Improvisation is one of the most exciting aspects of playing music and is a direct manifestation of our desire to create, express ourselves, and jam with other musicians. Learning to improvise and expand one’s improvisational skills are among the most common goals guitar students aspire to achieve. It is important to bear in mind that improvisation involves the assimilation of the stylistic elements of a particular musical genre. For example, if we compare the improvisational style of a Rock guitarist with that of a Flamenco guitarist, it is clear that their solos consist of quite contrasting musical vocabulary. Inflections in rhythms and feel, note choice, techniques, melodies, scales, and length of a solo are all idiosyncratic of the musical genres and contexts one is improvising within.
In this lesson, we focus on the 12-bar blues and use it to develop our ability to improvise only using guide tones, i.e. the third and seventh of each chord. By targeting these specific notes, we build our ability to ‘hear’ the sound of the blues progression. Simultaneously, we internalize the order and duration of each chord, which is a fundamental step in the process of memorizing any chord sequence. The basic 12-bar blues progression in the key of A has the following layout.
All chords contained in this example share the same harmonic structure, which consists of:
Root - Major 3rd - Fifth - Minor 7th
Let’s find out the major third and minor seventh for the respective chords in the blues progression by following two simple rules. The major third is four semitones (or two tones) higher than the root of its chord. The minor seventh is two semitones below the root. This method allows us to identify all the guide tones we need to start improvising:
- C# and G for A7
- F# and C for D7
- G# and D for E7
The following score and tablature show one of the many possible variations of playing guide tones through the blues progression. On closer examination, it is important to notice that:
- All the notes are played on the G and D strings of the guitar and follow the same fingering layout;
- when we advance from one chord to the next, the guide tones only shift by one or two frets thus giving the progression continuity and logic;
- as the chords are moving at a faster pace in the last four bars, the rhythm of the guide tones changes from whole notes to half notes.
It is advisable to practice this exercise with a backing track in order to hear the sound of each guide tone over the blues progression.
Many possible variations can be derived from this effective and valuable method. It is advisable to experiment with different rhythms and work on a set position the fretboard or pairs of strings until this approach is internalized. At that point, the exploration of other areas of the instrument should be quite intuitive. After a few attempts, it will be evident that guide tones are always close to each other and follow repetitive patterns throughout the guitar. Use the fretboard diagrams below to navigate areas of the guitar you are not familiar with yet.
Since we are playing only two notes per chord, it is easy to start experimenting with different rhythmic variations. For example, modify the value of the notes, some can be long and other short, or you can use some space in between them. Also, try out different rhythmic subdivisions such as 8th notes, triplets, and 16th notes. Once we start incorporating rhythm into this approach, playing through the blues becomes a lot of fun! Limitations in the melodic choices you can make will stimulate your creativity and bring out different ideas.
Experiment and have fun!