Improvisation for the Fingerstyle Guitarist

To compose something decent, you not only need the goodwill of the muse but also at least some insight into harmony and compositional techniques. As improvising is ‘instant composing’ you will definitely need all these tools.

During this series of columns on improvisation I will always start with a short practical example, analyse it and then give some examples of what we can do with this idea.

So let’s start with this one:

Concept : Arpeggiation with rhythmic diversity

Example 1

Here the Right Hand fingers hold the chord form (the Em7) while the Left Hand fingers play a picking pattern. For now, since this is meant to be a simple exercise, the bass note (the open low E) is played on the first beat of each measure to have a marking point. As we get more skill and confidence we will add more bass movement.

The fingers of the Left Hand are, in essence, fooling around in the chord form, which leads to more independence and certainty (well, after some experimenting…) The finger indications (p (thumb),i (index), m (middle) and a (ring)) are only suggestions. You should feel free to execute them differently.

Advantage :

You are always sure the notes will fit into the harmony of the piece as the improvised melody is derived totally from the chord notes.

Some Chord Theory :

But after a while, only playing over Em7 chords would become quite boring. That’s why we will use Chord Extensions, notes past the 7th degree, namely the 9th, 11th or 13th, which could also be thought as 2nd, 4th and 6th. Adding these extensions, which are built by stacking triads on top of the original Em triad (see David Hodge’s column, The Power Of Three), is a standard practice of jazz musicians and is quite essential to developing the skills to improvise.

Diatonic scale

Em7 consists of 1,b3,5,b7 –) E, G, B , D

Chord extensions of Em7 might be :
Em9 : 1, b3,5,b7,9 or E,G,B,D,F#
Em11: 1,b3,5,b7,9,11 or E,G,B,D,F#, A
Em13 1,b3,5,b7,9,11,13 or E,G,B,D,F#,A C#
Em7/11 1,b3,5,b7,11 or E,G,B,D,A
Em (9/11) 1,b3,5,9,11 or E,G,B,F#,A

It would be impossible to execute all the notes from an Em13 chord on the guitar, since it only has six strings and the chord has seven notes. As the 1, 3 and 7 are essential notes to determine the chord family, you might omit the 5, 6 or 9 position.

Now, let’s experiment on a two -chord progression, the chords being Em7 and Cmaj7.

Chord extensions of Cmaj7 might be

Cmaj9 C E G B D
C add 9 C E G D
C 6/9 C E G A D
Cmaj7/6 C E G A B
Cmaj13 C E G B D A

Both chords and some of their extended forms are played all over the neck, but are still played off of the chord shapes. I specifically picked these chord shapes for this exercise because of their simplicity as well as their fresh, lush sound. Open and fretted notes are mixed which can lead to some beautiful colourful results.

So, let’s try this, shall we?

Example 2 line 1
Example 2 line 2
Example 2 line 3
Example 2 line 4

Pay close attention to the rhythms. Use a metronome or tap your foot on each beat of the measure (on the quarter notes). This exercise should be executed at a medium tempo, but you should always start out slowly in order to get the timing correct. Once you feel you have this, then gradually increase your speed.

Measures 1 and 2 start with the basic (first position) forms of Em7 and Cmaj7. In measures 3 and 4, we use our first chord extensions, Em9 and Cmaj9. You should notice that this voicing of the Em9 omits the B note (the fifth). The Cmaj9, in this voicing, is a great example of why 9’s are often thought of as 2’s, because the open D string is scrunched right in with the C and E to either side of it. That why it’s a good idea on this phrase to give a little breathing room between the initial appearance of the C and E, which start measure 4, and the D, which appears three notes later.

The Em7sus in measure 5 is a very interesting chord in that it is built on intervals of fourths: E, A, D and G. That’s just like your standard-tuned guitar! Harmony in fourths (or quartal harmony) has been very important in the development of modern jazz in the 1960’s – listen to McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis and Chick Corea. It also played a very important role in the music of such eclectic songwriters as Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell. Quartal harmony is a refreshing alternative to “tertial” chords (chords based on thirds) – an escape from both major and minor harmonies and the implied progressions that inevitable accompany them.

In measures 7 and 8 be certain to pay attention to the big intervals created by mixing open and fretted strings. Listen to difference in tone color in comparison to the chord voicings you used in the first two measures.

The Cmaj9 chord in the last measure requires a bit of a stretch! By playing the E note (12th fret on the first string) with your pinky when you play the Em9 in the proceeding measure, all you have to do is slide it down to frets for the D note in the Cmaj9. That should make it simpler for you to execute this rather tricky chord.

I hope you have lots of fun with these exercises in fingerstyle. Next time we will take this idea a step further and improvise over a part of Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing.


Also check out… Improvisation for the Fingerstlye Guitarist II