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The Hardest Thing of All

Strange as it may sound, from my own experience and hanging around guitars and guitarists all my life, the hardest thing of all improvising a nice melody over a simple, unadorned chord progression. I mean a C - Am - F - G type of chord progression.

"Think melody when improvising, don't think licks. Licks are what you use in the music store to show that you can play the guitar..."

Lots of players tend to rely on their licks for playing lines. Licks are harder to do slowly and still have them sound musical. Plus of course, they may not really fit against the chords. Think melody when improvising, don't think licks. Licks are what you use in the music store to show that you can play the guitar, or in the gaps between the lyrics, or during the ending crescendo, but not where a solo or a theme is required.

The other reason it's harder is because when the chords are very straightforward, just plain old major or minor -- maybe a 7th thrown in -- you have fewer notes to choose from. You're basically working around the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the triad. To play a nice sounding melody with so few "home notes" is obviously more difficult than if your chords are so extended that just about any note will fit.

Jazz. Home of 1000 notes.

As a young player I used to think the jazzier it got, the harder it got. Quite the reverse as it turns out. If your progression is comprised of chords with extensions everywhere -- flat fives, 7ths, flat nines etc., you've got a lot more places to go without getting stranded. Not so with 'easy' chords. You've got to plan ahead a bit more, mold your melody line to fit.

I've watched many a lightning fast, trickster guitarist come awfully undone in the studio when asked to fill a hole in a straight forward slow ballad. I know some who don't adjust at all to the situation and play lightning fast, tricked up guitar solos anyway, whether called for or not. It doesn't impress, it just sounds silly.

Like everything else about playing an instrument, or doing anything that requires motor skills, practice is the key. Most players practice fast. Why not? We all want to be the fastest that ever was. But practice the slow stuff too. Put time into playing slow simple melodies. Use well known melodies if you can't yet invent them. Any melody will do. Milk each note. Listen. Squeeze the music out.

Until next time.

Kirk Lorange writes a weekly column for GuitarSite and is the author of the instructional book, PlaneTalk