Steel guitar is primarily an accompanying instrument. This means that it provides additional musical flavor to an already composed piece. Much of that accompaniment is in the form of improvisation. That is, that steel guitarists usually come up with their parts on the fly while a piece is being played. But improvisation is really just composition done quickly in real time. So before one can become a good improviser, one must know the fundamentals of composition.
Of course, steel guitar parts can be written in advance of a live improvisation. Depending what kind of music you are writing for will determine what kind of compositions you will create. I will address composing steel guitar parts for country and rock parts below, but there are many, many more genres of music to write parts for that may differ from country and rock parts.
2 Ways to Compose
There are many different ways to compose a song, and if you have followed steelguitaracademy.com up to this point, you already have some of the tools available to start composing your own songs and song parts.
Two of the most common ways to compose a piece of music are to:
1. Compose the melodies first (and then harmonize them), or
2. Compose the chord progressions first (and then add the melodies).
Composing Melodies First
For most of rock and country music, steel guitarists do not usually write the melodies first. This is because often the songs are already written and we must accompany the chord progressions given to us. However, the skill of composing melodies first and harmonizing them afterwards is a valuable one to have, even as a steel guitarist. Without it, composing your own pieces of music will most likely be very limited.
Composing the Melody.
Coming up with your own melodies from scratch is not as hard as it seems. A melody can be any variation of the order and rhythmic structure of the notes of a scale. Sometimes non-scale tones can be thrown into the melody to vary the sound and give the tune originality. So just pick a scale, play the notes contained within it, and vary the rhythm of the notes, and melody making is as simple as that.
What inspires you to come with a melody is up to you. This is the artistic part about music. There are a number of ways to develop melodies:
- Sometimes a new melody will just pop into your head out of nowhere.
-You may just want to sit in front of your instrument and start playing. It’s just the same as any of us randomly drawing something as our mind wanders. Whatever our emotions, experiences, interests, etc. are at that time will create a different image. And so it is also with music. Your musical sketches can be random expressions or intended diagrams of your current feelings.
-You can borrow melodies from other songs and change them enough that they become new melodies. Rhythm, key, mode, and other parameters are some ways to vary other melodies.
-Or you can listen for melodies and rhythm in any sounds that you encounter during the day: the wind, the rain, the car engine, even spoken language. Listen for the melodies and try to replicate them on your instrument. Then write them down or record them.
Harmonizing the Melody.
Once your melody is complete, you can start the work of harmonizing the melody. Chances are you may have already had an idea on how you wanted the harmony to work as you were constructing the melody. But if not, you can try to harmonize it as you play through it. You can even try to record it and then play over it to see what kind of harmony you like.
Some notes in the melody may only need one counterpart harmony, a third, a sixth, a fifth, etc. Other parts of the melody may ask for full chords. Some parts may sound good with non-scale harmonies. Some harmony lines may match the melody’s rhythm or be entirely different. All this is up to you and your artistic tastes. Different genres of music harmonize pieces differently, and playing through other people’s music can give you a sense of how many pieces are harmonized.
After one melody is composed and harmonized, additional melodies can be constructed in order to create a multipart piece. Most music is composed of parts. Songs are often made up of verses, choruses, refrains, and bridges. Jazz improvisations may have more than 5 parts per piece. Classical forms vary widely and can include multiple parts in rigid and fluid constructions like symphonic forms, sonatas, etc. Some music, though, can be one-part. This is sometimes found in the minimalist genre. Ultimately it is up to you how you want to construct your piece.
Composing Chords First
Composing with chords works in just the opposite way. You play chords one after the other to build up a progression and eventually add melodies to accompany it. Of course any chords can be played sequentially, but some chord moves sound different than others. Chords that are derived from the scale key that the piece is in tend to always work, though non-scale chords are used to add flavor to a piece of music.
Within just the scale-derived chords, there are many different moods that can be conveyed with chord changes. Moving from a V7 chord to a I chord gives a sense of resolve and conclusion. Moving from a I chord to a IV chord conjures up movement and departure. There are countless other chord changes, of course, and using extended chords offers a myriad of ways in which to make a musical progression.
Which chords should you choose? Again, this is a matter of your musical taste as an artist and composer. A cacophony to one person is a choir of angels to another. There are of course some common progressions that get used over and over again in music, but new ideas may be the break from monotony that your audience desires.
