Improvising without Scales: A Private Lesson with Carl Verheyen

By Gold, Jude | Guitar Player, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Improvising without Scales: A Private Lesson with Carl Verheyen


Gold, Jude, Guitar Player


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

IF YOU THINK YOU'VE NEVER HEARD CARL VERHEYEN, YOU'RE PROBABLY MISTAKEN. Whether it's major motion pictures such as Ratatouille and The Usual Suspects, hit shows such Seinfeld and Cheers, or songs by Supertramp, the Bee Gees, and countless other rock and soul stars, the versatile Southern California guitarist has been an audible part of the soundtrack of American culture for decades now. This lesson finds the stage and studio ace doing something he's quite passionate about--helping guitarists break out of scales and other confining fretboard patterns so they can improvise compelling melodies and discover their own sound.--Jude Gold

"Do whatever you want, but make it melodic."

I've heard these words over the years at countless recording sessions and live shows. Even when bandleaders or producers want you to shred with all the fire you can bring, melodic playing is still at the top of their list. We all know that a strong melodic statement is something that lasts, becomes a hook, and sticks in the listener's mind, but for whatever reason, the ability to play melodically is not easily taught. Instead, it's absorbed into your improvising skills. There are no shortcuts to learning this concept, but I can help get you started.

INTERVALLIC INTERVENTION

Ask ten guitarists to define melodic playing and you'll get ten different answers. A lot of those differences come down to musical taste, so let me start by giving you my definition. I believe melody is derived from the combination of intervals, especially those intervals that are wider than seconds. That's because seconds--whether minor (a half-step) or major (a whole-step)--are, for the most part, what make up scales. Play these small intervals in a solo, and you sound like you're running up and down scales. To my ears--to most people's ears, I'd argue--this is not really melodic playing.

Many instrumentalists advance their technique and learn harmony by working with scales. This is all good in the beginning when we are still trying to remember that the key of A[flat] has four flats, or that A major has three sharps. But after that knowledge has become second nature we need to think beyond the sequential order of the scales and begin seeing them as independent tonal centers.

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

LEARN YOUR LINES

A solo based on scale playing sounds like practicing. Guitarists more so than other musicians are guilty of scalar playing because they are typically taught to play in patterns and in specific positions. The good players go on to make the connections between positions, but many are what I call "single-position, top-three-strings" players. You can immediately hear that they don't take in the entire guitar, and that their range is limited.

Melodic playing begins with a tasteful reordering of the notes in the scale or tonal center. You make the split-second decision as to which note should follow the last one you played, and your ability to do this on the fly is what defines you as an improviser. But what about faster tempos? Or sixteenth-notes at a medium tempo? This is where my concept of composing, transposing, and practicing one's own lines comes in.

Many years ago I read an article in Keyboard magazine by Chick Corea. He stated that the best of us are only truly improvising 30 percent of the time, and that the rest of the time we're playing stuff we know, things we've worked out. I took this concept to heart and began to work out as much harmonic material as I could. I filled many notebooks with lines for major, minor, and dominant chords and learned to connect them in every key all over the guitar. John McLaughlin, another one of my heroes, says that on a good night we play the things we know until we're warmed up enough physically and mentally to play the things we don't know.

Therefore, it makes sense to have a catalog of major, minor, and dominant lines available in all 12 keys. …

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