Modal Improvisation

On Sunday April 17th from 2-4pm I will be leading a workshop about “modal improvisation for guitarists” at Berkeley’s Jazz School.
Modal” is defined as:
1. Of, relating to, or characteristic of a mode.
2. Grammar Of, relating to, or expressing the mood of a verb.

In the musical paradigm, definition one basically means playing within a given key or tonality. The 2nd definition, for our purposes, I would edit to read “of, relating to, or expressing a mood”. So, what we have are modes (musical tonalities) that each specifically relate to a human emotion.
The jam band scene has exploited this simple structure of improvisation for decades to hundreds of thousands of adoring and stoned fans. Basically, if you know a few scale positions you can pretty much shut your brain down and spin/dance your way down epic pathways of endless and meandering solos. Unless you’ve found yourself at a MMW concert though (or a small handful “jam” bands that have actually done some homework), you’d be lucky to find any educated musicians in attendance to drink from the cup of spontaneous composition. All tangents aside though, the purpose of this discussion is to shed some light on the intricacies of this art form, what it’s goals are, and what separates the mundane from the astounding.

What we can glean from the abundance of jam bands however is that this type of improvisation is simple in many ways.  There are no key changes to be navigated, often times the musical forms are open, and the emotional tone is much more solid, tangible, and understandable than say a be-bop tune. Those students of jazz cutting their teeth on rhythm changes, Coltrane changes, or any other changes can breathe a sigh of relief when somebody calls a tune like Footprints, Little Sunflower, or any other tune you can just stretch out in a modal landscape for a little while and rest your weary brain that’s been swimming with 3rds, 7ths, approach tones etc, etc…
What often happens in that situation though is that there’s too little structure. What the heck do you do for 128 bars of Dm7? Suddenly you find yourself meandering nonsensical lines of diatonic diarrhea and ultimately hoping for the head out because you’ve played all your hot licks within the first 32 bars.
The common pitfall of jazz education is that you are armed to the teeth with theory and licks, but when it comes to the real spirit of jazz, the emotion, the exploration, the symmetry of form, you are left to your own devices to make something musical happen. Just because someone dumps a load of car parts on your lawn doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to make anything close to a working automobile…

Whats involved in becoming a master of modal improvisation?

Step 1: Basic Harmony

If you have an open solo over Dm7 you are not limited to D dorian or Dm pentatonic. You can use Em and Am pentatonics, D melodic minor, D harmonic minor, diminished scales, and arpeggios to start with. (Not to mention creating tension and release i.e. moving away from the particular key center “playing out” and bringing it back.) Plus you have to be able play all of these effortlessly so as to meet the demands of the moment and create something spontaneous and exciting!

Step 2: Structure

Whether or not your playing over a structured or open form, organize your phrases and ideas in bars of 8. This is an essential structure that gives your solo boundaries and also makes it easier for your band mates to play off of. You can organize your solo very systematically i.e. Dm pent – 1st 8, Em pent – 2nd 8, chromatisism – 3rd 8, dorian – last 8. Voila!  Instant structure over 32 bars…

Step 3: Time/feel

Anyone who’s ever had a lesson with me knows not to practice anything without a metronome.  After all that I’ve said about harmony with the first two points, everything comes down to your time.  You can play the hippest harmonic stuff in the world, but if your time is not happening it’s all for naught.

Step 4: Step away from the patterns

The name of the game here is improvisation not regurgitation.  Luckily, the modal world is kind in this way.  For guitarists specifically, some simple limitation tricks can get you improvising instantly: play on one string only, only one note per string, limit yourself to a four fret zone (ala Wayne Krantz), play with shapes and structures as they roll and morph from position to position.  Just one of these rules can set you off in a really fresh direction.  In the workshop we’ll look at the mechanics of some of these ideas…

Step 5: Tap into the emotion

Every mode/tonality has a very human emotion.  Dorian is dark but kind of funky and sassy while Aeolian is more introspective and longing.  Ionian has a simplistic happiness to it while Lydian has a spiritual and almost otherworldly aspect to it.  The more complex the mode, the more intricate the emotion is.  Sit down with a few and associate how you relate to the different modes.   Plus, as improvisers we are also performers.  The more you can assume the role and feel into a particular emotion based on your own experience, the more connected you will be with your instrument and the more people will connect with your playing.

When knowledge, facility, and emotion come together, extraordinary music happens.  Modal playing is a perfect platform to practice being a multi-dimensional musician.  It’s more than notes and scales, it’s more than technicality, it’s something that occurs when we engage our minds, bodies, and spirit to create something in that moment.  It is an art of form, poise, and meditation.  Improvisation is one of the greatest human expressions and with a little discipline it can show you a part of yourself that is unique, mysterious, and totally astounding.  That’s why we play music right?

Here’s a couple of my personal modal improvisation guitar gurus:

Nguyen Le, Nels Cline, Oz Noy, Wayne Krantz, Bryan Baker

Who are yours?  Why?

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2 Responses to Modal Improvisation

  1. Wayne Burke says:

    Hey Matt,

    Really enjoyed meeting you and playing with you the other day. It was a pleasure. I was on a natural high all weekend. If I ever make it to San Francisco, I’ll look you up. Take care and thanks for the memory –


  2. Bob Ruzzo says:


    I just stumbled upon your page here and you said it better than anyone has ever said it! That is, thoughts on modal improv. I am relatively new to this and never went to music school. I had to learn things off the internet. But I learned enough to create my own music and play all the instruments. I am going to link this page on Facebook for my friends to read. Bob

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