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By Sben

A non-theory lesson about playing solos or melodies

JellyRoll Baker ¨I have a simple rule - play something you can whistle.¨

What is this lesson about?
My idea is to take a different approach to playing melodies or solos on the guitar, one that doesn’t use theory.

Theory is great, because it is concise. You can define a mode, or chord, or scale pattern, and there is little or no uncertainty that the definition is correct. The C major chord is C, E and G. The C mixolydian scale is C, D, E, F, G, A, bB, and C. Theory is like math, like saying 1 + 1 = 2.
That’s fine, but what do you do with a scale, or scale pattern after you have learned it? How can you take that scale, and use it to make music that sounds good?

In this lesson, I want to give some concrete advice that can be applied to improve soloing skills from a different point of view, leaving theory out of the picture as much as possible. Here goes …

THE GOLDEN EAR RULE – If it sounds right, it is.
Sometimes you can play things that break the rules, don’t sweat it. If it sounds right, it is right. Maybe the theory is what’s wrong, or maybe you just haven’t learned that little bit of theory yet, anyway … just go with it. It’s called music theory, and theory is theory, not law. If you hear a note that’s not in the scale pattern, but it’s right … well, then it’s right. End of story.

1 - Use your ear
Listen to what you play.
After you’ve learned a scale pattern, you need to get a good feel for how the scale sounds. Many excellent players use theirs ear first and foremost. So, how can you learn to use your ear?

I put this first because it is the most important. Just skip the rest if you want, this is by far the most important thing to learn to play using your ear.
Put the guitar down and hum along with some music till you get an idea. Just a few notes, not many, something you can keep in your head for a while, and not forget. Put the music on again, and pick up the guitar. Remember your idea when you pick up the guitar!! Usually after playing one note, the idea tries to escape. If this happens, STOP PLAYING! Don’t let the idea get away!!
If you didn’t put your guitar down, try it again. It’s important to not have it in your hands. The temptation to hit a note is too strong, and it will interfere with what should be a pure improvisation.

If the idea got away, try it again.

You can hum, or sing while you are playing too. It will help you to find the right notes, and put them in the right place.

Do you know ¨the Stripper¨, or ¨Yesterday¨, or the theme to Beethoven’s 5th, or the Simpsons theme song, or ¨The Girl from Ipanema¨? I bet you can hum, or whistle, or sing the ones you know the first time. If you can do the same on the guitar, hats off to you. Usually, it takes a few tries, and a couple of finger fumbles before it comes out. It might even be uncomfortable to play, which is the point I make in ¨2 – don’t let your fingers tell you what to play¨. The things that sound good are not necessarily the ones that your fingers want to do. If you can play as well as you can hum, you are very good.

Play along with the TV, or radio. Play every ad, or song that comes on. Don't just diddle about. Play the song. Find the thing that makes the song different.
One problem with this is that you will have to retune your guitar a lot. Most songs aren’t recorded at perfect A440 tuning.

A HELPFUL HINT – If you want to see how the things you played by ear fit with the chords in a song, and you are trying to find the chords to that song. Listen to the bass, or the bass player. You can usually pick out the chords more easily listening to the bass.

2 - Don’t let your fingers tell you what to play
After you learn a scale, the tendency is to run up and down it. This is good to get the hang of the scale pattern. Once you know the scale pattern though, you need to be able to play the notes in the scale in the way that sounds good. Your fingers may not cooperate here – let me explain this in detail:

Example 1 - if you are playing in A minor pentatonic, and you are playing the 5th fret of the G string (C), I’ll bet the next note will be either the 7th fret of the G string (D), or the 7th fret of the D string (A). These are the easiest notes to play, and also are the closest notes in the scale.

A minor pentatonic scale is –
E string – 58 (you play the 5th and 8th frets of the E string)
B string – 58 (you play the 5th and 8th frets of the B string, etc.)
G string - 57
D string - 57
A string - 57
E string – 58
The underlined bold numbers represent the two movements mentioned above in example 1.

In TAB the two movements would be -

E string | - - - - |
B string| - - - - |
G string| 5 7 - - |
D string| - - - - |
A string| - - - - |
E string | - - - - |

E string | - - - - |
B string| - - - - |
G string| 5 - - - |
D string| - 7 - - |
A string| - - - - |
E string | - - - - |

Example 2 - Now play the 5th fret of the G string (C), then follow this with the 5th fret of the B string (E), or the 5th fret of the D string (G.) These are technically harder to play, so the tendency is to not play them. But you shouldn’t let the technical difficulty stop you from playing them. You want to tell your fingers where to play, and not vice-versa.

