In need of some improvisation help

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I've been playing guitar for more years than I care to remember and most of that time has been spent learning songs. Over the years I've learned some quite challenging solos, but all I've really learned is where to put my fingers and when. What I'd really like to be able to do is just put on a random jam track or join a jam, and simply improvise. I've started trying to do this, but I think I'm hitting a way. I Know my 5 Pentatonic shapes, I can add the notes from the minor scale, I can move around the neck reasonably well, and I know a few nice licks in each position, but when I improvise, it largely just sounds like mindless noodling in a scale. It strikes me that what I'm really missing is melody, but I can't find an obvious way of getting that into my playing. I've heard people say 'follow the chords' but if I put on a random jam track or simply join a jam, I only really know what key I'm in, not the chords.

Are there some general rules I should be following for incorporating melody? Are there things I can focus on and practice with this?

My 'model' for the approach I want to take is Adrian Smith as everything he does seems to be based on melody and then he throws in a few flashy licks to keep things interesting and impressive. It seems to me that if I can get more melody into my playing, this would be a very workable approach as I already have the basic scale shapes and some licks. I can't find any courses that I can buy that covers this, so any help and advice would be gratefully received.
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  • fastonebazfastonebaz Frets: 2308
    I reckon just keep playing over backing tracks and it will come.   I often just put on random backing tracks on you tube,  they're often 7mins ish long and just kind of zone out whilst improvising over the top and after a while a  melody appears and I can build on that.  There's so many styles and keys to try with on YouTube.   Also try entering the SOTM competitions on here as that's good practice for trying to find a melody.   For me though repetition is the key, keep looping over a piece until you find a melody.
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  • Danny1969Danny1969 Frets: 6730
    Basically melody comes from knowing what chords you are playing over and targeting certain notes that sound "melodic" over them. 

    So first learn to recognise what chords are being played in their interval sense .... for example your standard blues would use the 1, 4 and 5 ..... a common pop / rock song will often be something like 1, 5, m6, 4  

    The reason I say interval sense is because this is not key dependent. If you know the chord has just changed from the root key chord (tonic) to the 5 chord then it doesn't matter what key you are in, you just go to the 5th scale degree in that key. So if the first chord was A and then you hear it move to the 5 it's moved to E  ..... if the first chord was G and you hear it move to the 5 then it's D 

    Once you know how to recognise what chords are being played you can then target note within those chords that will sound pleasing. The most common notes targeted by melodic players like Gilmour and Knopfler are the 3rd and the 5th and they generally bend or slide into these notes as the chord changes. That's what sounds pleasing, when the solo is in harmony with the chords. 

    This is an amateurish video I made demonstrating how easy this technique is once you know what chords are being played and what the notes are in those chords.



    As far as pentatonic positions etc I would forget all about those. Just think in terms of notes and intervals and don't let you hands fall into those positions as when you do you generally find it fits but it's not that interesting melody wise

    www.2020studios.co.uk 
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  • BradBrad Frets: 380
    edited July 23
    It’s not actually a straight forward process, being melodic is actually difficult. Ultimately, the best way to improve the melodic content of your playing…. is to learn melodies smile

    Apart from those with great ears and exceptional natural melodic sensibilities (Chet Baker instantly springs to mind and he allegedly had next to NO understanding of musical theory!), there are things you can do to help improve this. 

    As @Danny1969 says, know your intervals, the chords you’re playing and the intervals contained within the chords and what you’re using to play with (scales/arps). 

    Transcribe - this really helps develop your musical ear and connects the sound with the fretboard. Play along with things you transcribe. If you dig Adrian Smith, learn the melodic aspects of his playing and start to make them your own by changing the note choice or rhythm. 

    Sing - same as above. Sing intervals, melodic fragments, scales anything you can. Connect it to the fretboard. Play what you sing, don’t sing what you play!

    Think like a horn player - Even average horn players have a much superior grasp of melody than even a lot of ‘great’ guitarists. Now, I don’t exactly mean learn lines (although this is good), but understand how the phrases are constructed, where they need to stop to take breath etc. Check out Chet Baker, Kind Of Blue era Miles Davis and so on. 

    Make being melodic your default position when you play. As soon as you start noodling STOP. Play slowly, take your time, absorb and internalise the sound you’re producing. Imagine how the next note is going to sound before you hit it. Do this over a single chord vamp, then gradually include more chords. 

    IMO it’s not just a case of just going for it and hoping for the best. All the best players transcribed, listened and learned from those before them and/or those around them. Good luck! smile 

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  • Thank you all so much. It doesn't sound easy and it certainly doesn't sound quick, but even I can see that there are things here that I can do. I think that too often I put on a backing track and play, without stopping to think of a melody that might go with it. From now on I'll listen to the backing track first, try to hum a melodic idea over it and then I can pick the basic melody out on the guitar to work around that core idea.

