Sunday, December 16, 2007

Carpet Bombing vs Sniping

Q: How come even though I am using the right scales, my solos sound wrong?

A: Ha! We're back to the old scales vs arpeggios argument again! First off, let me explain how guitarists tend to approach improvisation. Since scales are relatively easy to remember on our instruments, they are our usual weapon of choice. The nature of the guitar makes it so. I mean, we don't even have to remember scales by note names, we just do it by fingers and frets. For example, a G minor pentatonic scale is just our 1st finger on the 3rd fret of the 6th string followed by our pinky on the 6th fret, etc. Once we have it down we just move the same pattern up and down the fretboard to accommodate key changes. We think in geometric patterns more so than intervals and notes. This is not such a bad thing though, it gets us playing solos early but it can also be our downfall in the long run.

Other instruments don't have it so easy. They have to actually think in intervals or notes and don't have the advantage of having everything laid out where they can see the patterns. The fingerings change as the keys do as well, meaning there are no transferable patterns. That is why we guitarists like to approach everything by scales, they are easy for us to use. I call it carpet bombing.

You see, when we improvise we have a bunch of targets. These targets are the chords we have to play over in the progression. You can't ignore them and expect to play a meaningful solo. We carpet bomb, meaning we throw all the notes (like bombs in an airplane) out at once and hope that they hit the targets. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Let's say for example you are playing over an A minor progression like this: Amin-G-F-Dmin-C-G. Logic pretty much dictates that we need to use an A minor or an A minor pentatonic scale. Yes, it will work. The problem is hitting the targets. For example, a D note played on the first beat or held out for the bar over the A minor chord isn't going to sound very good. Simply because it isn't in the chord. It will work in passing but it isn't really something you want to lay on. On the other hand, it will sound great on the D minor or G chord. Why? Because it is in both. It is the root of the D minor and the 5th of the G major chord. Yup, rock solid.

Now, other instruments tend to think in chord tones rather than scales. In the same progression, a saxophonist would tend to think in chord tones: Amin = A-C-E, G = G-B-D and F = F-A-C. There is no risk of hitting a lame (or weak) note. This is the sniping method of improvisation. The disadvantage of this method is it seems a little harder to express ourselves using only arpeggios.

One way to use a combination of carpet bombing and sniping is to practice playing scales from the 1-3-5 of each passing chord. In other words, play the A minor scale from A over the A minor chord, from G over the G chord, from F on the F chord. Next try playing from the 3rd of the chords: from C over the A minor chord, from B over the G chord. Last but not least practice playing from the 5ths: from E over the A minor chord, from D over the G chord, etc. You could also try playing up and arpeggio and down the scale or up a scale and down an arpeggio.