Saturday, December 27, 2014

Expanding Vocabulary From Simple Building Blocks

Today we'll be going through a number of approaches you can use to expand your vocabulary, starting from a simple building block. In other words, how can we use a simple series of notes (scale fragments, "lick", pattern, etc.) to serve as a basis on which to create more elaborate lines?

I'll be using a simple descending dominant bebop scale in G resolving to E. For the sake of this discussion, let's imagine these lines would be played over a |V7|I maj7|, a |mii|V7|I maj7| progression in C or just a C major tonal center.

Here's our building block:

Example 1: a descending G dominant bebop scale landing on E

This is a very simple yet melodic phrase, outlining some obvious chord tones. F(7), G (1), D (5) and B(3) on the G7 & G (5) and E (3) on the C. However great this line may sound, if you keep playing this over and over again when a G7 comes up, chances are you'll get tired of it very fast as it starts sounding stale. Let's take a look at how we can alter it to make it sound more interesting.

Note: none of these examples are meant to be exhaustive, it would just be impossible. Moreover, one the main goal of these approaches is to make up your own variations!

1. Rhythmic Alterations

Altering the rhythmic content of our initial line is a great, easy way to bring new life to it.

Example 2: Rhythmic Variation #1

Example 3: Rhythmic Variation #2

Example 4: Rhythmic Variation #3

In example #5, we're shifting the starting point of the line in order to delay the resolution (if you consider the second bar being the I maj of a |V7|Imaj7| in C.)

2. Adding Ornamentation

Ornamentation is a great way to give familiar vocabulary a different feel and rhythmic approach.

3. Using Enclosures

There is a great article on explaining what enclosures are and how to use them. Check it out HERE if you need a refresher.

In example #12, we're combining enclosures and adding a chromatic passing tone right before the E.

There's a lot you can do with enclosures and passing tones (we'll be talking about this more in depth in the future, stay tuned!). Here in example #13 we repeat an enclosure pattern twice and shift it chromatically up until it has us land on G before going down through many chromatic notes.

4. Inserting Material Before

This is self-explanatory: just insert some language before your building block as demonstrated in the two examples below.

5. Inserting Material After

Play your original line and add on to it. Again many, many possibilities here.

6. Inserting Material Within

The idea here is similar to the concepts in approaches 4 & 5 but this time the beginning and end of your original line will stay the same while you add notes in the middle.

7. Inserting Octave Jumps

Playing parts of the original line in different octaves radically changes how it sounds. See below two basic examples of this approach.

8. Using Fragments

You don't have to play the original line in its entirety. Just cut it short and veer in another direction or smoothly transition to the last few notes of it starting with different content.

As I'm sure you've realized by now the possibilities are endless, only limited by your imagination and existing vocabulary. It's also possible to combine several of these approaches together; they aren't mutually exclusive. For example, you could very well alter the rhythmic content of the first half of the building block, and replace the last half by something else (so you'd be using approaches #1, #5 & #8).

In addition to just coming up with new lines, opening up your ears, reinforcing your knowledge of the original line as well as allowing you to be more versatile with your existing vocabulary, this method can be used to get the most out of a transcription. If you hear a line that sounds great, it's then quite easy to make it your own by applying some of these approaches. If you've learned an entire transcribed solo, you could gradually alter and replace the original with your own variations and again make it yours.

The best aspect of this method is that it's open ended. You could spend a lifetime using it and expanding on it. This is not something you'd be able to tackle in a few weeks but rather a tool to use indefinitely. 

Comments, suggestions, questions? Let me know what you think in the comment section below!

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