Melody Is the Key

We’ve all heard that the key to improvising beautifully is to focus on melody, as opposed to riffs, scales, or theoretical constructs. No one disagrees with this, but very few of us actually practice it.

Heading into my lesson with jazz guitar wizard Bruce Forman, I knew that he would tell me his mantra: “Just play the melody.” But I didn’t understand what this meant until he said it to me face to face and guitar in hand in the backyard woodshed that serves as his musical base of operations.

I told Bruce that I had trouble keeping track of where I was in jazz standards while soloing. He correctly diagnosed that I kept in my mind’s eye a rolling scroll of the chord changes in my head that I would “read” while I played. “But all you need to do,” he told me, “is to follow the melody.”

And that’s when it clicked.

The idea of using the tune’s melody as the basis for improvisation can be taken in two (or possibly more) ways. The first interpretation, which I mentioned above, is to use the melody as a source of thematic ideas for creating a solo. But the second interpretation, which I had overlooked until now, and which is so much more important to me at this stage of my musical development, is that the melody is the most effective vehicle for remembering the song’s structure.

Chord charts on the other hand, in addition to being notoriously inaccurate, are far more difficult to remember than a tune. I bet you never got a chord chart stuck in your head…. but a tune? Forget about it! And assuming you are using a real chord chart while playing, do any of us actually believe that the chord chart actually tells you what the song should be doing? Don’t our ears (or musical imaginations) do a much better job of that?

To hear Bruce expand on this approach further, check out episode 99v of the Guitarwank podcast, hopefully it will make things click for you too!

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