From Blues To Standards In Six Chords

fingerstyle blues fingerstyle improvisation standards Jun 06, 2019

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Improvisation Manifesto

About three months ago, I was sitting around playing guitars and talking too much with my pal Bret, as I often do. Sometimes we just sit around drinking whiskey and talking too much, so it was a nice change of pace to actually play some guitar instead of just talking about it. But I was going over, for the millionth time, my efforts to create a logical path through the process of learning fingerstyle guitar. And as I tied myself in knots over the various steps involved and how to develop the technique to play and improvise successfully, Bret stopped me cold with the observation, "But fingerstyle isn't a genre. It's just a technique."

Get back, Loretta. That certainly puts things in a different light.

Ever since, I've been pondering the ramifications of that observation. (Or, as a professor of mine used to spout, the "socio-, econcomico-, ramifications-o." Minus the socioeconomics, in this case.) And I think it's true – fingerstyle is no more a genre than "singer-songwriter" is; in both cases, the terms describe a way of doing things, not the thing you're necessarily doing.

For my purposes, this is an outstanding and beyond-timely realization. One of the things I'm constantly negotiating, up here on the 18th floor of Fretboard Confidential Towers, is a balance between my two main fascinations, viz., playing the changes and fingerstyle roots guitar. And I've always assumed everyone else views these as two different things as well, to the point that I'm genuinely surprised by the occasional email like the one I got a few months back which read, in effect, "the reason I subscribe is because you talk about both jazz and country blues."

So this comment of Bret's has been rolling around in my skull for a while now, and after a fair amount of rolling and pondering (look for that one on The Existential Chess Records box set) I've concluded that it's the goods. What I'm really talking about, 90% of the time, is improvisation, and what it takes to get there. We might be talking about finding chord tones, phrasing over the form, dealing with altered chords, resolving to the I chord or practicing a new lick in context, but those things apply to single-note improvising and fingerstyle improvising alike, and at the end of the day, they're improvisation skills, period.

Yes, there may more technique required to coordinate those ideas over the thumb than to execute them as a single-note soloist, and that's something worth addressing. But if you want to feel freer on your instrument, have more capacity to express yourself, and get a clearer view of the invisible art of improvisation, playing solos and playing solo require the same basic understanding  of how to put notes over chords in an informed, idiomatic and compelling way.

I could be totally out to lunch with all of this, of course. But in case I'm not, drop me a line and tell me: technique aside, what's your biggest challenge when it comes to improvising?

Now, before I forget: here's this week's lesson, in which I explain how few chords it takes to get from Mississippi John Hurt's eight bar, three-chord "Richland Women Blues" to the 32-bar early jazz standard "Back Home In Indiana."