Improvising Tips and Tricks Part 1 with Chris Zoupa

Hey guys. Getting tired and frustrated with your improvising but don't know how to spice things up? Check out my lesson on tips, tricks and ideas to zazz up your improv!

Ultimate Guitar
Hey guys. Lately I've been dealing a lot with students wanting to improve their improvisation. The common complaint has been "I just stay in the same pentatonic box and it sounds boring." I completely understand this helplessness as improvisation was never properly taught to me… However I want to plant some seeds to zazz up your approach and playing to improv and jamming.

Firstly, this might sound strange but I want to stay in the box (the most common shape of the minor pentatonic) today… What we're going to do is add an arpeggio and a diatonic scale within or near "the box" and that'll add variance to what we're doing, but still be within a box or area.

Most Common Minor Pentatonic Box Shape

Pentatonic w/blue notes (flat 5/b5)

D Mixolydian Shape (Relative to "E" Natural Minor/"E" Aeolian) 

E minor Arpeggios

Jumping from and between these ideas instantaneously adds intervalic variance… In layman's terms the space between the notes changes from scale to scale (Pentatonic to diatonic or Arpeggio to pentatonic etc). Let's look at what makes up all the scales and how they look in relation to the diatonic scale.
  • Em Diatonic scale: E F# G A B C D (1 2 3 4 5 6 7)
  • Em Penatonic scale: E G A B D (1 3 4 5 7)
  • Em Arpeggio: E G B (1 3 5)
Here's a link to a jam track in "E" Minor.

Have fun with it guys and check out my YouTube tutorial too!

