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Improvising

Improvising

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Juan Pablo Muñoz Madriz on Jun 18, 2010
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07/27/2015

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Improvising - Part One
Pentatonics -- They're Your Friends!
A few years back an "Unplugged" special on MTV featured aperformer, his band, and a backup string quartet. At one point(while everyone was taking solos), the singer motioned for thestring players to take a solo also.And nothing happened! These string performers were greatmusicians -- but they didn't know how to improvise. It's notsomething a classically trained violinist is called upon to dothat often.Being a great improviser isn't easy -- but being a decentimproviser isn't hard. You just have to know a few things aboutkeys, chords, and
 pentatonics
.A pentatonic is simply a five note scale. We're interested inMajor Pentatonics and Minor Pentatonics. In a majorpentatonic, the five notes are: root, whole step, whole step,whole-and-a-half, whole, and finally root again (octave). Minorpentatonics are: root, whole-and-a-half, whole step, wholestep, whole-and-a-half, root again (octave). (Note: I know theseare six notes. I included the root twice, once as root, again asthe octave. The actual scale is only the first five notes.)For example, a G-Major pentatonic contains the notes G, A, B,D, and E. Interestingly enough, an E-Minor pentatonic containsthe same five notes -- but it starts on a different root -- E, G, A,B, D! If the first note after the root is a whole step, it's a majorpentatonic. Country and folk music commonly use majorpentatonics. If the first note after the root is a step-and-a-half,it's a minor pentatonic. Rock and roll and blues generally useminor pentatonics.Let's look again at the G-Major pentatonic -- G,A,B,D,E. Theseare the three notes in a G-Major chord (G,B,D), plus a second(A) and a sixth (E). The E-Minor pentatonic contains the fournotes in a minor seventh chord (E,G,B,D) plus a fourth (A).More on these later -- you don't need to remember them rightnow!If you pick up your instrument and play the five pentatonicnotes, you might think it feels exotic -- perhaps a little Asian --
 
and you'd be right. Pentatonics are featured in Asian music. The appeal is more global, though. If you ever listen tosomeone "scat-singing" -- or if you pretend to play "air guitar"and sing a solo to yourself -- the odds are you are singingpentatonics!(Ever watch Beavis and Butthead? When they sing "air guitar",they're singing pentatonics.)So how exciting can five notes be? Well, Led Zepplin's JimmyPage has done pretty well -- and he's noted as being mainly apentatonic player! How about that lead player in that countryband you heard last week? Odds are he was playing G-majorpentatonics. How about the monster riff leading off DeepPurple's "Smoke on the Water"? Another pentatonic. Stevie RayVaughn was another tremendous guitar player who relied onpentatonics -- in fact, virtually every good guitar player usesthem.And so can fiddlers! (and horn players, and woodwind players,and keyboard players, and ...)
Improvising - Part Two
Pentatonics -- How and When
We've just explored "what" a pentatonic is. Nothing much to it -- it'shard to get simpler than a five note scale!Let's see how to use a pentatonic. We're going to use a country-stylemajor pentatonic for this exercise -- we're also going to assume you'replaying a fiddle.We've seen that a G-Major pentatonic scale contains the notes G,A,B,D,and E. We've also seen this built as a step, step, step-and-a-half, step,and a step-and-a-half.It's nice to know the notes involved in the scale -- but you really don'tneed to do so! The reason you don't need to know the notes is because you're goingto play patterns, not notes!On the four "GDAE" violin strings, your G-Major pentatonic pattern is:
E: 0--3-5A: 0-2--5D: 0-2--5G: 0-2-4
 
In this notation, "0" means play the open string, "1" means finger thefirst half-step, "2" means finger the second half-step, "3" means fingerthe third half-step, etc. This means:On the E string: play the "fifth" half step (an A), the "third" half step (aG) and an open string. Use your second and third fingers.On the A string: play the "fifth" half step (a D), the "second" half-step(a B), and an open string. Use your first and third fingers.On the D string: play the "fifth" half-step (a G), the "second" half-step(an E), and an open string. Use first and third fingers.On the G string: play the "fourth" half-step (a B), the "second" half-step(an A), and an open string. Use first and second fingers.Obviously you don't play a massive chord with all these notes at thesame time -- you'll combine these notes in various ways as youimprovise.Let's give it a try -- start with the "A" on your E string and work yourway down. It'll sound likethis.  That's playing a G-Major pentatonic. Let's dress it up a bit -- we'll skipthe high "A" and start with the "G" on the "E" string. We'll follow thesame notes almost all the way down, but we'll "fiddle" around with thelast few notes. It'll sound likethis.Again, we're playing ONLY the notesin the G-Major pentatonic scale.Okay, now let's put together a country-style solo using ONLY the notesin a G-Major pentatonic scale. It'll sound likethis.  Try to do the same thing yourself -- take it slow, use all four strings,and mix in the G-Major pentatonic notes any way you feel. Don't worryabout the names of the notes -- just "fiddle" around with the pattern!When you find a particular pattern of notes that you like, you'lldiscovered a "lick"!Furthermore, you're playing G-Major pentatonics and you're playing inthe key of "G". That's what the band means when they holler out "jamin G" -- you can play G major pentatonics and you'll sound good mostof the time! The key of G works really well for violin -- the pentatonic scale patternsare easy to use. G is also an easy key for banjo, mandolin, guitar, andvoice! If you wanted to practice and learn only a single key, G is a goodchoice!What are other easy violin keys? Try the key of D. In D-Major, thepentatonic fingering looks like this:
E: 0-2--5A: 0-2--5D: 0-2-4G: --2-4
Note you don't use the open G string -- but the pattern is still similar tothe G-Major pattern. In fact, note how the G-Major patterns havesimply "shifted" over a string! Don't want to make a "sweeping

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