Learning new scales wont make you sound better.
If you’re an improvising musician, you’ve been there before. You’re sick of how your solos sound and you’re ready to spice things up with some fresh new sounds. Beginner or not, we’ve all felt this way. I’ll often have students in this situation start to inquire about new scales or modes as if that will be the solution to their problem. While yes learning new scales will teach you a new sound, I think people are misdiagnosing their own problem. Bear with me.
That scale is called the “Dorian #4” scale. While you may have never heard of the scale, it’s a scale we’ve all heard before. Just check out “Arabian Nights” from Disney’s Aladdin. It does have a certain “Arabian” quality to it which is why it makes perfect sense for the composer to employ it when writing the soundtrack. I would learn this scale if I’m trying to improvise/create music in that same style. To me, learning new scales is something that is done for a specific purpose such as this. It is not the answer to “playing better solos”.
For someone who has just learned the pentatonic/blues scale it doesn’t take very long for them to run out of ideas. It wouldn’t make sense for someone in that position to learn the Dorian #4 scale even if they feel like they need their solos to sound “fresh”. Obviously this is a ridiculous example. When students ask for new scale, they’re rarely looking for something so exotic. However I don’t feel like this example is very far off from where most of us are when we feel that we need a “new sound”. Often times I find it’s not that we need a new sound; it’s that we need new ideas.
So if the answer isn’t new scales, what do I need to do?
We tend to do the same things over and over, especially with things we’re familiar with like these basic scales. Usually the answer is new melodic ideas rather than a new scale. Record yourself and see what licks, ideas, or techniques you tend to repeat in your playing. For example, if your blues solos are comprised of bend after bend after bend, try coming up with licks or melodies that don’t use bends. Maybe your jazz licks always resolve to the third of every chord? Easy fix! Just try resolving to a different note in the chord.
Thinking this way simplifies so much. It’s about trying to make the best with the tools that you already have instead of moving on every time you get bored. Exercises like this will help you make better music regardless of what scale you’re using. Then once you finally learn that fresh new scale, you’ll be able to make good music with it as well.
-Michael Hilbun is a New Orleans based guitarist and educator. In addition to performing and recording with numerous acts, he maintains an active online Skype lesson studio and teaches students around the world. He has a Bachelor of Music from the University of Louisiana. You can find out more about him at his website www.michaelhilbun.com.