Improvisation Series – Part 3

Open cardboard box on green screen

Improvisation Series – Part 3

Alright so we are back for part 3 of my improvisation series.  Now, if you missed the first two, you’re going to want to start at the beginning.

Tension and Release: Tell a story with your improvisation

So here we are on part 3 of our Improvisation Mastery Series.  It’s going to get more and more enjoyable from here.  If you haven’t started on part 1 or 2, but you want to be able to improvise like your favorite guitarists, what are you waiting for?


None of this is going to be particularly challenging, it’s super fun, and doing it is going to give you something that you really want, it will give you an amazing sense of accomplishment, it will amaze any audience and will become something awesome that you can do with your guitar any time of day.


Okay, let’s begin.


If you spent a good deal of time with the drone exercise, no doubt you noticed that certain notes sounded great for ending a phrase.   Some notes gave resolution and some notes created tension or even pulled the music forward towards the next phrase.   This is no accident and it’s not just a quirk of how you appreciate music.  This is the “language” of notes in their relationship to one another.


In the E-minor scale, we have the basic triad of the root Em chord.  In the case of Em, those notes are E (1) G (m3) and B (5).


You can easily remember the notes of the Em triad by using the mnemonic device, “EGBert.”


When you get to the video, you’ll find a link in the description for a tab that shows where those notes can be found in the scale you were working with for the drone exercise.  We will also be using that scale again today.


So how do the notes of the triad relate to improvising?


While playing over an Em chord, if you end a phrase on the E note (the root or “1”), you will get pure resolution.  Think of this as giving closure to a musical phrase or passage.  Songs often resolve to the root note at the end to give closure. This works great in improvisation for bringing closure to a series of phrases, or to create a structure to your improvisation.  For example, if you resolve every other phrase on the root note, it creates a “call and response” feel.


While playing over an Em chord, if you end a phrase on the B (the minor 3rd or “m3”), you will get a slightly more tense, yet harmonic pull back to the E (or to the beginning of the next phrase).  If you’re going down from the minor 3rd to the root, it will have a “walking” sound to it.   Combined with the root, you get a nice harmonic resolution.


While playing over an Em chord, if you end a phrase on the G (the 5th or 5) you will get a slight tension with an “airy” sound to it.  More importantly though is the 5th’s “magnetic” attraction to the root.  There is very little more satisfying in music than a 5th pulling you back to the root.  On it’s own, it doesn’t sound like much.  In context, it can sound absolutely amazing.


Now, this is actually just the beginning of the story.  These 3 notes are the easiest notes to emphasize over an Em chord while making it sound good.  Every note in the scale will have its own distinct character to it in relation to the chord being played (or in the case of the drone, the implied chord).  You can experiment with other notes from the scale to see how it sounds.   The 7th or 2nd are notes that are as close to the root note as you can get in the scale. The closer notes are to each other, the more dissonant they sound in relation to each other.  This creates more tension.  However, with notes like the 2nd or 7th, there is also a “pull” that happens towards the root note.  Ending a phrase on one of these notes and then starting the next phrase on the root creates a very satisfying tension that pulls to resolution.


Now that’s just talking about what note you land on at the end of a phrase.  However, this idea works the same for any part of the phrase.  You can be thinking in terms of the notes you begin a phrase with, a note you emphasize in the middle of a phrase, or a single note you hold.  It can really be anything.  The most important thing is that you should be paying attention to how each note sounds in relation to the next (and in relation to the chord behind it) and how it interacts with notes around it.  You want the notes to be pulling to other notes, and creating satisfying resolutions.


The easiest way to think of what makes an improvisation satisfying, interesting and “correct” sounding, is by looking at it as different versions of tension and resolution.  All the notes you play in the phrase can be thought of as passing tones.  If none of these tones created tension, the phrase would be totally boring.  It’s the fact that each phrase takes you on a little journey through tension and resolution that makes it sound melodic and interesting.


So, for this week, I’ve put together a simple backing track for you.  It’s effectively an Em vamp.  The goal here is to start adding in some intentional tension and resolution.   Really pay attention to how each note relates to the others and think about it like you’re telling a story with your phrases.   Think about ebb and flow, tension and release, commas and periods, build-up and climax.


Start out by simply focusing on and emphasizing the three notes from the triad E, G and B (again, you can find the tab in the description of the video).  Play any other note from the scale in between but, at the least, start out by ending each phrase with one of those notes.  This will start to give you a feel for what they do.  Once you get comfortable with it, start testing the water with other notes from the scale.


You can find the backing track here as an unlisted video on my YouTube channel:


This gets a lot more interesting when you’re playing over a multiple-chord progression.  It can also become a lot more complex to try to think about what’s happening.  This is why you really want to be able to do this by ear as much as possible – which is the main goal of this entire series.


Okay, have fun and I’ll be back next week!


Dan Mumm

Dan Mumm is a Metal Method instructor and shred master.  Check out Dan’s lessons here.