Approaching Single Note Improvisation – from a different perspective

This month we are going to have a look a method of learning the fretboard that can have you playing over its entire range quite easily.

While I cannot overstate the importance of learning your scales, arpeggios, and all things theory related, as a guitar teacher, my priority is to get students playing music as soon as possible. Knowing the geography of the guitar neck is imperative to successful playing. The prospect of learning even a couple of fingerings for any given scale can be a tad daunting and time consuming for both novices and some experienced players. I like to use the following approach to get budding improvisers into the musical element quickly, all the while helping to reinforce the learning and visualizations of scales and arpeggios.

Let’s use the key of C for the purpose of simplicity. Play the following common barre chord voicings. They are all 7th chord voicings with the root note on the A string and the fifth on the low E string: Cmaj7, Dm7, Em7, Fmaj7, G7, Am7, and Bm7b5. (The 3rd inversion of the m7b5 is nearly impossible to play without discomfort, so just visualize the 5th on the E strings.) See Example 1.

Example 1

These chords are all derived from the C major scale. If we use a fretboard diagram to draw in all of these chord shapes, what do we see? All of the notes of the C major scale from the third position to the thirteenth position. If we continue up into the next octave, we’ve covered the entire guitar neck with C major scale tones; don’t forget to cover the first position with the 3rd inversion Bm7b5 chord.

What we’re doing here is making available all of the notes of a major scale over the entire length of the fretboard by using chord shapes instead of scale patterns. This makes the process of learning the fretboard and making musical use of it much easier.

I recommend taking small steps. For example, take the Imaj7 and IIm7 and make up lines using only tones from those two positions. See Example 2.

Example 2

Once you are comfortable visualizing the two chords, add the IIIm7 and so forth. You will be gradually increasing your comfort zone, chord by chord. See Example 3.

Example 3

I use these particular chord voicings because of their ease and relative ubiquity in music, but any voicing spanning six strings will work provided you move them across the neck diatonically, keeping the intervallic construct consistent. For example, we can construct a chord using this intervallic design: 1 4 7 3 6 9 (from low E to high E)

Example 4

These voicings are relatively uncommon and much more dense and rich than the previous ones, but they are diatonic to the key of C and can be used to serve the same purpose.

Once you’ve got this cold in the key of C, proceed to the eleven remaining major keys. In the future we’ll take a look at applying this process to the melodic and harmonic minor scales.

Any questions, comments or suggestions can be sent to [email protected]. See ya.