Have you ever wondered why all the great solos fit the mood of the song and blend with the chord changes even though they are improvised. Would you like to be able to do the same with your solos? In this article, I’ll show you a cool tool I came up with when trying to make my solos more expressive and connected to the song.
First things first. Improvisation is a sort of spontaneous composition. Improvisation is 80% to 90% playing what you already know and reorganizing it to fit in a ‘new’ musical environment, song, or chord change. That means that you have to be able to ‘compose’ or write a solo first in order to be able to really speak with your guitar. If you do not know how to write an awesome solo over a song you will probably not be able to improvise over it and make a statement by telling your story or expressing your deepest feelings. Improvisation is much more than playing scales and throwing some cool licks here and there. What you need to do, and what the big boys do, is to set aside some time in your practice schedule for composing solos and different phrases. Then you can try to improvise and use those composed elements in your playing.
How do you get started? Let’s say you’re trying to improvise over a song by your favorite guitarist.
- You need to know the chords that lay out the song or a section you want to solo over.
- You need to know the key those chords are in.
- You need to be able to play the chord progression in at least 3 or 4 places on the neck. You’ll see why this is important later.
- You have to know the scale or different scales that will fit over chord progressions.
Without all of the steps above checked, it will be hard or nearly impossible to sound good when playing an improvised solo. So what do you do next? Since I really like Andy Timmons, lets looks at his ‘Electric Gypsy’ song from an ‘Ear Ecstasy’ album so you can get a grip on what these Harmony Roadmaps are. If you don’t know Andy, I would strongly suggest you get familiar with his music. Each CD is a true treasure.
To make it easier let’s pretend that Electric Gypsy is in standard tuning (originally Andy plays tuned half step lower). The cords of an intro riff and the first two solos are:
/D /A /Bm /G /
Go and listen to the song, I’m sure you’ll love it. And then come back…
Ok, so the song is in D major key. D being the I chord, A is the V, Bm is the VIm and G is the IV chord. All the chords in this section are major or minor. This means that every chord is constructed of three notes: root, third and fifth. This is really important because if you want to sound like you know what you’re doing, you have to be able to land on different chord tones when the chord changes.
You may think this is limiting, but as the great Charlie Parker said, ‘You have to know the changes and then forget them.’ Notes D, F# and A are the only three notes that will sound consonant with the D major chord you are playing over. All the other notes out there will sound more or less dissonant. Everything in life is a balance of ‘consonance’ and ‘dissonance’. If everything in life were ‘consonant’ and predictable we would get bored. We want to start exploring new things. We want change, but as soon as there’s no stable ground under our feet, we want some stability and predictability because it makes us feel safe. It’s the same in music. Playing chord tones can be fun and can sound really cool if the context is right but it quickly becomes too predictable. Listeners want to hear something else. But you need to have this base in order to build up your improvisation. Let’s look at what notes construct each of our chords:
D major chord: D F# A
A major chord: A C# E
B minor chord: B D F#
G major chord: G B D
You’ll still be able to do this exercise if you don’t know all the notes on your guitar yet, but I strongly suggest you start learning them. I chose one possibility of playing this chord changes on the guitar. You can try others on your own. Play it to get it into your ears. Then record it or get a backing track of the song for the next exercise.
Now play only the roots of each chord. Listen how the roots sound against the chord progression. What kind of emotions do they evoke for you?
Here are the thirds. Thirds should have a different emotional statement. Thirds are very important because they define the quality of our chords. Major third for major chord, minor third for minor chord.
Here are the last note choices for now, the fifths. Again listen to this line against the backing track.
Now that you’ve learned to play roots, 3rds and 5ths of each chord in this part of the neck, you’re ready to start writing your own Roadmaps for our harmony. This is a sequence of notes you will land on every time the chord changes. Write different roadmaps and see how they sound. Here are few examples:
These are 3 roadmaps I came up with. Now all you need to do is connect the notes with different notes from the D major scale or D major pentatonic or even B minor blues scale. Start improvising with the first note on your roadmap. You can choose the rhythmic value of that note. Then you can play any note form the scale on your way form 1 bar to bar 2. But as soon as bar two starts, you have to lend on the next note of your roadmap! If you listen to the song carefully, you’ll notice that A and G chords are played on the upbeat of 4, so they kind of kick in early, not on beat one of the next bar. You have to incorporate that into your playing. So play your roadmap note on second and fourth chord on the 4 AND beat. Just listen to the song once more and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Now that you have your roadmaps done and you are able to connect the notes of your roadmaps with different notes form the scales, you should hear that the lines you are plying are really consonant with the harmony. Now you can start to explore how different notes that are not in the chords sound against the chords. I would suggest you start playing diatonic 9ths and 7ths and then adding some 4ths. Don’t do this over every chord. Start adding one ‘dissonant’ note to your roadmap at the time. How does that sound? Starting with E note over D major chord? Actually if you’ve listened to the solos Andy plays, it should sound familiar.
Let’s have a look at Andy’s roadmap in the first solo after the intro. I will leave the phrasing elements out of this roadmap, because we don’t want to define the way the note should be played. Andy starts his solo with A note, which is a 5th of a D major chord, but he play this A note before the D chord comes. When the D major chord comes he plays an E note which is a 9th of a D chord (bending D up a whole step to an E). That’s why we’ll start his roadmap with an E. Here it is:
So if you look at all the notes in Andy’s Roadmap you’ll notice that he mainly uses 3rds and 5ths. There are two ‘outside’ notes. One is the 9th at the beginning which he resolves back to 5th. And the other is sort of an outside note the min 7th played over B minor chord in bar 11.
Try to play with Andy’s roadmap and come up with different melodies. Use the same landing notes and come up with your own solo. Do this with your favorite songs and analyze what landing notes your favorite guitarist choose and how they connect them! You can produce an interesting effect if you use landing notes from the vocal line. If you’re taking a solo over a chorus chord progression, try using the same landing notes as the vocal melody and come up with different lines. This will really make your solo sound like it belongs to the song.
That’s it! Develop as many different roadmaps as you like and experiment with the consonance and dissonance in your solos. Listen to yourself, how you sound, how you phrase and work on that. You can have the best line in the world, but if you don’t play it with the right touch, it will sound average. Get the best guitar teacher you can get and start working towards your guitar playing goals.
Article written by Jure Golobič