Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Playing the Changes


After floundering around with what to practice for a few weeks, I was more consistent this week, in large part because I decided to consciously try to have more fun practicing. I generally enjoy practice, even when it is difficult or even if the things I am practicing are a bit tedious. However, when your principle reason for playing the guitar is not professional aspirations, there is a limit to how much you can push yourself, especially when life outside the fretboard become very stressful.

This week, what I found most fun was playing simple tunes and improving in fingerstyle over those simple changes. I focused on Neil Young’s Helpless, Tom Petty’s Walls, and simple ii-V-I’s in a couple of keys. I focused on using chord forms to shape lines and help me to keep the bass-chords-melody style going to some degree. My main goal with these improvised solos was to “play the changes,” to imply the chords with the lines I created.

The challenge in playing the changes is not just the challenge of highlighting chord tones at the right time. If you have a decent handle on arpeggios, you can navigate simple changes like the ones I was using easily enough if that is the only thing you are trying to do. The real challenge is stay musical while making the changes and still keep the feel of the song. There are hundreds of songs that share the same basic chord pattern at some point in their changes, but don’t share the same feel or melodic context within those changes. It is possible to play the changes and end up with something that doesn’t feel at all like the song you are playing. I managed to do this a lot.

Fingerstyle guitar arrangements offer an advantage in avoiding this though since you typically play the melody as well as implying the chords. I had the most success beginning with simple variations around the arrangement of the melody.

That is somewhat the opposite of playing the changes. Early jazz musicians primarily based solos on the melody, referencing it and return to it as they improvised. A few of the great swing area sax players- most notably Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins- played lines that were more explicitly concerned with the chord changes and these players inspired the next generation of players to follow their lead. When Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie blew open the jazz world with their creation, be-bop, this approach became the dominant one. Navigating complex changes at blazing speeds practically became a sport with pieces like Giant Steps set up like an American Ninja Warrior course for soloists. The style of playing around the melody has become antiquated.

But guitar players are not sax or trumpet players. As guitarists, we are always playing the chords, or riffs that imply them and far too often we don’t actually play the melody. At all. Ever. Every woodwind and brass player plays melodies constantly. Playing the melody is in their blood. It isn’t the same for guitar players, especially if they have played mostly rock, folk, country or blues, like me. When I try to play the changes, I lose the song completely and everything sounds like an exercise in playing chord tones in a pattern. Beginning with something more musical and evolving it away from the melody helped me a lot. So did keeping it simple and slow. I feel like I made real progress with this concept approaching it this way.

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