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String Theory: How to Compose and Improvise Melodies Over a Chord Progression

The following content is related to the February 13 issue of Guitar World.

For the full range of interviews, features, tabs and more, pick up the new issue on newsstands now, or in our online store.

Welcome to String Theory, a new column dedicated to imparting guitar-centric music theory concepts in a practical, useful way that you can readily apply to composing and improvising.

Rather than show you a bunch of dry, abstract textbook examples of how chords are built from and live within various scales, I will try to keep things interesting and inspiring by presenting etudes, which are entertaining mini-compositions that serve to instruct and demonstrate musical devices and/or provide a technical exercise. (Those of you who have the patience for that kind of mathematical, from-the-ground-up learning approach can find hours of it in my two instructional DVDs, Mastering Fretboard Harmony and Mastering Fretboard Harmony, Part 2, both available at the GuitarWorld.com online store.)

I’d like to start things off by showing you a traditional, surefire method of creating pleasing, satisfying melodies, using a repeating eight-bar chord progression that moves through the cycle of fifths (also known as the cycle of fourths) in the key of G major and its relative minor key, E minor, with increasingly complex melodic variations.

I call it “Autumn Leaves Counterpoint” because it’s based on the chord changes to the old jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” and demonstrates the use of counterpoint, which may be defined as two or more independent voices with different pitches and rhythms.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Jimmy Brown

Over the past 30 years, Jimmy Brown has built a reputation as one of the world's finest music educators, through his work as a transcriber and Senior Music Editor for Guitar World magazine and Lessons Editor for its sister publication, Guitar Player. In addition to these roles, Jimmy is also a busy working musician, performing regularly in the greater New York City area. Jimmy earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Studies and Performance and Music Management from William Paterson University in 1989. He is also an experienced private guitar teacher and an accomplished writer.