A minor pentatonic again-
E string - 58
B string - 58
G string - 57
D string - 57
A string - 57
E string – 58
The underlined bold numbers represent the two movements mentioned in example 2.

In TAB the two movements would be -

E string | - - - - |
B string| - 5 - - |
G string| 5 - - - |
D string| - - - - |
A string| - - - - |
E string | - - - - |

E string | - - - - |
B string | - - - - |
G string| 5 - - - |
D string| - 5 - - |
A string| - - - - |
E string | - - - - |

This is just an example of what may be hard to play. There are a million other movements that are just as uncomfortable, or worse … some are not even possible. Don’t worry though, you don’t need to be a technical genius to play good music, most of the time you don’t even have to move your hand more than one fret to reach an odd note.

There are many other ways to avoid playing the easiest or most obvious note.
- repeat the note you just played
- skip to a note further away
- make a sound that isn’t a note (a pop, a scratch, a scrape, etc.)
- don’t play any note at all!!

Ah … silence!! That’s a good segue to section 3 – phrasing.

3 – Phrasing
The general idea is; anything you play that has an idea or a structure can be heard and understood by the listener. The idea of phrasing is to play sequences of notes that have a structure of some kind. The opposite would be to play a chaotic or random sequence of notes. Generally, a structured sequence of notes will sound better, and a chaotic one will sound more like random noise. Sometimes you want noise, sometimes order and sense; understanding phrasing will help you to make either.

Using silence to make phrases.

Think about where NOT to play. Silence is really important, and most people don't put anywhere near enough of it in.

Think of the way you talk - you form ideas into sentences, and at the end of each sentence, you pause.

This is the one of the most important things I have learned.

Music is like speech; you don't just run off at the mouth. You say one thing, then another, or ask a question, then answer it. You play an idea, and then pause, before continuing on with another idea.

Practice playing five or six notes, then pausing for a second (or much longer), then continuing with a new series of notes. Concentrate on making each sequence of notes into a phrase that is related to other phrases you have played in the same solo.

3b and 3c– making phrases with harmony or rhythm
Silence is still the best tool you have to make phrases, but not the only one.

3b - Note sequences - Another way is to make phrases is to make the notes into patterns which can be heard separately. Like this pattern: CDE, DEF, EFG – these can be heard as groups of 3 notes, or mini phrases. You hear a lot of this in classical music.
You can also invert parts of the phrase, and you’ll still hear the phrases. With the CDE, DEF, EFG for example, you could invert the middle phrase and get CDE, FED, GFE. You can still hear the individual 3 note phrases in this. This can get very complicated, using long sequences, and different inversions.

3c - Rhythmic patterns - Rhythmic patterns also can be used to make phrases. Basically you take a rhythmic pattern, and repeat it, or repeat a variation of it. Think of Beethoven’s 5th , or ¨Happy Birthday¨, or the voice in the intro to ¨Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band¨ these use rhythmic patterns to form phrases.

Rhythm is very difficult topic to talk about, and I won’t get started, because it would go on for much too long. I’ll just say that rhythm is the most neglected subject for most guitarists, and there really isn’t any way to talk about it in a post like this.

3C – When to not make phrases
You can also play without silence, or discernable phrases of notes, or rhythmic phrases. It’s like screaming at someone. Screaming can be good. It can also be like talking on and on and on with no point, which probably isn’t what you are going for. So be careful with this. At the climax of a solo it might sound good, or to create a feeling of confusion. Even then, a well placed bit of silence could make it sound even more intense.

4 - Create a mood
My wife - ¨they've beebled and bobbled themselves right out of the song.¨


The main idea of music is to create a mood, or a feeling. That’s a very important thing to keep in mind when working on a solo or melody. Think of any good tune and you’ll see it has a mood. A lot of bad music is bad because it doesn’t define its mood well. What if Angus Young played a solo over a Bob Marley song? Kirk Hammet over a Frank Sinatra song? or if Madonna sang for the Ramones? Might work. More likely though, the moods, or styles wouldn’t mix well. Maybe this is the most important thing to keep in mind. Hmmm ….

Scythe - ¨Speed is irrelevant without clarity¨

The last word
I wanted this to be a relatively short post, so I’d get right to the point.
Some things I left out –

Rhythm (this is the big one), emulating voice, glissando, vibrato, bending notes, playing out of pitch, playing staccato or legato, making weird noises like scratches, scrapes, pick sweeps, hammer ons and pull offs, emulating other instruments like harmonica, sax, piano, sitar, and a whole lot more …

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