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I've been spending quite some time lately practising various interval-based fingering exercises for soloing on the guitar. These are basically exercises where I ascend or descend a scale (the major scale) in thirds, fourths, fifths, etc. For example, if I'm practising thirds on the C major scale, this would be

C-E-D-F-E-G-F-A-G-B-A-C ... and so on (and reverse)

... or for fourths, it would be

C-F-D-G-E-A-F-B-G-C ... and so on (and reverse).

I'm trying to use these while jamming on backing tracks (say a simple ii-V-I progression) or something suitable to a certain mode of the major scale. I find it a bit awkward or unusual, for instance, to use the ascending/descending fifths pattern on certain chord progressions or at certain times within the same chord progression.

Can anyone advise me on how I can try to gain more control on this application of such patterns while improvising on chord progressions? I mean, are there any simple rules of thumb about connecting the intervals that these patterns highlight with chords/chord changes?

I suppose one can say that it's relative how good/bad it sounds, but I'm talking more about control in using the motor spontaneity these exercises facilitate while soloing over chord progressions.

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These interval exercises are good for dexterity but in my opinion they are only of limited use when trying to improvise a melodic solo. The patterns sound too predictable when used without modifications. Furthermore, all notes of the scale are given the same weight (or importance), and this is usually not the most musical way of using the notes of a scale, because each of these notes has a different meaning and a different importance.

Having said that, you can of course make use of small subsets of these exercises in actual solos. I would suggest you experiment with larger intervals, especially sixths, because they get you out of the typical linear runs or third intervals which are so typical for guitar (because these can be played with relative technical ease). Also fourths and fifths are great. One good exercise with fifths is playing up or down a scale on a pair of strings in perfect fifths (skipping the awkward diminished fifth). E.g. on the b and e string you could do something like this (in C major):

e     3   5        7  8        10  12          15  ...
b  1        3   5        6  8          10  13      ...

Use slides for moving up. Sixths are most easily played on a pair of strings with one string in between, e.g. on the g and e strings.

What is most important to make all of these exercises useful in a musical context is the use of interesting rhythms. The basic exercises are often written down as simple eighth or sixteenth note runs, but that gets old pretty soon. Experiment with rests, triplets, syncopations, etc. to keep it exciting and alive.

Last thing: when practicing technical stuff like that, also train your ears at the same time. Try to predict the next note in your pattern in your head (or by singing or whistling it). Can you always correctly predict it? If so, then you'll always know if it actually sounds good in the given musical context (i.e. when you play over a backing track or with a band). If not, break the pattern and do something else, because now you're not practicing anymore but you're actually playing music!

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Any chord will have certain notes which will match it better than others. Using your C key example, C-E, E-G will work well, as those notes appear in the C chord. If you played C-E, D-F, E-G on beats 1, 2 and 3 of a bar it would sound fine. Starting on beat 1 with an appropriate pair of notes always works well.

With 4ths, you'll have to be more picky. G-C will obviously work over C, but the upwards pattern will not really lend itself to the rest of the bar. Same with 5ths, and parallel 5ths were taboo in classical pieces for the reason they just don't sound good.

Better, maybe, to use a 5th, play another note or two, then another 5th appropriate to the chord at the time, or play on a C bar, say, E,F,G.C and so on, as those notes work towards your 4th, and fit the chord well. As exercises, the concept is good, but it's not particularly helpful to use as a basis for building up a set of licks.

Listen to stuff - the consecutive idea is used, but usually only in short bursts, rather than a whole line. A bit like - we learn a scale, but rarely use all the notes in that order in a solo.

  • Do you really mean "consecutive 5ths", or maybe "parallel 5ths"? Because consecutive 5ths are great, and Andy Summers would need to revise at least half of his guitar parts if they were taboo ... (OK, I know you mentioned classical music, but I believe even there consecutive 5ths would be OK). – Matt L. Mar 8 '15 at 16:54
  • Sorted!Thanks, Matt. Yes, commonplace on gtr now. As is the Devil's interval, banned a couple of hundred yrs ago. – Tim Mar 8 '15 at 17:44
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"Strong" melodic notes are notes that are in the chord being played, especially if they're played on the beats.

Use your interval patterns as embellishments on the strong melodic notes that you play or as a way of breaking up or embellishing scalar runs. It's good in small doses.

It's especially effective when you shred using very fast runs up and down and across the fretboard. Musicians as diverse as Frank Zappa and Eddie Van Halen used this technique.

Another place where interval patterns are effective are when you're playing an ostinato under other instruments. Embellishing an ostinato with intervals above and below the ostinato notes make for a very interesting addition that engages the audience without them understanding exactly what's going on.

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