Accompanying a Chord Progression.
Once the chord progression is complete (whether you created it or someone else) a melody line may be added to accompany it. This can be done in a number of ways. You could record your progression and then start playing notes in the key and see what sounds good. Or you could sing out a melody as you play the chords.
You may also use the structure of the chords to create a melody. Depending on the chord that is playing you can add melody notes that are part of the chord while occasionally mixing in notes that are not part of the chord. This is how improvising musicians perform. It’s all about playing scales over chords.
Scales over Chords.
Once we have a chord progression, we can turn to the scale and use it for playing over the chords. This works as long as all the chords in the chord progression are all constructed from the same scale. If there is a non-scale chord, the notes that are played over that chord should also depart from the original key scale.
In other words, the easiest way to improvise is to play the Major scale over the chords that match the key of the progression. For example, if the chord progression is in key of A Major, you could, in theory, play random notes from the A Major scale over any chords in the progression and it wouldn't sound half bad.
However, some notes sound better than others. There are chord tones and non-chord tones. Chord tones are those single notes that are also part of the underlying chord that the musician is accompanying. Non-chord tones are those that are not in the underlying chord. Obviously chord tones are always going to sound good, but may get boring if used too much. In order to garnish a melodic line over a chord progression, non-chord tones can be used.
Which non-chord tones to use? Well any can be played, but the context of the tune may demand certain notes over others. Good improvisers know which notes to play more frequently and which to play only when the occasion demands it. Notes that make up the pentatonic scale of the key make some of the best non-chord tones. The next most important notes are the key center notes. Finally, any non-key-center tones can be used. However, non-key center tones may be played but significant precaution should be taken as these notes can really make a composition sound off if not placed wisely in a piece. Your best bet is to use them as quick passing tones that move into key center scale notes.
To summarize, the melody notes played over a chord will work in the following order:
1. Chord tones
2. Key center pentatonic notes
3. Key center scale tones
4. Non-scale notes
This doesn’t mean that every note is going to get played. It also doesn’t mean that there is a rigid hierarchy in which a pentatonic note must be played before a non-scale note can be played. What this means is that in most composed music, chord tones are used more frequently in compositions and improvisations, and non-scale notes are used rarely in compositions and improvisations.
So, you could technically compose melodies that are strictly non-scale notes, and your audience would probably take notice of it. And if you do it wisely enough, you may even get some respect from jazz musicians. But, this is not how most melodies in popular music are constructed.
As an example in key of G:
The pentatonic scale notes are: GABDE
The key center notes are: GABCEDF#G
The non-scale notes are: G#A#C#D#F
Now here come the chords:
1. Play GBD the most,
2. Then play AE,
3. Then CF#,
4. Then G#A#C#D#F
As you play more notes from the lower level, the more dissonant your melody will sound over the G Major chord. Within the non-scale notes in Level 4 above, there are some that will sound better than others. A lot of it has to do with the context of the chord progression. Using these notes can add a nice chromatic flavor to your melodies. And of course, it is only practice and experimentation that will help you discover how to best apply non-scale notes.
Let’s try some more chords in the key of G Major.
How about the IV chord. It’s a C Major.
1. Play CEG the most,
2. Then play ABD,
3. Then F#,
4. Then G#A#C#D#F
Get it yet?
Here’s the A7 chord (or II7). It is kind of weird in the key of G Major because it contains a C# which is a non-scale tone. But this chord definitely works in a G Major scale progression, particularly as a transition from the I chord to the V7 chord.
1. Play AC#EG the most,
2. Then play BD,
3. Then CF#,
4. Then G#A#D#F
Now let’s try a real strange one, the Eb7 (or bVI7 chord). This is a non-scale chord. The root note of this chord is not found anywhere in the Key Center, but like a chromatic note, this chord is useful in the right context. This chord is often found in Western Swing music, usually played alternately with the I chord. It contains 3 non-scale notes which allows for a lot of chromaticism in your melodies.
1. Play EbGBbDb the most,
2. Then play ABDE,
3. Then CF#,
4. Then AbF
Fills, Backup, and Solos
The practical example of composing by adding melodies to chords comes in three forms in country and rock music: fills, backup, and solos. All three of these are the notes that are played over the chord progressions of other instruments.
