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by Mike Keneally

Guitar Player August 1994

I’m going to tell you the same paragraph twice. This will feel like English class for a second, so bear with me.

Hey here come a bunch of antelope. Big ones by the look of it. Which reminds me. There was a guy by the name of Skeezitz. A real smart aleck. Who once told me a story. It started something like this. Oh well I forgot.

Hey, here come a bunch of antelope; big ones, by the look of it! Which reminds me: There was a guy by the name of Skeezitz -a real smart aleck- who once told me a story. It started something like this ... oh, well! I forgot.

The point being that a keen guitar solo generally doesn’t consist of a spurting series of disconnected concepts. Developing a melodic idea over a number of bars without an overriding concern for where each downbeat falls can be rollickingly fun and useful. To stretch the English class analogy: Not every downbeat of every bar must be a Capital letter, nor must the end of every idea-module be a period. Ex.1, wherein the hot lick gets under way on beat one of bar 1 and meets its maker at the end of bar 2, is the sort of thing that can provide momentary thrills (all hail Ex.1 when used sparingly!), but if such a four-square method is employed too consistently during the course of a single solo, you can fatigue a number of ears in your vicinity.

Here are two other ways to approach downbeats: Gleefully ignore them, or gleefully ignore the finish line. Let's assume for a second that you have the opportunity to play with musicians who share your improvisational bent, and you've just launched into a solo. If the harmonic content of your accompaniment is somewhat fixed, focus your attention on the drummer. If he or she seems to be adhering closely to the beat, the pressure's off you, time-wise; you might try improvising long lines that flow over many bars, shunning overt recognition of downbeats, perhaps breaking away from the basic pulse entirely. Your body can (and should) sense where the downbeats fall, but your fingers don't need to reflect that knowledge. Ex.2 is an extremely random example of this approach; try tapping your foot in four while playing it in order to familiarize yourself with where the beats fall underneath your melody, since you have to understand any pulse before you can artfully ignore it. A million guitarists, knowingly or not, have effectively used such an arrhythmic approach while soloing; start buy digging deep into Hendrix.

Then there's the finish line method, which is exhilarating as hell, particularly if you enjoy the services of a playful and interactive drummer. A phrase starts out fairly conventionally and increases in melodic and rhythmic madness until, spent and happy, it lands on the downbeat [Ex.3]. The fun happens when everyone engaged in the game chooses theor own path (e.g. while you're playing the figure in Ex.3, your compatriots are improvising equally twisted but wholly distinct entities), resulting in a period of willful chaos, which is swept away triumphantly upon the arrival of the chosen downbeat. Which downbeat that turns out to be -in other words, how many bars the chaos lasts- can be a matter of telepathy born of familiarity with each other's quirks, or a quick glance at your cohorts to signal that this foolishly manic moment is about to reach its perhaps overdue (but that's half the fun) conclusion.

Chaos is not always inevitable when targeting the finish line; a quieter form of anarchy can be achieved by setting up an insistent counterrhythm. Ex.4 contains a repeated seven-note figure in sixteenth-notes. If the drummer catches on to your pattern and starts grooving along, a momentary illusion that the meter has changed to 7/16 emerges. This is my idea of a very good time.

Semi-plug: If you haven't been exploiting the "Lessons On Line" service, it's a pretty sweet and logical way to check out how these examples actually sound. If you don't read standard notation and can't be bothered with tb (I think the latter is the work of the devil myself), give it a shot. But learn to read standard notation when you get a chance. It rocks.

["Lessons On Line" was a telephone-service, which should have (but didn't) made it to the Internet by now. So kids, you're on your own.]


Mike Keneally is still playing with Z and still has a solo album, hat (Immune Records), waiting for you to discover it. He currently works on a second solo album and a new Z album and waits for his lovely wife to give birth to their lovely daughter.

©1994 Guitar Player Magazine

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