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How do I improvise, and yet still keep the Melody?

Posted by brae on Saturday, July 2, 2016

There are few subjects on guitar more mysterious and full of conundrums than the art of Improvisation. For us flatpickers in particular, since we have too much dignity to use such Neanderthal devices and guitar effects and overdrive, we actually have to be able to produce a "stream of notes" that actually take a lot of know how and skill. Anyone can plug in and turn up to eleven, making painful faces as they regurgitate blues scales (and many do!). But to have nothing but a good old flattop Martin and a pick, and yet still create guitar solos that express what we feel in side, as well as the personality of the song. But even we flatpickers can fall prey to the temptations of over-playing, of placing technical virtuosity over musical taste, and even more important, the sanctity of the song. 

Myself, i went through a lot of the typical phases of evolution that a flatpicker goes through, first the epic struggle to learn to alternate and play some fiddle tunes, and then the obsession with the immortals like Do Watson and Tony Rice. And then finally I had it, I had that golden pick that had a mind of its own, that would churn notes out even when I wasn't looking, that would allow me to create the sparkling flow of 16th notes that every youthful flatpicker dreams of. And then, of course, I fell into the trap. I became a "player of notes", I spewed forth strings of hot licks and flatpicking clichés at jams, and although it brought me accolades and offers to take more solos, somewhere inside I knew this somehow still wasn't the goal. Something was still missing!

So, after much soul searching and late after-jam pondering, I had the realization: It's gotta bo back to the roots! I had to find out where the melody had gotten lost, and how I had let flashy licks overshadow the most important aspect of folk music: the Melody. And eventually I found a new guru: Mother Maybelle Carter. 

Born in the Virginia mountains in 1909, "Mother" Maybelle Carter began performing with relatives at 16 under the group name The Carter Family. The group recorded hundreds of songs, including "Wildwood Flower" and "Keep on the Sunny Side." and her music influenced the direction of country and folk music for decades to come. But even more amazingly, she had single handedly developed a style of playing the guitar that combined melody with a clever web of filler-strums and color notes, and it made my ears explode. This was the sound I had been searching for all along and didn't even know it! This was the holy Grail where Melody and Improvisation met, and got along!

So I began a retooling of my playing, based on the solid Carter Style concepts of starting with the melody and then ornamenting it with clever strumming and subtle notes, and I have to say, it really added a fullness and legitimacy that all of the hot licks in the world had never given me.

And so now, when a student asks me "hey teach, how do I improvise but still sound like the song?", I nod sagely and say "carter Style guitar, son, Carter Style guitar". And, ironically, I recently had that very question asked on my JamAlong Facebook page, and so i made a video discussing this idea, that we really do have to go back to the roots in order to move ahead sometimes. Enjoy it, and please subscribe to the JamAlong YouTube channel, and keep on pickin! 

How to Improvise Over A Melody

JamAlong on Facebook

JamAlong Music Method text line: 530-566-3629

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