STOP Playing Boring Solos!

Vernon Reid shares his radical approach for crafting innovative and surprising guitar lines.
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One of the most radical rock guitarists of the last quarter century, Vernon Reid has earned many fans for his innovative alchemy of metal, free jazz, funk, and blues. Among his most ardent admirers is veteran bassist Jack Bruce who recently recruited Reid for his latest Spectrum Road, an ensemble dedicated to the music of jazz/ fusion drummer Tony Williams. Spectrum Road is currently out on tour, supporting their self-titled debut. Reid is also planning to reconvene with his best known project—the seminal funk/metal quartet Living Colour—for an album and tour in 2013. In this second part of our tutorial, the articulate and amiable Reid further details his approach for abstracting unique sounds from conventional sources.

“For me, the challenge of improvisation has never been about playing totally free. It’s about taking what’s traditionally played and saying, ‘What would happen if I changed a note here or added a note there?’” he explains. “I love exploring the inherent dissonance in regular scales. For example, when you add the major third (C#) and the blue note (Eb) to an A minor pentatonic scale, you get this nice run of chromaticism—C, C#, D, Eb, and E [Ex. 1a].

Often, I’ll play this scale without the fourth (D), which completely changes its vibe [Ex. 1b]. Superimpose it over an A7 and you can create lines that explore some of the dissonant intervals inherent in the chord, as well as some altered tones [Ex. 2]. [Note: in last month’s lesson, Reid described his hybrid picking approach when playing notes on adjacent strings. You can play Ex. 2 as written, alternating plectrum strokes with notes plucked by your picking-hand middle finger, or completely by flatpicking.]

Another thing I’ll often utilize is the breaking up of the chromatic scale into three-note-per-string groupings. Add a tri- tone on the adjacent string and you’ve got a pattern that works up, down, and across the neck [Ex. 3].

“Now, let’s shift gears and take some- thing as basic as the inversions of a C7 chord [Ex. 4A] and create a line by using diamond-shaped boxes. These work so well over dominant chords because they contain the root, the third, and the lowered seventh [Ex. 4B]. As you move it up the neck leading with your second finger, you’ll get notes like the F#, Ab, and Db that are theoretically outside the chord, but still sound hip in context [Ex. 4C].

“Finally, let’s combine some of the ideas already presented and juxtapose them against a bluesy A13 chordal vamp to see how you might incorporate the ‘out’ notes into a more familiar setting [Ex. 5].

“Ultimately, whether something sounds ‘in’ or ‘out’ isn’t necessarily a function of what a theory book says. It’s about what feels and sounds right to you as a player. The idea is to take some of the concepts I’ve laid out and use them to create your own lines. Approach tradition without any preconceived notions, embrace what it has to offer, and then add your own thing to it. That’s how the music evolves.”