Rock Improvisation Techniques

Rock Improvisation Techniques - Bruce Hornsby

For me, one of the reasons I love Bruce Hornsby’s music so much is due to his ability to infuse a jazz sound into a rock environment. Let me explain…

In this article, I will break down one of the licks that I teach in our Bruce Hornsby, “The Way It Is” lesson. I’ll also point out some neat ‘tricks’ that give your improvisation a more sophisticated sound without getting too ‘jazzy’ with the song.

The first thing to notice in Bruce Hornsby’s improvisation lick is how he uses the E minor pentatonic scale. Let’s review the notes of the E minor pentatonic scale. They are: E-G-A-B-D and E. Remember, the E minor pentatonic scale is the same as the G Major pentatonic…starting on E. If you need more help with these scales, checkout my Funk Improvisation series.

Now here is the cool thing about pentatonic and scales in general…you can use them over multiple chords. So, this E minor pentatonic also works well over the A minor chord. Why? Well, again, looking at the notes we see that the E minor pentatonic scale notes function on A minor like so:

  • E = the 5th of an A minor chord
  • G = 7th (minor 7th to be exact)
  • A = Yep, you guessed it…the root
  • B = the 9th
  • D = the 11th (a great tension on minor chords)

And the same scale on an E minor chord functions as such:

  • E = the root of Emin7
  • G = the minor 3rd (or 3rd for short)
  • A = the 11th
  • B = the 5th
  • D = the minor 7th (7th for short)

So, I hope that you are seeing that the E minor pentatonic works perfectly over both the Amin7 and the Emin7 chords. This makes it a while lot easier to improvise over those two chords…especially when moving a a fast tempo. Speaking of tempo, you’ll notice that Bruce Hornsby plays this scale in 16th notes. This can be challenging at first, but slow consistent practice will produce results.
O.K. so we now understand what is happening scale-wise. But how does he create such a cool sounding lick out of it? Well, in a word…sequencing. Here is his lick.

Sequencing A Lick

Sequencing is when you create a pattern of notes and repeat that pattern at a constant interval. Think of sequencing as a ‘copy-paste’ function in music. You ‘copy’ a melody pattern (series of notes) and then ‘paste’ the pattern maybe a whole step higher…it’s up to you. For example, using the C major scale you can see how we ‘copied’ a three-note pattern: C-D-E and then ‘pasted’ the shape of the pattern a whole step higher.

A quick note, don’t be confused by music sequencing which is when you use computers to record and playback your music.

Taking a look at Bruce Hornsby’s lick again you can see that I isolated the sequenced parts of the lick. You’ll see that I marked the last sequence as B-D-G, but in reality this is not part of the original sequence. However, it could be. You could continue the sequence and play A-D-E.

Advanced Sequencing

We can create some advanced licks using this sequencing technique. Look at the lick sequence below and see if you can see the interval at which we are sequencing the lick. I’ll give you a hint…look at the first note of each 16th-note grouping. We are starting each sequence a 4th away. So the sequences start on G-D-A-E. Within each 16th-note grouping, notice what we are doing. We are going up 2 notes of the scale, playing those 2 notes, then going below our target note by 1 scale degree. Watch the video below for a demonstration.

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