I get it, I really do. Shredding up and down the neck like Rusty Malmsteen (it's a joke) is a ton of fun! I'm right there with you. It is easy to get caught up in this mentality and forget one of the most important aspects of guitar playing: making music. Music was once described to me by a great guitar player named Guthrie Govan as "a series of tension and release". Shredding is great, but without a strong sense of melody and phrasing your "music" will never have that magical sense of wonder that you only experience by working tensions and releases.
In this article I will be going over various important aspects of melody and give you some tips on how you can work on developing this skill. I promise once you do, your guitar playing will never be the same again.
I know it's cliche to start with a definition but it's necessary here. "Melody" is defined as "a sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying."
Think about that for a second. "A sequence of single notes" - this we understand from music theory. The opposite of this would be a pattern of more than one note played simultaneously but that is called "harmony". Harmony and melody work together to create music but that is a little beyond the scope of this article.
This brings us to the most important part of the definition - "...that is musically satisfying." This is the key. A melody cannot be any random collection of notes, it must be "musically satisfying."
So, understanding this... let's dig in.
Music is a highly emotional art form. One needs to look no further than the feature film industry to prove this fact. Watching a dramatic scene in a movie without music does not evoke a strong emotional response. But if you add in a touching Howard Shore score, you have every preteen weeping in the theater.
The point is, emotion is probably the most important part of your guitar playing. You have to learn to inject your guitar solos with every ounce of emotion you can manage. You need to make your audience really feel something, not just hear or see your guitar solos.
You can practice developing emotion in your guitar playing by practicing and developing many different phrasing techniques. I could write an entire article on phrasing alone (it's that important) but for this article I'll stick to an abbreviated bulleted list. Develop these techniques in your guitar playing:
Perfecting all of these techniques will not make you an emotional guitar player. What it will do is allow you the freedom to play anything you hear in your head (from the simplest lick to the most complicated guitar solo). Having these skills is the foundation for building emotion.
To practice adding emotion into your guitar playing you have to really get in touch with your inner ear. I recommend doing this by following these three steps:
Think of a melody in your head. Internalize it. Sing it. Anything goes. The only thing you cannot do here is improvise something on your guitar. Do not do that! There is a time and a place for that but it is not here. We're trying to get in touch with our inner ear here, people!
Now you can pick up your guitar. Learn the melody you heard in your head on the guitar. Make sure every note is exactly what you heard in your head.
Articulate the notes the way you hear them in your head. This means that every slight bit of vibrato, glissando vocal slides, bends, etc. need to be perfectly as you heard them in your head. Most guitar players stop at step 2 and thus miss out on a very important part of the exercise. But not you! You're going to crush it. Good luck.
Keeping a journal is one of the best ways you can improve your sense of melody. At all times you should have some sort of notebook on you (it doesn't have to be a notebook of music notation paper, although that does help). Creativity and melodies will often strike you when you least expect it and it helps to be prepared. When you hear a melody that you like, write it down. Then when you get back to your instrument, work out what you wrote and see how close you were in your writing. As your ear develops and improves over time you will get better and better at accurately and quickly notating your musical ideas.
This relates to the previous point a little bit. You need to develop your aural skills (ear training). Having a great ear will open up all kinds of doors for you musically. You will be able to:
Practicing this is actually very simple. I want you to improvise over a backing track. The key doesn't matter... actually nothing matters about the backing track or your improvisation. But there's a catch: I want you to sing every note as you play it. It doesn't matter if you "have a good singing voice" or not - just make sure you can sing the pitches correctly. Singing the notes while you improvise them requires you to know what each note will sound like before you play it. At first, this will be challenging but give it time. You will eventually be able to improvise a full guitar solo while singing it as well (George Benson style).
This is an incredible skill to have in general but the purpose of discussing it in this article is to help you learn to develop your aural skills and improve your sense of melody.
A strong sense of melody is not something you will develop overnight. It will take months and even years to get these skills down. It is a lifelong pursuit that you never truly "complete". This is good because you it means you will never stop improving! The most important thing you can do is to never give up. It doesn't matter where you are on your guitar playing journey. I encourage you to continually set goals for yourself and continually push yourself to reach those goals.
And as always, I'm here for you! If you have any questions, need some help, or just want to talk I'm always available. Please don't hesitate to reach out.
Dallas Dwight is an instrumental guitarist who composes original songs in a style that blends technical prowess with a strong sense of melody. You can get more free guitar articles at his web site.
Beyond playing guitar, Dallas is an avid composer, producer, songwriter and full-time gear junkie.
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