When learning to improve, one piece of advice you'll come across again and again is to learn the melody. Last year, I watched Frank Vignola and Vinnie Raniolo perform. It was a terrific show. About halfway through the first set, I realized that most of the improvised sections were just variations of the melody. It was an important lesson to learn. It's one thing to understand academically that you should know the melody. It's another thing to watch a master guitarist use the melody for his own improvisation. Frank really drove the lesson home when he spoke up in the middle of one of his solos and said, "You can't go wrong with the melody!" Lesson learned.
When you learn to play the melodies of the jazz standards, you are learning the language of the music. Eventually, you may find that you are naturally inserting bits and pieces of various melodies into your improvisations. The "Cry Me a River lick" is simply the opening two measures of that song. It works beautifully over any minor chord or its relative major. I can't seem to get through a gig without quoting the first measure of So Nice.
Ray Sasaki was the trumpet teacher at my alma mater, the University of Illinois. Now he teaches at University of Texas at Austin. Ray is equally great at jazz and classical music. One piece of advice he offered for learning to improvise over a particular song was to play the melody 100 times in a row. I think anyone else would be exaggerating, but I have no doubt that Ray practiced what he preached.
Aside from using the melody as a springboard for improvisation, it can help you keep your place. I play in a quartet that reads out of a The Ultimate Jazz Fakebook and some Wikifonia charts. The Ultimate Jazz Fakebook has almost (but not quite) all the right chords, but there are enough substitute chords (or sometimes plain wrong chords) that make you do a double-take. And to be quite frank, the Wikifonia chord changes are just crap. In our last gig, we were playing a Wikifonia chart of It Had to Be You, and the chords don't make much sense. Distracted by these bizarre chords, I found myself a little lost toward the end of my solo. Fortunately, I've played and sung this song often enough that part of my brain seemed to be singing along. That's the only way I can describe it. The part of my brain that was lost started listening to the part of my brain that was singing the melody, and I got back on track and finished strong.
If you are learning a song with the intention of improvising over the chord changes, try learning the melody first. Play it again and again. Sing it in the car. If you get to the point where it drives you crazy because your brain keeps playing the song in the middle of the night, then you're doing it right.
If you live in Atlanta and are interested in private or group guitar lessons, please check my website at www.godfreyguitar.com for more information or email me directly.
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.