If we take the English alphabet and display it alongside a scalar series, the two separate systems become a device that can translate the language of words into one of melodies.

Under any condition, imagination produces interesting alternatives. When composing music, there are times when creative continuity seems to fade and is momentarily replaced with emptiness. In this lesson, we’ll look at a practical way to jumpstart your creativity and replace emptiness with ideas.

It’s rewarding to apply musical techniques to other forms of language. For example, if we take the English alphabet and display it alongside a scalar series, the two separate systems become a device that can translate the language of words into one of melodies. Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 offer two examples that will serve as the starting point for our exploration. In Fig. 1, we combine the alphabet (shown in the left column) with a C major scale (which repeats down the right column). Similarly, Fig. 2 pairs the alphabet with A natural minor (or A Aeolian).




We can then use these templates to create melodic motifs based around selected words. Fig. 3 illustrates the process using “beautiful” and “ugly” to produce a tonal structure. It’s simple: First, spell out each word, then find the note in the right column that corresponds to each letter and enter that below it.


Once you’ve established the structure, you can introduce rhythm to create a basis for your composition. Any scalar module—or number of them—can be attached to this system. You can transpose the motifs to create even more variations.

I had a student interested in John Coltrane’s legendary composition, “Giant Steps.” In addition to studying the song itself (including linear substitutions through its chord structures), we used this words-into-melody technique to create motifs. We chose the words “Coltrane,” “Tenor,” and “Blue” and then transformed them into melodies using the Aeolian mode. You can see how we applied this to “Coltrane” and “Tenor” in Fig. 4.


Notice how in both Fig. 3 and Fig. 4, we resolve the phrase using notes that were generated from the respective words. In Fig. 4, we create additional melodic variety by transposing E and G down an octave.

I used this example as the basis for the title track to my 2003 album, Think Tank. Visit the online edition of this lesson to download a special solo guitar version of “Think Tank.” Fig. 5 shows how I applied the melodic material I generated from “Coltrane” and “Tenor” in the piece’s A section.


I encourage you to create your own combinations using this method. Many times the right mixture of a certain scale or mode with a few descriptive words can create a spark that will lead to a new motif, melody, or even entire composition.

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In last month’s column, we learned how scales and arpeggios can be combined for the construction of line forms (“Linear Transformations,” May 2011 PG). This month, we’ll continue exploring

In last month’s column, we learned how scales and arpeggios can be combined for the construction of line forms (“Linear Transformations,” May 2011 PG). This month, we’ll continue exploring the concept as an ongoing extension of that information.

Similar to chord forms, linear structures are based upon inversions, and those inversions not only have identifiable shapes, but also position themselves in vertical and horizontal positions across the fretboard. The linear arpeggios in our previous study were vertical chord forms that were “flattened” horizontally across the staff with their “skeletons” functioning as the arpeggios of the chord forms themselves—specifically Em7 and Gmaj7 as relative forms.

Often, we use inversions that embody identities that are very recognizable. These shapes are the very skeletons that reside within an improvisation. In Fig. 1 you can see how we move from Ab dim to E7 and then Em7 on the lowest four strings. (Note: In Ab dim, we’re spelling Cb enharmonically as B to make it easier to see the 6th-string common tone shared by all three chords.)

Download Example Audio 1...

In Fig. 2, we shift this same chordal movement to the 4–3–2–1 string set. The voice leading is exactly the same in both examples, with F moving to E and then Ab (or G#) moving to G. I have placed arrows to indicate these movements.

Download Example Audio 2...


We can see the result of combining both Em7 (or G6) voicings in Fig. 3. The upper bracket indicates the shape from Fig. 2 and the lower bracket indicates the shape from Fig. 1.

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Chord forms and linear patterns are very similar. Both have specific shapes, and once they become familiar, these shapes begin to appear as inversions and transpositions across different areas of the fretboard. You can see Fig. 4 as an example of how to combine two separate linear arpeggios—both of the forms illustrated with vertical brackets in Fig. 1 now appear horizontally. The arpeggios appear in red (vertically beamed lower) while the upper beams hold melodic additions completing the full pattern.

Download Example Audio 4...

Once again, it’s essential to remember that the pattern in Fig. 4 is not in any way related to scalar or modal techniques. It is the result of many years of familiarity with chordal inversions, their shapes, substitutions, as well as their positions. Fig. 5 is the pattern we’ve discussed when viewed in a standard format. It includes the addition of an Em9 as the improvisational topic because within the pattern we have an F#, and it suggests a shape that’s very close to that particular chord form.


Last but not least, it’s absolutely essential to bring to your attention that although this particular study on pattern construction is effective, it’s not how I build a solo. What I’ve chosen to share is more like the analysis of a pattern after it’s been played. Remember, it emerged at a moment’s notice and the most important facets of its description hopefully convey greater insight on alternatives, as well as on the prerequisites that have prevailed. I’ll see you next time!

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There are two distinctly different ways to expand the chord form—our skeletal melody—into linear improvisations.

When we look at the architecture of a chord form, we see everything that’s needed to naturally unfold an improvised melody. There are two distinctly different ways to expand the chord form—our skeletal melody—into linear improvisations.

The standard way, and this is the approach that’s most often taught, is to use horizontal scale forms (this also includes modal systems). An alternative approach comes through using arpeggios. This is a vertical approach, which is evident when you look at the chord displayed graphically.

Beginning with a diminished chord on the lowest adjacent string group, the following transformations unfold, as shown in Fig. 1. [Note: To streamline the music notation, we’re spelling F dim using B and D, which are enharmonic equivalents for Cb and Ebb, the b5 and bb7 of this diminished chord.] Pay attention to the two half-step shifts that occur between these three chords. First, F drops to E, making the F dim to E7 chord change. Second, G# drops to G to create the E7 to Em7 shift.


The following examples contain two separate chord forms that compatibly reveal the same topic—E minor. The first is based on Em7—the same voicing we created a moment ago—and is shown in Fig. 2. The line in this example emerges from this Em7 chord and contains all four of its tones. The second is based off an inversion of Gmaj7 (technically, we’re viewing it as a rootless Em9) and is shown in Fig. 3. Note that the arpeggios found in Fig. 2 and Fig. 3 are notated in red to indicate their skeletal frameworks. The Em7 arpeggio in Fig. 2 is spread in non-adjacent order with intermediate tones set in between and around the arpeggio itself. In Fig. 3, the Gmaj7 arpeggio appears as adjacent tones.

Download Example Audio...


Download Example Audio...

When combined with fluency, these dual patterns become unified as one, and although constructed from vertical tangents, they now appear horizontal in context, as seen in Fig. 4. In this example, we first encounter the vertical Em11 (created by combining Em7 and Gmaj7), followed by a horizontal expression of this harmony.

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Keep in mind that forms of this nature are commonly transcribed and analyzed as derivatives of scale and modal concepts, but in reality, they were not constructed in those ways. As we saw in last month’s lesson (“Augmented and Diminished Forms,” March 2011 PG), augmented and diminished structures, as parental forms, automatically position themselves across the guitar fretboard. They appear both vertically and horizontally, along with their alterations that produce dominant 7th, major 7th, and minor 7th forms.

Once you explore these shapes you can also see their related inversions develop exponentially across the fretboard, not only as chordal inversions, but as arpeggio-based linear inversions as well. We’ll continue to unfold these expansions in our upcoming lessons.

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