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Michael Casswell - Pro Concepts Season 2 - Part 2: Melody

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 13 **

So what makes a melodic guitar player? I could answer but giving a few examples of players I think are melodic a lot of the time. Brian May springs to mind. Give him a couple of days in the studio and he will compose the most beautifully crafted melodic guitar break you have ever heard. Neil Schon from Journey came up with some lovely guitar melodies. A lot of his guitar solos from the Journey days are like mini songs within a song. Or how about Steve Lukather? He doesn't need two days in the studio because he will just improvise melodically. And Jeff Beck, who when he is in that frame of mind, will play a slow Blues that is a melody followed by a melody followed by a melody.

There is no easy route to this one (I probably say that in every pro concepts feature!). Not all guitar playing is down to repetitive practice, but being musically aware certainly does help. If you are musically aware, you should be capable of singing or hearing in your head, little melodies that fit over simple chord sequences. The chances are the first thing you sing or hear over a sequence will make a good starting point for a nice solo, be it on guitar, piano, sax or kazoo.

Being musically switched on and aware in this way is different to being technically proficient or confident with all forms of musical theory. Good melody, or being able to combine a series of notes that speak to people comes from a whole different place. Again it's that creative area that separates good guitar players from inspirational players. Ideally, you need a balance. You need enough technical ability to execute ideas with flare, fire or restraint. You need enough theory to join each idea together to make a nice coherent musically strong passage of notes. And you need that creative element to come up with something that isn't just throw away or a few tricky licks pieced together, but actually moves the listener. It's a hard one that I'm hoping I can demonstrate.

In the '90s I was doing a lot of pop/funk/rock style sessions - some jingles and TV stuff and some songwriting or band stuff. Rarely was any guitar solo a full shred widdle. It was all more about good lines that gave you chills when it kicked in. I learnt pretty quickly a cool trick of taking the main melody that was threaded through the song, usually the vocal, and incorporating it in my solo. Usually the producer or songwriter would love it and I guess that where I learnt a lot about playing melodically rather than showing off my latest tapping lick. The other approach I used was to choose musically strong notes from the chord sequence. Roots, 3rds, 7ths, 2nds or 9s all give a flavour if you can put them in just the right place in just the right way. Arpeggios, without it sounding like an obvious arpeggio are also a great starting point. I know that sounds a bit of a contradiction, but if it does sound to much like an obvious arpeggio, to me it does lose a little of that 'cool' factor.

As usual, this stuff isn't easily taught. It has to come from inside you, but if I can make you aware of it, then that is a good starting point. Don't get me wrong, a melodic approach isn't always what’s required or wanted. The trick is to be able to do it if needed, and that's where a lot of technically gifted players fall down.

I am writing this after we filmed the tutorial, which with hindsight, seemed to go well. I didn't have it planned and relied a lot on my experience, gut instinct and personal musical decision making. Plus I figured if it went horribly wrong we would you just cut and start filming again, and I would develop another idea, and you guys wouldn't know any different (he's honest, isn't he? - Ed). As it turned out, I think what we got on the first try shows the approach and decision making involved. As a pro player, you will be put in a situation at some point where it's about strong lines, melody and feel. That's the point where you get tested as a player, so please be ready.


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