Play The Changes With Two Scales

improvisation play the changes Mar 13, 2019

Mission Control

February Album Writing Month is over. I'm pleased to say I "won" for the eighth year running, which means that, along with around  2,500 other people, I completed and posted my fourteen songs within the 28-day deadline. It's taken several years of writing in this concentrated way, combined with assorted residencies and other gigs, and making a couple of records, to arrive at a working idea of "what I do" as – for lack of a better word – an artist, or as I manage to say in my less pretentious moments, how I do what I do the way I like to do it.

At the moment, the audience for that art is fairly microscopic. And at the moment, I kind of don't care. I like to make it, and if it sits in a drawer like a bunch of Emily Dickinson poems or gets heard once every month or two by a few dozen people when a gig lands in my lap, so be it. That's my business, and if I ever manage to make more of an effort on my art's behalf, well, there's a great tradition of aged white men traversing the country in station wagons to play the blues, or something like it, for a couple of dozen folks at a time in other people's hometowns.

I recently spent some time with a former guitar student of mine who worked as a marketer for most of his career, and he observed that part of defining what you are includes defining all the things you aren't (insert Jerome Kern joke here). That's a tough one for most artists to swallow – it's all about possibilities, so marking off various paths as non-starters feels distressing and limiting and full of abandoned what-ifs. But I've binge-watched enough Marie Kondo lately to grasp that perhaps ruling certain things out leaves the surviving options with more room to thrive and grow.

Musically, this comes up all the time. If I had to pick, I'd call myself an acoustic musician, but I really enjoy playing electric guitar. Sometimes just because it's fun, sometimes because it's the best way to be heard without coming home with blistered fingers. And sometimes because I'm operating in a craft-based area of the profession like session work or composing, which places a premium on flexibility, versatility and getting the job done regardless of one's personal take or choice of instrument.

It also comes up around the balance of history and originality. What practice time I spend, I spend learning how to improvise like a hard bop musician, and how to arrange and improvise on standards as a solo fingerstyle player. To do either onstage, the bar is so high I could spend the rest of my life not arriving at a satisfactory state with either discipline. So even as I'm pursuing those skills and that understanding, I think of it as research, deep background, the etudes for the music of my own I want to make.

I think it's all too easy to err in either direction. Obsess over how it's been done already, and you'll never find your own voice. But if you only focus on your own point of view, you'll have no weight, no ballast, and no limitations to push against.

I'm thinking about all this right now because I've been experimenting for the past couple of years with what I do educationally, and it seems time to consider: what is Fretboard Confidential about? Is it about acoustic fingerstyle? Specifically blues? Is it about how to broaden what fingerstyle blues is, and how to improvise within that framework? Is it about electric blues guitar soloing, more specifically how to play the changes on the blues? Does all that fit under one umbrella of: fluid and creative ways to play blues? Or are the acoustic and electric sides of things essentially two different pursuits struggling to co-exist on the same platform?

I just got an email this past week from a long-distance reader, a professional player I've now had several lovely digital exchanges with about music and these lessons and other things. He wanted to know if it would make sense to study my Swing and Jump Blues course if he was primarily a solo fingerstyle guy. It made me really think about how all of this might potentially fit together, and I wrote back:

"Improvising coherently and creatively as a solo fingerstyle guitarist is certainly enhanced by a deeper understanding of how scales and chord tones fit over the chord changes. Figuring all of that out while coordinating the thumb bass is a tall order, so learning about improvising in a single-note context, that is, playing single note lines over chord accompaniment, is potentially a way to isolate and focus on just the improvising part of things - the relationship between the solo line and the chords - without having to worry about holding down the chords, at first.

"Get a grip on that idea, and then when you go to incorporate it into your fingerstyle playing, you'll already know what you're trying to achieve, in terms of improvisation, and now can focus on the mechanics of: how to physically coordinate the playing of the improvised line you want over the bass you're trying to maintain.

"So depending on what your solo / fingerstyle / performance aims are, these electric lessons on single-note improvising could be really helpful if you view them not as an end in themselves (being able to solo with a band), but as a tool to employ towards the pursuit of your one-man sound."

For myself, I'm thinking that's as good a way as any to reconcile jazz improvisation with fingerstyle guitar – as source material for the thing I really want to do. With that in mind, I'll just point out that I've got a new lesson up today that builds on my previous "Play The Changes With One Scale." For this lesson, I've upped the ante – it's called (wait for it): Play The Changes With Two Scales. Have a look. I think you'll dig it.

If you're not a subscriber yet, you can become one (and get the tab for this lesson) here:

Play The Changes