In this lesson on the guitar fretboard, I’ve shown you what the notes on the guitar neck are and how to memorize them.
This is important for getting started in the art of improvisation which simply means being able to come up with your own tunes on the guitar at will.
However, knowing where the notes are and finding your way around the guitar neck, still begs an important question for beginners in improvisation.
What notes go together on the guitar? Can I play any note on the fretboard followed by any note and make it sound good?
The short answer would be yes, you can. There is not a single note that cannot be played before or following another note on the guitar and sound good.
Yet, if you listen to this melody, you will probably not like it at all – the notes sound horrible together.
And the problem is not the rhythm, because if I use the same rhythm and use a different choice of notes, I can come up with something way more decent, like this:
So what makes the notes in the second melody sound good, and in the first sound horrible?
The main difference is that in the second melody I’m choosing the notes from a scale, specifically the A minor pentatonic.
While the role of guitar scales goes even further than this, one thing they tell us is what notes are going to sound good with each other.
Thus, if I play, for instance, only notes that find themselves in the A minor pentatonic scale above, those notes will sound good with each other.
Memorize the pattern of this scale and then, try to come up with a melody using only notes that are in that scale – no matter how simple your melody is, you’re just getting started here.
There is more to coming up with a good melody than using the right scale.
Among other things are phrasing techniques such as string bending, vibrato, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides make the same notes you’re playing sound better, and more melodic.
For instance, in the two melodies above, though the second melody sounds much better than the first, because it has notes coming from the same scale, rather than thrown there together at random, it still sounds quite lame, because it lacks guitar phrasing techniques.
Compare it with this melody, which still uses only notes from the A minor pentatonic, and the rhythm is no more complex than the other two but sounds much more pleasing to the ear than both melodies above.
The string bending and the vibrato make the melody kind of, more melodic.
What scales to use
So far I have shown you just one scale (the A minor pentatonic) but there are more scales you can use than this of course.
So which one will you use when your improvising?
If you’re playing on your own – without a backing track – the answer is any scale whatsoever.
In fact, when you learn a scale, before using it to improvise with a backing track or other musicians, I always suggest you play melodies choosing notes from it– to get the flavor of the scale.
When you’re playing with backing music though, you can’t just pick up any scale.
If the backing track is in E major and you’re playing notes from the A minor pentatonic, you’re going to sound horrible.
These are the scales you should choose if you’re a beginner in guitar improvisation:
The major or the major pentatonic scale for any piece of music played in its equivalent major key (ex C major)
The minor or the minor pentatonic scale of any piece of music played in its equivalent minor key (ex-A minor).
To find out what key the music is in would be a different topic and you would need more knowledge of music theory to grasp it.
For now, you can use two easy shortcuts to find the music you can improvise to:
- Search for backing tracks on Youtube and insert the key you want to improvise in, in the search (ex: Heavy Metal backing track in A minor).
- If you’re playing with other musicians, just ask them. (I know this may sound obvious but I actually used to play the wrong notes when I started jamming out with friends because I was too shy to ask what key they were playing in, wrongly assuming I should have it figured out by ear)
There is a logic behind the madness of the guitar fretboard.
Learning scales and using them is the fastest way to find your way through the maze and come up with melodies that will please your own and other people’s ears.
Once you’re comfortable using scales, you may also want to learn guitar arpeggios which will help you choose the right notes from the scale in the right places.
Always remember though, that writing a great guitar riff, lick or solo, goes beyond choosing the right notes.
Other factors such as phrasing techniques, rhythm, and dynamics should be given their due importance in guitar practicing in general as well as in improvisation.
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