distinguishing one mode from another can be heard by listening to a major key versus a minor key. You can tell if a song is in A minor rather than C major by listening to it. There is a characteristic quality to the minor sound once the tonal center has shifted to A, even though all of the notes in the scales C major and A minor are the same. We have just distinguished the sound of the Ionian mode from the Aeolian mode. In fact, each of the modes of the major scale has a characteristic sound.

To identify a mode in theory, you can think in either of two ways: “derivative” or “parallel.” An example of parallel thinking would be relating C Lydian to C Major and comparing the two (they have all the same notes except C Lydian has F# instead of F natural). Derivative thinking relates the mode back to its parent key, figuring, for example, “C Lydian is the fourth of what major key?” (G). Let’s think derivatively for now and see if we can identify the characteristic sound of these modes that we keep recognizing by ear.

The seventh and fourth tones of any major scale will play a strong role in the sound of each of the modes derived from that scale. The Lydian mode’s most recognized quality is the #11. Let’s think about the C major scale. The seventh degree is B. Now think F Lydian, which is the fourth degree of C major. There’s that B natural, now functioning as the #11 of F Lydian.

This month’s assignment is to play in E Lydian. There’s no need to panic when you do the figuring and discover that the parent key is B Major. We’re going to look at some fun chords that are diatonic to B Major, but also take advantage of our open E strings, rooting it to our new tonal center of E. We’ll also bring out the characteristic sound of the mode, which in our example will be A#. Remember, think “seven” of B to land on A#, and you’ll get the #11 sound against the E.

Study and play the progression in Fig. 1. Record yourself playing the example and then go wild playing B major scales all over the neck. Just as you do not need to start and end a major scale on its root, you do not need to start and end any of the modes on their root—the context of the chords will make everything work. Let your ears guide you through the process.

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