By Chris Zoupa

49 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Great lesson Chris, perfect mix of theory, demonstration and advice. Already opened me up to a few alternative ideas when jamming or creating licks.
    I might be an idiot here. I used to think if something was in E Minor, you could only play along with the song in E Minor. Not E Minor Diatonic, Blues, etc. I really need to educate myself on music theory, because day-by-day I'm realizing I know nothing. Great lesson.
    It's impossible for a human to know and apply everything in music, that is a great and beautiful thing in itself. We are all students of everything.
    Chris Zoupa
    Be excited that there's more to learn dude! There's nothing worse than plateauing and not know how to get fresh ideas and concepts into your soloing and songwriting.
    Rock, metal, blues, etc., constantly break the "rules" by applying the minor pentatonic over major chords (just as one very common example of the "rules" being tossed out the window). But it's what gives those types of licks their distinctive tension. Don't be discouraged, just dive in! It's encouraging to know that even the most masterful of guitarists (whether you look to Vai, Sergovia, SRV, McLaughlin, Mason, etc.) don't know everything, and there's always more to learn.
    It seems that there's a dichotomy between people who think about music mostly in terms of the guitar - using words like "shapes", "patterns", "licks" etc. - and those whose musical understanding is more independent of the instrument. "Mixo shape" might be a useful shorthand way of referring to a particular sequence, but please bear in mind it's not the Mixolydian mode. Please also consider that the perpetual misunderstanding of modes in the Musician Talk forum and the internet as a whole has a wearing effect. People like Alan are trying to help by suggesting if we use a little less loose terminology it will be better for the musical education of beginners and perhaps even our own understanding.
    Some good ideas here, but referring to the 3rd exercise as "D Mixolydian Shape (Relative to "E" Natural Minor/"E" Aeolian)" is just pointless, and at worst destructive. It's just the E minor scale. No modes, unless you're intending to play this over a song that has a continuous D7 - C progression with no other chords being employed. I'll bet that this is not the harmonic context that the example is intended to be played over. You're probably utilising it in the key of E minor. As you are such a great player who teaches guitar solos really well, someone will now go play the E minor scale and call it a mode.
    Alan, you are 100% correct. Chris obviously has an ego with his UG comment, and it's a shame, because even the best players should continue to learn and take lessons. If he were to play those notes over D7 and C like you said, it would be mixolydian, but calling those notes mixolydian is counter-productive and confusing to would-be learners. I mean he could call it A Dorian or B Phrygian. Guitars do this all the time in guitar world to sound cool, even when it has nothing to do with the tonal center. Very misleading.
    Chris Zoupa
    It's a D Mixolydian shape... I'd be happy to argue with you some more... I'm just that chump on the front page of UG nearly every week.
    Chris as I stated above you're excellent at teaching solos and are a great player. I do however think that there is absolutely no advantage to referring to that "shape" as D mixo, especially when it's not functioning as D mixo. It's the E minor scale. If you need to give the shape a name, just refer to the CAGED method (in this case the G and A shapes). This way you do not lead the reader into thinking that they are doing anything remotely connected with modes. Check out dasfrazz's comment below - is this the result you are aiming for?
    There is no such thing as a mixolydian (or minor for that matter) "shape". There is the major scale and depending on what underlying tonal center you have you get different sounds or modes. This means that what is considered an eolian (natural minor) shape can be considered a mixolydian shape if there is a different tonal center. Hovever in this particular case Chris is right. The backingtrack gives it a D mixolydian sound thus it should be considered as playing in the D mixolydian mode.(Not shape)
    The backing track is in E minor. This makes the tonal center E and the scale E minor. Meaning that it is not D mixo.
    No, there is such thing as a Mixolydian shape. It's quite simple: you can't tell the key of a piece of music without knowing the final cadence. In this example, the implied cadence over the scale would be Em - D (it's a modal harmonization - it's not based on the alternation of V7-I). This is a modal cadence - therefore, a scale that ends on D (as this one does) represents the Tonal center. The backing track is wrong, but if it's taken just based on the scale alone, it is a "Mixolydian Scale," (therefore, a "Mixolydian shape")
    This comment reminds me of the guys that post backing tracks on youtube saying that a song is in the key of "E minor/G major". it's, not, it's one or the other.
    Chris Zoupa
    They are the same thing. They're relative. Eminor and Gmajor are very good friends.
    Relative means just that. They're related. Which means NOT the same thing. For example, you can't argue that "Don't Cry" is in C, because it's distinctly minor, A minor actually. A song can't be in both a major key and a minor key at the same time.
    Chris Zoupa
    The scales and chord structure are made up of the same notes and chords. The reason why they say that stuff on jam tracks is to remind the viewer of their options. It's actually a considerate remind to have that in the title don't you think?
    Yes, it's the same notes between two relative keys, but the tonal centers are totally different, which is what defines that key, for lack of a better word. But yes, I suppose it a considerate reminder, especially if a player is more familiar with the major scale vs. the minor scale, or vice versa (just gotta take note of the interval displacement!). Anyway, great lessons!
    Chris Zoupa
    I must find out what tonal centre means in more detail. Might help my Melbourne kids!
    Chris, the scale on it's own is actually D Mixolydian. Without the backing track, it outlines an Em-D cadence, which is a modal cadence and, therefore, cements the tonal center as D Mixolydian. Don't stop teaching your students that its a D Mixolydian shape, just change the chord progression of the backing track to something resembling a D-G-D-Em-C-D (really anything without a D7, and the second to last chord, before D, has to be either G, C or Em).