Fills are parts that fit between the vocal lines. They can:
1. repeat the melody of the vocal line as is,
2. repeat the melody of the vocal line with variation,
3. develop a completely different melody line,
4. harmonize with the chords of the other instruments
5. play the same chords along with the other musicians
If you are playing similar notes to the vocal line or copying the chords exactly, you will have to know how to listen for the melody and chords, and mimic them on your instrument. This is explained in the IMPROVISATION section.
Pay attention to the chords that are playing between the vocal lines. Sometimes they change; sometimes they stay the same until the next vocal line begins. Whatever they do, your melodic and harmonic lines must match.
Fills can also be intros or outros. These are parts where no vocal exists, but the steel sets the mood for the melodies that are going to be heard (intros) or were already heard (outros) in the piece.
Here are links to five songs which exemplify the use of fills by the steel guitar:
Backup is playing melodies or chords while the singer is singing.
Backup can consist of smooth long phrases or short rhythmic stabs. It can be in the low range of the instrument or at a high pitch. It can be single notes, dyads, or chords. Chords can be full or partial.
One thing it should not do though is distract attention from the vocal line. Repetitious phrases can sometimes work. Random improvising is applicable also, as long as it's discreet. The steel guitar has a unique sound that audiences detect easily. This should be taken into consideration when playing backup. A lot of times it is better to just not play altogether. Coming into the sound image at the right time (even if only for a few seconds) can have a much more attractive effect than constantly playing and tiring the audience of the steel sound.
These five songs show how a steel guitarist can use backup:
To write solos, just listen to the chord changes and develop melodic lines that fit over the chords. Sometimes solos are improvised on stage, but more often they are composed beforehand and ad libbed with some variation live.
A lot of times solos will share phrases or motifs from the vocal line of the verses or chorus. Solos will often build connections between these phrases with complicated or unsingable parts. This makes it sound like the instrument is reiterating the singer with added flavor. Of course, your own ears will determine what constitutes a good solo.
Here are some songs with some good steel guitar solos. The times of the solos are shown beneath each link.
IT WASN'T GOD WHO MADE HONKY TONK ANGELS
Solo from 1:28 to 1:40
Solo from 1:23 to 1:35
LOST IN THE OZONE AGAIN
Solo from 0:34 to 0:51
TRUCK DRIVIN' MAN
Solo from 1:13 to 1:34
HEAVY NOW HANGS THE HEAD
Solo from 2:16 to 2:35
One more thing about composition before we move onto improvisation. In some popular music, a song will change from one key to another in the middle of the piece. This is known as modulation. It is more common in classical music, but it occurs enough in popular music that you should make it part of your composition and improvisation study.
When a piece of music modulates, your accompaniment should match the new key. Once you are in the new key all the rules for accompanying a chord progression outlined above still apply. The trick then, is to be aware of the chord change and smoothly play through it. To do this you need to know how a piece will move from one key to another.
There are a number of ways to modulate from one key to another.
One of the most common ways to modulate is to use "pivot chords." Pivot chords are chords that are in both the original key and the key you are modulating to. So if you wanted to modulate from the key of C to the key of Bb, you might use a D minor chord which is present in both keys. A chord progression in this case might look like this:
C F G C F - Dm - Bb Eb Bb Eb F Bb
Another way to modulate is to move directly to the new key. This is less smooth than using a pivot chord, but it may be the kind of surprise you want to portray to your audience. Often direct modulation moves from a major key to its minor tonic key, so C major to C minor, for example.
An example of this type of chord progression might look like this:
C F G C F C - Cm Fm Cm G Cm
Another way to modulate is to shift keys. This is very common in country music (and also in punk rock, interestingly enough). The basic idea is to keep all the chords in the same order and rhythm, and just move them to another key. Often the key is a tone away from the original key, So C Major to D Major for example.
Here is an example of this type of modulation:
C F G C F G - D G A D G A
There are other ways to modulate, but these are the most frequently used in popular music.
One of coolest things about the PSG is that it allows the player to smoothly transition from one chord to the next, modulating through keys in one fluid motion. Few other instruments permit this sort of harmonic freedom. In fact, orchestral composers may require a handful of musicians to perform what one steel guitarist can accomplish.
Now that we know some of the basics of composition, we can move on to improvising, which is essentially composing while performing for an audience. To accomplish this task you will have to memorize the rules for composing over chords and train your ear to identify chords while a piece of music is being played. This is discussed in the next section.