The title of this month’s blog post is a play on the title of the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. Like that story, this is a tale of old heroes returning to save the day. In Star Wars, it’s Luke, Han, and Leia, coming back to save the galaxy; in this post, it’s chords, scales, and arpeggios coming back to save the guitar solo.
To get things started, I’ll use some quotes from the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV A New Hope) to help me make a point about the folly of poor preparation. Then I’ll explain a way to prepare your mind for soloing so powerful you’ll feel like you have a light saber instead of a guitar.
The main idea of the post is that we live in a chord centered musical universe. It is the chords, not the force, that “… surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”
Constellations of Possibility
Sometimes, after a bad lead, I find myself like Han Solo reporting to a bewildered imperial officer from my station at a recently blown-to-bits detention unit. “I had a slight weapons malfunction,” I say into the microphone to my bandmates, “but, uh, everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?”
Or I look out into the audience and notice that everyone is making faces and acting “…as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”
Yes, suddenly silenced all right. They were silenced by the bad note symphony I just unleashed on them. That sorry excuse for a guitar solo was so bereft of content that everyone in the audience is now three IQ points dumber for having heard it.
The root cause of this sort of playing is the near limitless options that are available to guitarists. Questions like these often come to mind while improvising: What rhythm should I use? Should I play fast? How much should I copy the vocal melody? Does this scale work? Are my ears and hands on the same page? What’s the next chord?
It is truly befuddling at times.
The easy way out of this decision tree is to wank in a one-size-fits-all box shaped pattern. Usually this one:
There is nothing inherently wrong with using this scale (A minor pentatonic) because it provides plenty of soloing service. But I believe there is a better way to make music than by blindly wanking about in a box.
That better way is this: while improvising, use arpeggio-based phrasing pockets that correspond to specific chords as they are happening in real time.
May The Chords Be With You
The best way to organize your mind about the guitar (so as to make sense of this arpeggio-based phrasing pocket idea) is with the CAGED scale system. With this system, players can rely on cell-like fragments to unpack the complexity of the guitar fretboard.
There are five chords that form the CAGED system. Here they are:
Hence the name. Using a barre, these chords can be played anywhere about the neck, and so, in any key. Here they are being used to play C chords at various regions of the neck:
Notice that the parent CAGED forms are being used to play a different chord then the one they’re derived from. In this case, I’m using the forms to play C chords up and down the neck. Remember, eleven times out of twelve, the name of the chord and name of the chord-form you are using will have different letter names.
Within each CAGED construct also lurks a major scale. Here are the CAGED scale forms:
Notice how these scale shapes fit right on top of the chord shapes.
The best way to use this system for soloing is to develop chord specific vocabulary into muscle memory. This is best accomplished by learning an etude.
Check out this exercise using the A-form scale over a G7 chord:
The strategy, then, is simple: first conquer soloing over one chord, then over two, then over three and beyond, by using a chord-based cell as a guide.
One way you can go about doing this is by preparing and committing to muscle memory a lick for each of the four basic chord constructions: major, minor, diminished, and augmented. Develop and commit to muscle memory the following fragments:
Play these snippets of vocabulary over corresponding chords while improvising. (You may need to transpose, obviously.) Observe how you adapt and manipulate the fragments to serve the sounds you are hearing.
Soling with constructs such as those found in the CAGED system may seem “totally different” but remember what Yoda says to Luke in Empire Strikes Back (Episode V), “No, no different, only different in your mind, you must unlearn what you have learned.”
It’s the same thing with the CAGED system and your old way of soloing. You’ll want to shepherd your mind as careful as a light sabre-ing jedi for such a project. Music deserves this sort of effort. A true jedi does right by this responsibility.
May the chords be with you.