Improvising Without Scales

January 24, 2008

“Do whatever you want, but make it melodic.”

I’ve heard these words over the years at countless recording sessions and live shows. Even when bandleaders or producers want you to shred with all the fire you can bring, melodic playing is still at the top of their list. We all know that a strong melodic statement is something that lasts, becomes a hook, and sticks in the listener’s mind, but for whatever reason, the ability to play melodically is not easily taught. Instead, it’s absorbed into your improvising skills. There are no shortcuts to learning this concept, but I can help get you started.

Intervallic Intervention

Ask ten guitarists to define melodic playing and you’ll get ten different answers. A lot of those differences come down to musical taste, so let me start by giving you my definition. I believe melody is derived from the combination of intervals, especially those intervals that are wider than seconds. That’s because seconds—whether minor (a half-step) or major (a whole-step)—are, for the most part, what make up scales. Play these small intervals in a solo, and you sound like you’re running up and down scales. To my ears—to most people’s ears, I’d argue—this is not really melodic playing.

Many instrumentalists advance their technique and learn harmony by working with scales. This is all good in the beginning when we are still trying to remember that the key of Ab has four flats, or that A major has three sharps. But after that knowledge has become second nature we need to think beyond the sequential order of the scales and begin seeing them as independent tonal centers.

Learn Your Lines

A solo based on scale playing sounds like practicing. Guitarists more so than other musicians are guilty of scalar playing because they are typically taught to play in patterns and in specific positions. The good players go on to make the connections between positions, but many are what I call “single-position, top-three-strings” players. You can immediately hear that they don’t take in the entire guitar, and that their range is limited.

Melodic playing begins with a tasteful reordering of the notes in the scale or tonal center. You make the split-second decision as to which note should follow the last one you played, and your ability to do this on the fly is what defines you as an improviser. But what about faster tempos? Or sixteenth-notes at a medium tempo? This is where my concept of composing, transposing, and practicing one’s own lines comes in.

Many years ago I read an article in Keyboard magazine by Chick Corea. He stated that the best of us are only truly improvising 30 percent of the time, and that the rest of the time we’re playing stuff we know, things we’ve worked out. I took this concept to heart and began to work out as much harmonic material as I could. I filled many notebooks with lines for major, minor, and dominant chords and learned to connect them in every key all over the guitar. John McLaughlin, another one of my heroes, says that on a good night we play the things we know until we’re warmed up enough physically and mentally to play the things we don’t know.

Therefore, it makes sense to have a catalog of major, minor, and dominant lines available in all 12 keys. By writing lines every day, you begin to see a style emerge. And that style is your style. It’s the things you find musically interesting.

Melodic Springboards

Example 1 is very typical of my main objective, which is to make music sound different. It’s a simple Fm7 line derived completely from the F minor pentatonic scale. It sounds open because of the intervals—a major sixth (Ab-F) followed by a minor third (F-Ab) and a perfect fifth (Ab-Eb). And it has some range—an octave-and-a-half in just five notes.

I like to use this phrase as a springboard for the imagination. Ex. 2 starts with the same phrase and continues down the neck, staying within the F minor pentatonic tonality nearly exclusively. Notice the b5 interval between the notes F and B that open measure 2. This slightly jarring sound tends to ground us in the blues, bringing the listener back to home base. We can also run the line upwards and take it out of the strictly pentatonic mode by adding the 9, G. The triplets-based line in Ex. 3 adds a 15th-fret G on the first string and mixes a major seventh with major- and minor-sixth intervals in a way that makes the notes sound “outside.” But it’s all still in F minor. The wide intervals are what give it its radical sound.

Major Moves

Now let’s look at lines for a major chord. Replay Ex. 1 but this time think of it in the context of a Db major chord. (It can be heard as a Db major phrase that never actually tags the root, Db.) Let’s move that phrase down a half-step to the more convenient key of C [Ex. 4]. (This is the same set of intervals as Ex. 1, but transposed to the key with no sharps or flats.) Now try Ex. 5. Starting with our familiar five-note phrase, it cascades down the neck. And when you play it over a C chord it has a wide, open, pastoral sound that is neither jazz, country, nor rock, yet magically works for all those styles.

Look at the TAB to see the strings I skipped. This cross-neck technique is an easy way to open up your playing, just make sure it’s music you’re making and not mechanical inventions that sound like exercises. Ex. 6 uses our original phrase within the line (the first five notes in measure 2). Remember, a good line follows an arc and even has some tension and resolution to it. This gives it melodic weight and integrity.

Lick Library

Dominant chords provide endless possibilities for intervallic lines because we can mix major and minor pentatonics with the Mixolydian mode. Ex. 7 changes one note within our phrase, making it an A7 Mixolydian lick. Ex. 8 expands this idea by beginning with the phrase and wrapping things up with a blues lick. (You can season to taste with bends and vibrato.)

But simply writing a good line is not enough. You need to be able to access it from your existing library of licks. Ex. 9 slips the phrase in subtly, starting on beat four of measure 1. Never stop looking for ways to alter the stuff you overuse. Finding a different way out of an old standby line keeps it fresh and interesting. This way you’ll never run out of things to play.

But most importantly, if you take these approaches to heart, the things you play will be your own. This leads me to another important concept: There are no exercises. All of your technical practicing can be spent playing music—lines you can actually use on stage and in the studio! No more wasting your time with chromatic patterns, scales, and arpeggios. Get your own lines up to speed and all the technique you’ll ever need will be right under your hands.

For more on Verheyen’s unique, intervallic lead guitar style, check out his book/CD package Improvising without Scales [Mel Bay], or click to

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