Conceptual Explorations

In this article I’d like to dig into practice “concepts” and why they are so important. The transition from practising things to practising concepts seems to be a milestone for many musicians and one that I think can be very rewarding.

Many musicians I admired seemed to talk about concepts they were working on and I often wondered where they got these concepts and how they practised them – were these the magic ingredients that I had been searching for?

So what is a concept? Well, a dictionary might define it as an abstract idea representing the fundamental characteristics of what it represents, but how does one apply an abstract idea to the guitar?

Concepts can take many forms: technical, melodic, visual, rhythmic, harmonic, in fact, you can break down almost any musical idea and find a concept at its root. I’ve found the most effective and fun concepts have come from trying to find the ‘essence’ of a musical idea that I really liked and trying to explore it further.

Looking at a few specific concepts might help you find more on your own and give you some food for thought, which is what this column is all about, and I’m sure it’s something we’ll revisit more in the future!

Technical concepts can take many forms but the most specific ones are usually most effective, so try to make your abstract idea more concrete to get the most out of it. Something as conceptually simple as playing a solo with one finger can be both effective, fun and productive because it is so specific, while “working on finger tapping” is less a concept and more of an idea. To bring it into concept land you might try “exploring finger tapping patterns using the middle note for string crossing”.

Most melodic concepts I have enjoyed exploring have come from transcribing a solo or lick that I really liked and trying to experiment with the essence of it. Coltrane’s “1235” note pattern concept he uses a lot his in his Giant Steps solo is a fun one (playing the scale degrees of each chord change in the order root, 2nd, 3rd, 5th), but it doesn’t have to be complex, I’ve had just as much fun “exploring bends in the BB Blues Box” or “exploring the Robben Ford 6 no 7 Minor Pentatonic” (replacing the b7 degree with the major 6th in the minor pentatonic – it’s super cool!).

Visual concepts are something that can be a lot of fun but personally, I found of limited interest. One I still use from time to time came from a friend who played an outrageous outside line in a jam once and when I asked what he’d done he told me he’d been “playing the triangles” – he’d imagined triangle shapes on the fingerboard and was playing them without fear and it sounded great.

Rhythmic concepts are something you will hear from drummers a lot but of course, we can steal and explore them too. Could be anything from “exploring solos and never playing on beat 1” or “exploring moving between triplets and 16th notes”. There are literally infinite ideas you can explore here – if you know any good drummers, have a chat with them and see what ideas you can steal.

Harmonic ideas (relating to harmony or chords) that I have enjoyed exploring are again usually things I have heard on a record and wanted to understand and them incorporate in other ways into my own playing. A couple of ideas that I really enjoyed have been “exploring inside movements in chord voicing’s” that I heard in jazz guitarist Martin Taylor’s playing and wanted to work into my own chord melody fumblings and “exploring gospel slide chord grips in a blues” because I saw Larry Carlton using them all over the neck and I had no idea how he was doing it. Now I do ;)

You will pick up concepts all over the place if you keep your mind open, I’ve copped a lot of conceptual ideas from this magazine myself over the years, many I’ve got from chatting with musicians I admired and asking what stuff they work on, but the most valuable ones always seem to come from looking for the essence of a musical idea I liked when transcribing and then attempting to use that essence as a concept to explore and learn from.

Wishing you happy travels on your guitar journey!

Food For Thought