I just love to play swing guitar leads. Why do I find such irresistible joy in this style, pioneered by players like Eddie Lang, Nick Lucas, and others? Maybe it’s the exciting syncopated rhythms, or the way that the guitar’s role is clearly defined but the player is never locked into a box. There is plenty of room in the music for guitarists to express their own ideas, to pull back or step out front, and to approach things gently or with reckless abandon.
Guitarists can be intimidated by swing guitar, thinking that they will have to learn a ton of new scales and chords in order to play it. But you can in fact get started with just one scale and chord. In this lesson I’ll show you how to get the most mileage out of just a few notes—while getting a great workout on the fretboard.
The first three weeks of this lesson will be harmonically static—based on just a G major chord. I’d recommend you record an accompaniment to use for these exercises. It can be any type of G chord—open or barred, sixth or major seventh. (In the video here, Cathy Fink plays a G6 throughout.) The bulk of these examples will be based on the G major scale (G A B C D E F#). But rather than play straight up and down the scales, as guitarists who are new to improvisation tend to do when soloing, I’ll show you how to use the scale to play musical ideas.
Example 1 starts simply, focusing just on the notes G (root), F# (major seventh), and E (sixth), all on the sixth string in the open position. Start off playing a series of Gs. You can really express yourself with just that one note, playing it fast or slow, in different syncopated rhythms, and sliding into it from a half step (one fret) below, for jazzy effect. The last several bars mix things up with the introduction of the notes E and F#.
Example 2 stays in the same position but further jazzes things up with the introduction of a chromatic passing tone—a note outside of the G major scale, F, which connects E and F#. This example again shows just how much you can do with just a few notes. Also note the rests throughout, and that in the second measure there aren’t any notes at all. What you don’t play can be just as important as what you do.
Work through these two examples and try some of your own variations before proceeding to next week’s workout.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Just as you did with the note G in most of Example 1, use the other members of a G6 chord (B, D, and E), to explore one-note swing soloing. Try varying the rhythms and sliding into a given note from a half step (one fret) below.
You spent the first week within the first three frets, but this week you will venture up the neck. You’ll focus on playing the notes surrounding a G chord in third position—in other words, your basic F chord, moved up a whole step, or two frets. On the top four strings, the G major triad (G B D) is right under your fingers—play G on string 4, fret 5 with your third finger, B on string 3, fret 4 with your second finger, and use a first-finger barre to play D on string 2, fret 3 and G on string 1, fret 3. This shape is perfect, because its notes can serve as anchors for fun lead lines.
In Example 3, you’ll find swing lines based largely around that G shape, with chromatic notes like A#/Bb and D# lending a bluesy flavor to the exercise. If you have trouble with the eighth-note triplets in bars 11 and 12, just slow them down and practice them over and over, making sure that the three notes per beat sound clear and evenly spaced. Once you’ve got the triplets under your fingers, play the entire figure and try your own solos around the G shape.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Naming the notes as you play them is a good way to get better acquainted with both the G major scale and your fretboard.
In each of the previous two weeks you’ve stuck to one position, but this week you’ll work diagonally up and down the fretboard. Example 4 starts off in open position, but in bar 3 it travels to third position, and goes up from there, ending on a high E. The figure includes everything you’ve worked on so far, like chromatic passing tones (the A# in bars 1 and 3, etc.) and lines based around G triad shapes (bars 3–6).
Changing positions can be tricky, so pay close attention to where the shifts occur, in bars 3, 6, 9, and elsewhere. You might try learning the phrases in different areas of the fretboard separately before combining them. When you put everything together, make sure that you are maintaining solid time when shifting positions. Using a metronome will definitely help with this.
Beginners’ Tip #3
In addition to recording a backing track for these examples, try recording yourself playing your own leads, then listen back to make sure all the notes you played sound good with the G6 chord.
So far, all of the examples have been based on a G6 chord. This week it’s time to bring all your hard work together while extending the concepts to C6 and D7 chords in a I–IV–V (G6–C6–D7) workout in the key of G major. As in the previous weeks, Example 5 is based largely on the G major scale. Notice how I land on certain notes that highlight the chord changes. For instance, the E in bar 5 is the C6’s third, and the D at the top of bar 9 is the D7’s root. Check out too, how I introduce an idea for the C6 chord in bars 5–8, then play a similar phrase, but two frets higher, for the D7 chord.
Is that all there is to swing soloing? Certainly not! But it’s a great place to start—you now have at your disposal a bunch of different ideas for solos or instrumental breaks, which you can easily transpose to other keys. I would encourage you to explore more swing ideas on your own. You might have so much fun it will be difficult to put your guitar down!
Beginners’ Tip #4
Example 5 is much longer than the others—32 bars. If at first you find it difficult to play, learn the figure four bars at a time, and slowly, before stitching everything together at tempo.
TAKE IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Once you’ve completed this Weekly Workout, try jamming on some two- and three-chord songs using the scale patterns, triads, and passing tones you learned. I suggest “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” “Jambalaya,” “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” or any other songs you enjoy. Memorize exactly when the chord changes happen, and try soloing employing some of the ideas you played in this lesson.
Marcy Marxer is a multi-Grammy Award-winning musician based in the Washington, D.C. area who has recorded with Pete Seeger, Eva Cassidy, Tom Paxton, and many more. She teaches guitar, mandolin, and ukulele, and performs with her partner, Cathy Fink. cathymarcy.com
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