    Playing 1, 3 & 5 also seems to be important, and unless I'm mistaken, isn't this essentially a triad? I keep hearing that melodic players use triads but I've never been sure how to use them. Finally, while I know scale shapes, would it help if I took the time to learn more about the CAGED system? As that seems to be based around chord shapes, doesn't that mean that using this technique would help me to target the triad notes of 1, 3 & 5?
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  • Danny1969Danny1969 Frets: 6730
    Thank you all so much. It doesn't sound easy and it certainly doesn't sound quick, but even I can see that there are things here that I can do. I think that too often I put on a backing track and play, without stopping to think of a melody that might go with it. From now on I'll listen to the backing track first, try to hum a melodic idea over it and then I can pick the basic melody out on the guitar to work around that core idea.

    Playing 1, 3 & 5 also seems to be important, and unless I'm mistaken, isn't this essentially a triad? I keep hearing that melodic players use triads but I've never been sure how to use them. Finally, while I know scale shapes, would it help if I took the time to learn more about the CAGED system? As that seems to be based around chord shapes, doesn't that mean that using this technique would help me to target the triad notes of 1, 3 & 5?
    The 1, 3 and 5 are the notes within a scale that make a basic chord triad. So C major has these notes 

    C D E F G A B C 

    So your 1 is C, your 3rd is E and your fifth is G .... so a basic C maj triad is C-E-G 

    Now transpose that theory into G maj

    G A B C D E F# G 

    Your triad is now G-B-D 

    To make a maj scale minor flatten the 3rd, 6 and 7th by one semitone 

    In use a lot of players will often incorporate arpeggios made from the 1, 3 and 5 into their solo's .... the first solo of comfortably numb does this a lot, sultans of swing solo and fills are mainly arp based .... shredding is pretty much all arps .... moving to outline the chords  
    www.2020studios.co.uk 
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  • BradBrad Frets: 380
    edited July 23


    Playing 1, 3 & 5 also seems to be important, and unless I'm mistaken, isn't this essentially a triad? I keep hearing that melodic players use triads but I've never been sure how to use them. Finally, while I know scale shapes, would it help if I took the time to learn more about the CAGED system? As that seems to be based around chord shapes, doesn't that mean that using this technique would help me to target the triad notes of 1, 3 & 5?
    Yep it’s indeed a triad. Where things get fun once you’ve got the basics down is applying different triads over a given chord. Using Danny’s examples above, play a C triad then a G triad over a C major chord. Hear any difference? The C triad gives 1 3 5, so just the chord in melodic form. But the G triad gives you the 5 7 and 9 - some colour tones. It’s a good habit to knit these (and other) triads together. 

    Again, it’s not easy to use triads at first. It’s really hard to make music with very little information but it does get easier over time. 

    Regarding CAGED, I’m not a fan of that system personally although I am in a minority here… but it’s a really good thing to practise things in isolation but also see them in the wider context of a scale shape etc. The thing I can’t stress enough is to see each triad in its essence and how the inversions link together rather than one big 5 or 6 string thing. You’ll likely end up just playing the entire 5/6 string triad otherwise, without much in the way of musicality. And in any given position there is a huge amount of info available. For example…

    Shape 1 in CAGED is based on the C shape chord. However it’s not just containing a C shape chord/tones. It (and every shape) has intervals, diatonic triads/7th arps and their respective inversions, pentatonic scales and so on. 

    I should also add, fast playing can be really melodic too!
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  • HAL9000HAL9000 Frets: 7078
    edited July 22
    Phrasing, phrasing, phrasing.

    As others have already said - target chord tones.

    Tension and release - for instance, over an A chord, play an F# note immediately followed by an E, or maybe B followed an A. Gives a sense of resolution.

    Pentatonic noodling - as you’ve already mentioned this can sound dangerously like just going up and down scales. So skip strings or notes to avoid this.

    Don't feel you have to fill every available space. Leave gaps.
    I play guitar because I enjoy it rather than because I’m any good at it
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  • hollywoodroxhollywoodrox Frets: 1502
    I found following vocal melodies on records a great help , or the keyboard or other melodic parts 
      This was initially for transcribing ,but it can kinda help you to find melodies by imagining what you could sing over it 
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  • chotu495chotu495 Frets: 321
    Some really helpful stuff in here. I’ll be giving this a try too  :)
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  • RolandRoland Frets: 5452
    One way into improvisation is to drake the jazz musician’s approach: start with the melody and develop from there.
    Known here as Old Misery Guts or the Big Bad Classified's Sheriff. Also guitarist with  https://www.undercoversband.com/.
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  • BarneyBarney Frets: 494
    Try really limiting yourself ...use the pentatonics but just 2 strings at a time so top B and E strings you would have 4 notes in total ......put the backing track on and play with these for a while working on different timings ..phrasing ..note order ect ...use bends but don't move ....just keep doing it and you will eventually start hearing the the notes as you play them ...then start singing the notes when you play them and think what you would play iff you didn't have a guitar in your hands ...it would be scales one note after another in the same note lengths ...do this with all the string sets ...then do 3 strings then 4 ect using the same principle ...

    A lot of people get into the habit of learning a scale then playing that scale as improvisation ....but in its raw form it's still just a scale iff played as you would a scale ....

    Honestly you could play full good  solos just on 2 strings with good phrasing 
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