    I'm not saying that E minor is G major, both are actually modes (eolian and ionian). they do however contain the same notes. When I write that there is only the majorscale I refer to the scale not the specific natural major/ionian mode/sound. I'm saying that if you play the notes of E minor in a shape that starts and ends on the note E over a certain backing track with a certain tonal center it will get an ionian sound and you will be playing in G major even though you are playing what some people (wrongly in my opinion) refer to as an "E minor shape". I did however get the last section of my comment wrong because the backingtrack gives it an eolian sound/mode feel or whatever you want to call it. Alan is right.
    A D7-C progression is not a very good modal progression, as a Dominant 7 chord should be altogether avoided in a modal harmonization. A better progression would be D- G - D - Em - C - D, as the leading tone to G is never stated explicitly. The combination of notes could be in any mode, but if you outline a D major chord (which seems to be the implication of this scale, as it ends on D), you get a D Mixolydian scale. I haven't heard the backing track, so I cannot comment on that, but there is nothing wrong with what Chris is teaching on paper.
    Sorry mate but your chord progression appears to resolve to G, making the D mixo scale function as G major. Not modal unfortunately.
    Sorry, but you're incorrect. Resolution to G is only legitimate between three cadence types: the plagal cadence, the authentic cadence (preferably the perfect authentic cadence) and the phrygian half-cadence. There is no instance of a c minor chord, nor does the C chord that I use resolve to G - therefore, the plagal and phrygian relation are not used. The authentic cadence route is also covered as there is no instance of a Dominant 7 chord in my chord progression (there is no tritone to resolve - that's where the term resolution comes from in music: the resolution of the tritone in the dominant seven to a consonant interval in the I chord). D - G does not constitute a cadence, as G and D exist in two keys (D major and G major). This ambiguity is essential to modal writing, and the strongest cadence in a Mixolydian key is the plagal cadence that exists between G and D. This is followed by two weaker cadences (in this case, C - D and Em - D). They both work because they share common tone(s) with G. My chord progression references all three modal cadences (and avoids the tonicizing dominant seventh), therefore it is as modal as it gets.
    A V - I cadence is actually incredibly strong. Perhaps not as strong as a V7 - I cadence, but strong enough in your chord progression to make it resolve to the G major chord. I'm not sure where you learnt that keys required specific cadences to be keys, but it's simply not true.
    You don't appear to have read my earlier comment very analytically. I quote, " D - G does not constitute a cadence, as G major and D major exist in two keys (D major and G major). This ambiguity is essential to modal writing, and the strongest cadence in a Mixolydian key is the plagal cadence that exists between G and D. " This is actually a paraphrased section from a textbook, published by the Oxford Press - if you would like the citation, I would be glad to give it to you. This prior information indicates why the strongest cadence is a V7-I: it defines the key - a simple V-I does not define a key and therefore cannot be considered "strong." Because it is modal writing and not tonal writing, you have to evaluate cadences differently: therefore, what works in a major or minor key does not necessarily work in modal writing. Thus, I take it you've never studied impressionism, because if you had, you certainly would not be making that claim about cadences.
    I think it's pretty clear that we won't agree on whether your chord progression resolves to G or not, so we may as well end this exchange here.
    Chris, Alan always has to have the last word. How he continues to be a mod on the message boards with his snarky attitude is beyond me. I've heard at least a dozen professional players (Two who are good friends of mine that graduated from GIT) refer to "the mixolydian shape" during clinics over the years. Well done, Chris.
    I understand why Chris explained it as being a Mixo "shape", even though it's Em, as it starts off in probably the most used position for playing Em licks, but then extends below that pattern. But I also understand Alan's point, and I think all he's saying is that, without any further explanation, it's very likely to be highly confusing to people who don't 100% understand modes, and the patterns in this context. Fact is, the lick is still just E natural minor. Other than the pattern's shape, it has nothing to do with Mixolydian music-wise. And the potential for confusion regarding modes is extremely high (check out the comments sections below just about any modal article on this site!). Other than that, fantastic lesson.
    I'm sorry if my views have offended you mate.
    Hook a brother up with that last lick you did. Too quick for me to get the pentatonic pattern
    Wow, you guys should take a step back and listen how petty you sound, arguing over Cadence and Tonal Center, Whether something is a Shape or a Mode, Mixo Shapes Ect..... Calling Chris's teachings destructive!!!!! If you guys were real players you'd know that just because something's not Theoretically Correct doesn't mean it's wrong. When I started reading this article it said IMPROVISING!!!!! Obviously you guys dont do much Free Jamming because if you did you would know that you never know whats going to happen, you play off "feel" and "energy" and "emotion" that's what Improvising is, making something wrong or out of key sound right!!!!! Chris, you gave a great lesson and you're doing a great thing here with your lessons and you're a great player. These guys bashing you in the comments probably dont have an ounce of talent so they just have to whine about some theory crap because thats all they got!!!!! Keep up the great lessons man!!!!!
    Particularly enjoyed this one because of a rut that I've been in for ages now. Good bitesized pointer to get me thinking a bit.
    I won't say anyone is wrong or right about whether the shape Chris used in his example should be considered D mixolydian or E minor, however I think it's important for players to understand how to apply modes to the 5 CAGED patterns and the 7 3-note-per-string patterns. Some of the curriculum at GIT does refer to some modes as 3NPS patterns, but I remember specifically that at least one of my instructors didn't agree with it being taught that way. The 3NPS patterns are more useful if speed is the goal, but I think the CAGED patterns can lead to different phrasing ideas. You can play any mode in any pattern, which is why I'd hesitate to refer to a 3NPS shape as a modal shape and why understanding how to apply all of the modes to any of those patterns is necessary.
    Chris, i gotta say that was a truely amazing lesson. Keep up the good work and dont let any one put you down.