Improvisation For The Fingerstyle Guitarist. Part 1

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.

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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 lessons 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. Fig. 1 (picture).

    p     p  m  i        m  a     p     m  i  p  i  m     i  p  i
Here the Right Hand fingers hold the chord form (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, is a standard practice of jazz musicians and is quite essential to developing the skills to improvise. Diatonic scale of Em:
        E F# G  A B C# D  E F# G   A  B  C# 
Degrees 1 2  b3 4 5 6  b7 8 9  b10 11 12 13
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

Cadd9  : C E G D

C6/9   : 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? Fig. 2 (picture #1).
Em7 - Cmaj7

    p     p  m  i        m  a     p     i   m     a
(picture #2).
Em9 - Cmaj9

    p   p  i  m  i  a     m  i  m     p   p  a  m  i  m  i  m
(picture #3).
Em7(add4) - Cmaj9

    p     i  m   p  p  i  m     a     a     p  a  m  i       i  m
(picture #4).
Em11 - Cmaj9

     p     m  i   p  i   m       p      i      a  m  p  i  m
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 & 2 start with the basic (first position) forms of Em7 and Cmaj7. In measures 3 & 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 '60s -- 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 & 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. Acoustic and jazz guitarist Gilbert Isbin's early influences, from classical, to jazz, blues, ethnic and freeform music, has ultimately contributed to his now distinctive and refined style. His music transcends the dualities of classical/jazz and composed/improvised music and is filled with strong melodies, rich colourful harmonies, sound effects and polyrhythms, highlighted by delicate acoustic guitar picking. He performs solo, in duo with Iep Fourier, Jeff Gauthier, Joe Fonda, poet Frank Decerf, in trio with Sador Szabo and Major Balazs and with the Gilbert Isbin Group. - Gilbert Isbin's official website. - Gilbert Isbin's e-mail address - To be continued...

55 comments sorted by best / new / date

    but u never hear those on stage u hear insane face melters that arnt soft but insanely good and have a lot of bends and hammerons
    You no wot someone should make a lesson to make your solo's stand out and sound different each time. My solo's all sound the same!
    why did he say to use you pinky instead of your index? he's got the finger's backwards so its hard as hell!!
    forget my last comment! I mean't thumb not pinky finger! ah **** it this lesson didn't help me!
    sidewinder says: did you write this for left-handed people or am I stupid?
    o i see what he means.... forget i said anything...good lesson though
    well im trying it cause i wanna be able to do a solo!!! theres lotas awesome tabs here. I WOULD LOVE to play DEAD by MCR but i dunno how to jump aorund on stage. any suggestions muchly appreciated !!! nice lesson. I'll try it. mellowed out... not for long im going to see rancid in two days!!!
    im lefthanded and when you said lefthand i assumed righthand out of habit. good lesson. easy to follow.
    Anyone who has just messed around with a guitar or have played "Dust in the Wind" should understand this.
    if u can undertand what hes saying ull probly already know it. covered the techniques but as a lesson kinda pointless i found.
    im weak at chords.. hard for me hehe... i do lead... i thought i can do plucking..
    What's so hard about any of this??? Surely there can't be this many people who don't understand how goddamn chords work... Good lesson by the way.
    oh and i think i should post an appology for anyone who did not appriciate my previous post before anyone says anything! because we all know there is someone out there who will take offence
    sorry to nitpick but you actually wrote E Dorian as the scale, instead of diatonic. never mix up yer scales
    Wicked lesson man! First cool good lesson involving fingerpicking that I've run into. Not that I've been searching.
    Strat_Player wrote: im soory whats this lesson teach... am i first?
    Improvisaton for the fingerstyle guitarst
    Krypt onite_0194 wrote: hmm... a bit too difficult for me, but it seems like you know your stuff
    Certainly, he's a professional musician. His life is guitar playing. I'm sure he could teach you, UG fellows, alot.
    Im pretty new here and Im glad to see a good fingerstyle lesson and I hope there will follow a lot more from beginners to advanced. Until now I couldnt find much on the web. Id love to get more in to Fingerstyle no matter if Rag, Countryblues, Jazz, Rock Davey Graham, Mark Knopfler or Phil Keaggy - great fingerstyle music in every kind of musicstyle. Please keep up the good work - thanks a lot
    gaaaah so hard o.O but im sure it will be useful to me down the road as my guitar playing skills progress so thnx
    That was good, but mabye abit to confusing for some. for those who want advice: only think about alittle of that at a time.
    good lesson arppegiation is one of the best ways to solo but if you run down the em in an arppegio come back up in a em blues dorian you a lovely sound also a nice trick when improvising is to add little bits o chords here and there e.g after you play e minor the rythem guitar could go to g then go up past the 12th fret and play a g open chord an octave higher with a sticatto sort o rhythm then sweep pick the g and play about with pentatonics going up 1 and down another (for noobs if your playing a g play around d and so on)
    Everything 'bout this drill's cool.The explainations are straight to the point & sound & the musical illustrations are accurate;accurately mind opening...Musical pictures(standard notation) acompagning tablature;I just wish everyone was doing the same.This lesson is a treat to my taste.Thanks Mr G.I.
    Great lesson. But you could explain chord extensions better it will probably confuse most. \M/ ROCK ON \M/
    So far all I've really been doing is strumming like a madman. Thanks for adding some finess into my arsenal.
    ryansfriend1 wrote: wtf is p i m a
    could you not read 5 sentences into the article for the explanation?
    did you write this for left-handed people or am I stupid? furthermore, good lesson, you know your stuff, and now so do I
    Bit diificuly but to sum it up: Thanks man. ----- Rock 'N' Roll Ain't Noise Pollution
    well u tried still dont get it though u guys are kinda confusing me though to make a solo u need to know scaleseg: pentatonics,harmonics. and u need arpegios:s inlighten me someone