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Improvisation on the classical guitar: Step 1 Know the whole neck

After receiving confirmation that their are many of you out there that would like to know more about improvisation for composition on the classical guitar, I shall start with this matter:

Forgive me if you know all of this already. I will do my best to get up to the more interesting topics, like manipulating an idea to create music, but first, knowledge of the entire fretboard is required.

Now, the classical guitar is different to all other guitars, because the ability to use the whole neck is severely hampered by the design of the instrument itself. I'll explain. On electric and acoustic guitars, movement up to the higher frets is not a problem, although the bass strings can be difficult to play properly after around the fourteenth fret on an acoustic.

The classical guitar is different. Playing anything past fret twelve on the bass strings is awkward and a chord/scale/arpeggio is almost out of the question, unless you are of a very high standard. This means that the seven modal positions on the neck are not possible, at most five are, or six if the open strings are used. So in different keys, there will be favourite positions. In my example, I use the key of G Major for the modal positions and arpeggios. These are only a suggestion, if you prefer starting with the second of little finger for each position, then adjust accordingly.

The point is to memorise them and be able to transpose them into any key. But remember, because of the limitations of the design, there will be one or more modal positions that are not easy to play and so are omitted. In the example, D Mixolydian and E Aeolian are omitted. This is because they are too awkward to play over the entire two octaves, but they will be useful in other keys, so learn them too. I have found that when writing in a specific key, practise the modes and arpeggios in that key. Or if a piece modulates to a different key, familiarise yourself with the new key by doing the same thing, otherwise you will be hampered by only being able to play a limited number of things.

You may notice that the modes and arpeggios both begin with degree VII of G Major, F#minb5 or Locrian mode. This is firstly because the lowest mode on the guitar in G Major that can be played without using an open string is F# Locrian, and secondly, because the root of the tonic is such a common place to play, being able to move either side of it is paramount.

So, in G Major, F# Locrian/F#minorb5 and A Dorian/A minor are vital to create smoothness in the G Ionian position. It also means that all notes from the key are well practised and easily accessible when improvising.

Finally, make your own routes up between positions, some you will love, some are more awkward but all have unique benefits when used to improvise. The arpeggios given are just for illustrative purposes, use whatever fingerings you prefer and use two octaves if you are comfortable. Next, assuming that all goes well and daily practise includes modes and arpeggios all over the neck, we'll look at writing an invention.

For those who are interested in modes and how to use them, my book The Modal Method of Music covers all 66 scales, their modes and how to use them.


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