Friday, November 28, 2014

Acoustic Guitar Journal #6: Writing a Musical Bridge

source: Visual Facets Photography
As I'm bringing a few of my songs to a more finished stage, the biggest hurdle is writing a "solo" or musical bridge. It's fine to write verse/chorus/verse/chorus and then end, but this structure can be rather flat emotionally. Sometimes a song just needs a break in the lyrics where the music breaks out. It also works well to do the chorus, go into a musical bridge, and then repeat the chorus before sliding into a final "tie everything up with a pretty bow" verse.

Playing around with this has been a challenge. Since most music I listen to is not solo acoustic guitar, my ear seems  drawn towards sounds I might get from an electric guitar or a piano. It was also immediately apparent that simply replaying the chord progression from verses without words (even if playing is more urgent) doesn't work at all. A song within a song is required. Something a bit different from the verse/chorus chord structure but not so different that it veers off into some other place.

Hitting this point absolutely demanded I work with non-standard chords and explore the fretboard. I've pushed a lot on this already, because I really wanted to finish some of these songs and perhaps use them as practice pieces or tools for training myself to sing. However, I the 7th chords I had been working with weren't very helpful. While these chords vary from the stuff I have used so far in verses (although that's even true as I'm using 7ths a lot more to flavor the main body of my songs), they aren't 'strong' enough to propel a bridge in an emotionally satisfying way. Barre chords were even less helpful since I had to explore through trial and error. (Think the old adage of monkeys on typewriters!)

Of course, it's fun to experiment and just experiment with stuff. However, when you have a song's key and essential chord progression completed, it's no longer fun to play guessing games. At that stage, I know what notes and chords will (and won't) work. I just want to go for it at that point. After laying this all out for my teacher, he suggested something that has been very helpful: an image of the notes on the fretboard. There are tons of these one the internet, and this is the one I've started using. I like it because it isn't cluttered by sharp and flat designations.

This has been useful because, by figuring out what notes are in the chords of my song and what key it is in, I can go straight to those notes on this chart to figure out what chords might work for additional variation. I quickly came up with several chords to drive a bridge in a song I'm tying up. The chart is also useful in building the basic structure of a song too. While playing around with it, I came up with a whole bunch of E chord shapes and was able to start a whole new song as a result. And that's just from one practice session! This is going to help me out a lot.

To augment it, I also downloaded an image of a keyboard with the notes on it. Perhaps it's because I've spent so much time playing piano, but it's easier for me to figure out the key my song is in by looking at where the notes fall on a keyboard. I guess practicing all those scales for warm-up year really paid off, because the patterns are burned in my memory. I mentally lay the notes on this image and remember how I played them in scales, and the key pops into my head. Here's the image I use (although I imagine one without the sharps and flats would be cleaner).

I've only used these tools for a brief time, but they've been a big help in writing a bridge - and more broadly in exploring the fretboard. If I keep at it, perhaps I nail down my first musical bridge.

The other lesson to be learned here is practicing scales is a good thing! Perhaps if I practice them on guitar with the dedication I did on piano, I won't need this piano image to know what notes are where? It's tough to imagine that being the case, however, as there doesn't seem to be any visual cue on a guitar fretboard as anchoring as the pattern of black and white keys on a piano!

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