Many folks look at the melody of the song as an obligatory starting point before they can move onto what they really want to do—soloing and improvising. But melody is so much more than that. Not only is it essential to learn and feel at home in the melody when you play a lead instrument such as the fiddle, but the melody is a huge tool you can use as an improviser.
Why is the melody so important if you just play it at the beginning and the end of the song? What does that have to do with your solo? First, if you’re not incorporating the melody into your solo, you’re missing out. Using the melody within your solo is a great way to get mileage out of it. So don’t leave the melody behind once you play through it once!
Here are a couple ways to get more mileage out of the melody when you play a solo:
Some of my favorite solos are just embellishments on the melody. Our ears naturally gravitate toward melodic sequences of notes, and so I always try to make my solos sound as melodic as I can. One way to do that is to keep the melody as the main feature of your solo and add embellishments that fit with the language of the genre. You hear great country, Western Swing, and jazz violinists do this all the time. It’s a great tactic whether you’re just getting into improv for the first time or you’ve got decades of experience. Take a listen to the first chorus of Joe Venuti’s “Sweet Georgia Brown” to hear some great melodic embellishments.
Think of the melody as a collection of licks. All together, it makes up a tune we recognize, but you can also pull small phrases from the melody and use them as their own licks. This is a fun thing to do to help your solo feel like it has shape and direction, because it gives your break a nice feeling of structure and faithfulness to the melody while still allowing you to go outside of the melody. Again, you’ll hear many greats do this, so know that this is not a beginner’s trick—to the contrary, it shows that you know your stuff.
Once you’ve learned a melody in one key, you can transpose it into other keys. This is important especially if you play with singers, because singers will often do a song in a different key to fit their voice. Knowing your scale degrees really helps here. Even when you’re new to a key, the melody gives you a set of ready-made phrases and licks to use in your solo. You’ll learn how to do this in Lesson 32 when you relearn “Corrina, Corrina” in the key of E.
Quote and Re-use
When you learn melodies, you know that you can pull them apart into separate licks. Once you learn those licks, not only can you use them in the song they’re originally from, but you can also transfer those licks to other songs. This is called “quoting.” For a good example of a quote, check out “What Makes Bob Holler” on the Bob Wills album For the Last Time. The fiddles quote the classic melody of “Corrina, Corrina” at the end of their solo to tie it all together. Even if you want to use a less-obvious quote, you can still find pieces of melodies that work in other songs as licks and can blend in with the rest of your solo.
Have I convinced you of the value of the melody yet? I hope so. Try out these tactics in Lesson 31 and 32, which are all about improv, and look out for great soloists using these strategies in the music you listen to. Enjoy!