New Lesson PT II – Improv(e) and Applied Theory

Case Study

In Part I of this lesson,  I laid some ground work for the idea that improvisation can be utilized as a tool for practicing and composition.  You might want to read that post here.

In this lesson I’ll use a real world example to demonstrate how improvisation and applied theory led me to develop a lick.

Ganamurti Melankarta

I’ve written before about how theory can not only help you understand what you’re playing but can also expose you to new sounds you never considered before.

I was fortunate enough to have some studies with Aashish Khan at CalArts in Hindustani (Northern Indian) Music – the Carnatic (South Indian) has been of interest to me as well.  In South   I have a photocopy of L Shankar’s 1974 AWESOME Wesleyan dissertation, The Art of Violin Accompaniment in South Indian Classical Music (typically available through interlibrary loan – Reminder – SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL LIBRARY) but as that text is not accessible to some people I’d recommend fellow Berklee alumni Charlie Mariano’s An Introduction to South Indian Music as a really good source for making South Indian melodic material accessible to people who wish to adapt the music.

One Melakarta (this is an oversimplified definition but for discussion purposes here – a 7-note scale) I got exposed to was called Ganamurti

(scale formula: Root, b2, bb3, 4, 5, b6, 7)

or with A as a root:

A Bb Cb D E F G# A  (aka A Bb B D E F G# A).

I feel the best way to internalize new scale ideas is to write a new tune with them.  Here’s an excerpt of a new tune based on this idea I’m playing with KoriSoron.  You’ll be able to find it on our next EP.

What’s notated below is what I wrote for Farzad’s part on the A section of the tune.  I’m playing a counterpoint line and doubling some parts of the tune.

Ganamurti A section

So this gives you a basic idea of the melody and vibe of the tune.

Han(d) Solo

There are a few other sections of the piece and then some sections to solo over.  One of those sections has a repeating pattern like this.

Ganamurti Ost

Now this is the basic form.  There’s a lot of melodic variation and fills thrown in on the last beat so it’s not played robotically but you get the general gist of one of the ostinatos being soloed over.

So what I’m going to do now is walk you through the process of how I approach improvising over something like this and how I generated a new lick to add to my vocabulary.

To review the process from Part I of this lesson:

  • Improvise. (Create)
  • Record everything.
  • Listen back and find the new things that you improvised that you like. (Assess)
  • Learn (and when possible improve upon) the best ideas you came up with when improvising.

Here’s the ostinato.

Ganamurti Ost

Thought Process #1. 

I start negotiating the scale looking for melodic fragments to utilize.

I see D F G#

D F G#

aka D, F, Ab

D F Ab
which I recognize as a Diminished triad.

The scale also has a Cb (B) (This is going to be referred to as B from here on out for simplicity.)

D F Ab Cbb

Which makes it a Diminished 7th.

Thought Process #2:

This means I can play dimishished arpeggios over the ostinato.

As diminished arpeggios are made up of all minor 3rd intervals, the notes repeat over the same string groups every three frets.  This is useful information because whatever I come up with melodically here:

D F Ab Cbb

Can be played at the 8th fret:

8th fret 4 note

And the 11th fret:

11th Fret 4 note revised

And so on to create a melodic sequence.

What’s your Position on That?

Before I look at developing a multi-positional lick I’m going to look at it in position.  Since the intervals are made up of all minor thirds – this arpeggio:

D F Ab Cbb

will have a D on the G string as well:

D Dim 7 to octave

Thought Process #3.

THIS is useful information because if I have an arpeggio that’s contained on three strings (in this case using 2 notes-per-string, 1 note per string and 2 notes-per-string which I think of as a 2-1-2 form) then I can take whatever I’m using as picking and fingering for that shape and (with slight modifications to the fingering) apply the same basic idea (more or less) positionally.

So this:

D Dim 7 to octave

Becomes this:

Positional Ab

And this:

Positional D

**Note on playing with patterns:  I find pattern playing to be extremely useful when improvising because it makes modifying those patterns (i.e. making music from them) in real time feasible.   Having said that playing this as quintuplets (i.e. 5 notes to the beat)

Diminished 7th quint

will give you a very robotic feel.  (This IS a really good way to practice getting quintuplets under your fingers but that’s another discussion).  With arpeggios like this I typically play them as 1/16th notes to alter up the feel a bit.

With all this in mind – here is the lick I improvised initially:

four four sixteenth first

It basically involved:

  • Seeing a diminished shape
  • Seeing it on three strings
  • Manipulating it in position

While I’ve detailed a lot of the thoughts out BEHIND the scenes here,  Once I saw the initial shape I arrived at this intuitively.

Then I just moved it up 3 frets:

four four positional sixteenth two

And three frets more:

11th Fret four four revised

Once I saw the whole thing – I tied it together into this monstrosity:

Ganamurti Diminished lick full

News Flash!

We play this tune around 100-110 BPM on acoustic guitars.  What looks like a pristine metronomic moment of perfection in the example above was a train wreck when I first tried to pull it off.

In order to have it under my fingers (and at my disposal) when we play live I’m going to have to practice it and in Part III of this series, I’m going to show how I’ve been practicing this to get it up to tempo.  If you’ve ever felt like practice lessons are not fruitful for you or wondered if you’re doing it the right way – Next week’s lesson will be an awesome one for you!

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