Many of us learn to improvise by memorizing a couple of scale patterns and then matching them to the key that we’re in. On a good day, melodies are born, blues are expressed, licks are found. On a not-so-good day, when it’s your turn to solo the song is not in the right key—not only that, it changes keys every two or four bars, and by the time you figure out how to chase that around, it’s not your turn anymore. Being able to visualize the chords all over the neck as they happen is a great foundation for building melodic lines that make real use of the chords without being limited to one or two scales.
Visualization is a powerful tool that many of us already use every day. In your earliest days of learning to play the guitar, you might have associated chord forms with geometric shapes, likening open D to a triangle, A to a straight line, and so on. In this lesson, you’ll make use of those mental pictures and add some others that will have you improvising with the ease of everyday conversation.
Three Views of a I–IV–V Progression
In conversation, as in soloing, you are at your best when you really know the topic and can form—and convey—ideas as you speak. Musically, the topic is the chord progression over which you are soloing.
Begin with Example 1, which shows a trio of major triads on the top three strings. Study these shapes and their positions. It helps to be aware of which chord tone is on the first string; for example, on the D chord, that note is F#, or the major third. Noticing this will help you make alterations when needed and transpose quickly to other keys. The note names might change, but the way they function in the chords does not.
Now move the D shape up to the seventh fret, making it a G chord, as shown in Example 2. That note on the first string is now B—sure enough, the third of the chord. Look at the F shape from Ex. 1. The root of the chord, F, is on the first string. Shift it up to the eighth-fret C, to make a C major triad (Example 3). You’re two-thirds of the way to a I–IV–V progression. Go back to Ex. 1 and grab that Bb triad shape. Up a whole step is C and another whole step is D, as shown in Example 4. You now have a I–IV–V chord progression in the key of G (G–C–D).
What if you had chosen a different major triad to begin this visual exercise? You could keep it in the key of G but start by grabbing the Bb shape first this time. That puts a G triad on the tenth fret. Now find the other nearby triad shapes to add a C chord at the 12th fret and a D at the tenth (Example 5).
A third way to do the progression is to begin with the F-chord shape and move it up a whole step to become G at the third fret. The nearest C is the Bb shape moved up a whole step, and the closest D is the second-fret shape as shown in Ex. 1, creating a I–IV–V in the lower part of the neck, as depicted in Example 6.
Making the Changes
Blocking out chords like this is the first step toward being able to visualize changes as an improviser. Example 7 shows how you might play a line around the progression in G using only the notes found in the shapes from Ex. 6. Once you’ve gone horizontal in this way—that is, melodic, as opposed to harmonic—you can start to visualize lines around the shapes that connect to one another. Use whatever resources you have for this: your ears, your knowledge of scales and patterns, and your innate creativity.
Example 8 shows a melodic line derived from the shapes you’ve used, with notes added to make smooth connections from one chord to the next. Pay careful attention to the positions shown and make sure you really see which shape the line is based on.
When you encounter minor chords in songs, you can find the three note forms to use by adjusting major triads. Example 9 shows what minor triads look like when you flatten the third from their parallel major triads (those sharing the same root notes).
Similarly, in measure 13, the F major triad (F A C) at the fifth fret works with the Dm7 chord (D F A C), which is also spelled out melodically, starting on a C, in the first four notes of that bar. Bbmaj7 (Bb D F A) contains a D minor triad (D F A), so bar 18 makes good use of that trick. In the final two bars, the melody comes in for a landing back at the Gm7 chord, once again in third position.
The Shape of Things
My composition “The Shape of Things” shows how you can block out the movable three-string forms and create lines around them. A sample improvised line is shown below the chord shapes. Think of the chord diagrams shown as places to start; the triads can be a shortcut to use when encountering their associated seventh chords.
The first chord is Gm7 (G Bb D F). Use a Gm shape in third position and the melodic line you play can include the flatted seventh (F), as seen on beat 3 of measure 1 and elsewhere, implying a Gm7 chord (G Bb D F).
Because the line ascends its way up to the eighth position in measure 7, it makes good sense to choose the C major triad shown at fret 8 to use as a visual aid for an Am7 chord. That’s because the top three notes of Am7 (A C E G) are identical to those in a C chord (C E G).
Have fun with it, and let your imagination discover new lines based on the shapes as you visualize them around the neck.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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