Video Lesson: How to Spin Endless Variations on a Simple Tune

By taking a basic melody and changing the rhythms, pitches, and articulations, you can make some hip variations.

In the early 1780s, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart took a simple French folk song—the melody of which everyone now knows as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”—and used it as source material for the solo piano suite 12 Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman.”

You might be wondering what a classical piano work has to do with the steel-string guitar, but the concept at play in Mozart’s piece is relevant no matter what instrument you play. Tony Rice is a prime example of a guitar player who knows how to play with melody to add variety and individuality to a piece. By taking a basic melody and changing the rhythms, pitches, and articulations, like Mozart and Rice, you can make some hip variations.

In this Weekly Workout, you’ll start with the simplest melody and, using these techniques, take it to a bunch of different places.  Do the same with your own favorite melodies, and you can breathe new life into your music. 

Tony Rice knows how to take a melody and "play with it" to add variety and individuality.
Tony Rice knows how to play with melody to add variety and individuality. Image by Jordan Klein, used under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Week One

Example 1 is a melody in the key of C major, in the most basic form, comprised only of quarter and half notes. Work through the melody several times to get it in your ears and under your fingers. Play it as written, in first position, and, if you’d like, in other positions as well; try it fingerstyle, with a pick, or with hybrid picking.

Once you know the melody inside and out, try Example 2, a variation that adds eighth notes, as well as passing tones (pitches connecting certain melody notes). If you’re playing the example with a plectrum, use alternate picking; with fingerstyle, use alternating strokes of your thumb and index finger or index and middle. Also, note the articulations—a staccato (dot) by a notehead calls for the note’s duration to be cut short, while an accent (>) means a note should be played with emphasis.


  Example 3 is a more complex version of Ex. 2. Here you’ll add a little syncopation—rhythms in which stress is given to the weak beats instead of the strong beats. In bar 3, the short line above each note is called tenuto, meaning that the note should be held for its full value, or even just a little longer. In bar 5, the mark on beat 1 is a sforzando, a strong and sudden accent. If you’re using a plectrum, follow the suggested pickstrokes, which should help you play efficiently so that you can make the melody sing.

Beginners’ Tip #1
Get to know a given melody in open position before exploring other positions.


Week 2

This week you’ll kick things up a notch with further variations on the melody. Example 4 introduces slurs—hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides—to articulate the melody legato; that is, in a smooth and flowing manner. Both hammer-ons and pull-offs are represented in notation by curved lines spanning two or more notes; slides include both curved and diagonal lines.

Remember, to play a hammer-on, pick the first note and then sound the subsequent note(s) by fretting it with a hammering motion. For a pull-off, fret two notes on the same string; pick the higher note and sound the lower one by moving the finger that’s fretting the higher note in a flicking motion. For a slide, pick a note then; without removing your fretting finger from the string, move the finger to the target note.

Now try Ex. 4 and be sure to use the suggesting fretting-hand fingerings in order to best negotiate the hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides. Once you’ve polished that off, take a stab at Example 5, a variation of Ex. 3 that includes even more complex slurs. Take things slowly in learning this figure, and make sure that the slurred notes sound smooth and at equal volume.


Beginners’ Tip #2
Memorize all of the musical expression terms, like staccato and legato, and know how to play them on the guitar. 


Week 3

Get ready to embellish the melody with ornaments like grace notes (quick extra notes before the main melody notes, usually played with slurs) and trills (the rapid alternation between two notes using hammer-ons and pull-offs). Grace notes are represented here by small notes with slashes through their flags. Trills are indicated with the text tr and the target note in brackets.

Example 6 adds grace notes and trills to the same melody as Ex. 2. Play the grace notes with slurs. For example, on beat 1 of bar 1, pick the third-fret D slightly before beat 1, then pull off to the first-fret C squarely on the beat. A grace note should be smooth and subtle and not take away attention from the target note. It might take some time to master grace notes in terms of technique and timing, but it’s worth it for the sophistication they can lend a melody—especially a melody like Example 7, which is more densely populated with notes and rhythms.

Beginners’ Tip #3
Experiment with melodies that you already know by using different accents, articulations, and more.


Week 4

You’ll think like a jazz musician in this final week’s workout. A skilled jazz cat can make the corniest melody sound cool and hip by playing it with a swing feel—basically, in which a pair of eighth notes is played not evenly but long-short, giving it a certain bounce.


A jazzer might also add chromatic passing tones—like in the first measure of Example 8, where the CG connects the notes C and D—and fancier rhythms, like the 16th-note triplet, articulated with a hammer-on/pull-off, in bar 3.

The melody is even more jazzed up in Example 9, with its chromatic approach tones (notes outside of the key that anticipate notes within the key) and triplets galore. Timing is key here, so use a metronome and really work on making it groove and swing.

Beginners’ Tip #4
Study how different guitarists express the same familiar melody, and try to copy what they’re doing and assimilate it into your playing.


This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Ron Jackson
Ron Jackson

New York City-based jazz guitarist Ron Jackson has performed and recorded in over 30 countries, with artists such as Taj Majal, Jimmy McGriff, and Ron Carter.

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