The key of D is a convenient place for guitar improvisation. I like using it with a heavier clean signal and a subtle layer of delay to craft an addictive melody. In this article I'll take you through some frameworks and methods you can use to build dark, brooding melody with a clean signal in the key of D minor.
For structure, we'll look at D minor triadic chords (or just "triads") as well as the D minor scale. Before we get in the dirt, let's do a quick review of what a triad is to make sure we all start on an even playing field.
Review of Triads
Triads are chords made up of three specific notes.
- Third (minor or major)
- Perfect fifth
Every triad must have these three intervals, giving us a really easy structure that can be applied to create - in this case - a minor melody over a particular key. If our root is D, an easy way to improvise is to just start with a minor third and (or) a perfect fifth. You could throw the D octaves in there as well.
That would give you the following notes to start with:
- Root D
- Minor third (F)
- Perfect fifth (A)
- Octave (high D)
We won't use them as chords, but we will use them as a note structure to help give us some direction in terms of how to start building our melodies. Since we have a key and a grid, we can start to apply our small body of music theory knowledge.
Referring to the D Minor Scale
If you don't want to rely solely on triads, or you prefer to think in terms of scales and scale degrees, you can also default to the D minor scale notes and simply draw your melody from there. This is what I end up doing in my final example for this lesson (the last audio sample). Here's the scale:
D, E, F, G, A, B♭ and C
In this lesson I'll use both the D minor scale and the D minor triad as structural references for the melodies I'll improvise. This is helpful since we're trying to adhere to a different key and are better off not to go into that task without a structural approach in mind.
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Starting with Minor Triads in the Key of D
To begin, let's take time to hear a few arpeggiated sequences that match the aforementioned D minor triad. We'll setup some arpeggios with a root D that cover the root, minor third, fifth and octave (in some cases) forming a melodic arpeggio with a dark and brooding tone.
I'm using Guitar Pro 7 to setup the tones and audio. If you want to download the software you can follow along. I'll start by changing the tuning on the right sidebar menu.
Now that we have our tuning we can use the low D (open sixth string) as our root, then add our intervals at varying frets. Here are a few different shapes I came up with.
Shape #1: Starting with the Minor Triad
The timing is simple with only four quarter notes in a 4/4 bar. However, the variables involved with getting to the above audio samples are significant. A bulleted list gives us a rough sketch of the formula:
- Minor triad
- Slower tempo (80 BPM)
- Drop D tuning
- Low, bass-friendly EQ and delay
Our guitar tab is contextualized by these features. Not only do they nicely frame this particular arpeggio, but they give us a template we can reapply with a completely different tab in the key of D, or even another key if we get bored of D minor. We could also have referred to the D minor scale to get this same note grouping of D, F and A, or the first, third and fifth of the D minor scale.
D, E, F, G, A, B♭ and C
Let's repeat the process with intervals on higher frets.
Shape #2: Breaking Ranks
The minor drop is comes from notes at the 11th and 10th frets, dropping from B♭ to A, then back to the root D. This breaks ranks from the D minor triad we used in the previous shape, since the B♭ is actually a minor sixth (eight semitones above the root D) and not a minor third. Yet, all notes - including the B♭ - can be traced back to our D minor scale.
This is the same melody used in the Apocalypse remix of "The Outsider" by A Perfect Circle, albeit in a lower tuning. You can hear the melody at the beginning of the track, likely from Billy Howerdel's guitar.
You can hear this melody on "The Outsider" by A Perfect Circle
Now that we've got a feel for using the minor triad and D minor scale for drawing up melody, let's try another shape in the key of D, this time going with two bars instead of just one.
Shape #3: Two Bars
The minor sixth drop gets repeated in the second bar, though lower on the register, making it a more distinct part of the melody. Again, there's little in the way of timing variation, but that's something that can be easily added or felt as you play the melody and experiment with different tempos and timings. Getting the notes down is the hardest part, so once you have a grouping of notes that you like, the following variables are all in play:
- Speed or tempo
- Timing (quarter notes, eighth notes, etc.)
- Effects and tone color
- Interval extensions (additional notes)
Armed with some theoretical understanding of our scale and a handful of ways to add colorful melody, we can now jump into a studio tool to create a track that uses an improvised melody in D minor, with or without external instruments. For these examples, we'll use a web-based app called Soundtrap.
Building a Track with Soundtrap & another Improvised Melody
Once you open the Soundtrap URL you should easily be able to create an account and login. Start a new project and open up the "Studio" which should look something like this screenshot:
Take some time to experiment with the app and get used to its functionality. Once you're ready to build a track you'll start with the "Patterns Beatmaker" (shown in the screenshot above) or the classic drum track option. This will allow you to build a drum beat or click track that you can record the rest of your music around.
Make sure you match your tempo to the same thing you were using (or approximating) for your guitar's melody and that you set the key to D minor for your project.
- Set the tempo
- Select a key (D minor in my example)
- Put together your drum track with the Dubstepper pad tool
After I went through all that, here's what I came up with for my backing drum track:
Experiment with the pads and drum machine functionality until you've come up with something that you want to use.
Once your drum kit is ready to go, you need to add a bass line for your D minor melody. Again, we can use the D minor scale to come up with some kind of underlying chord progression. We'll want to keep it simple since the melody is the feature of the track.
Here's how you'll add a new track with a cubic synth bass in Soundtrap. Alternatively, you can use some of the other presets (I like synth bass sounds) or record your own bass line externally.
If you're using Soundtrap, feel free to experiment with your own bass line, as long as you stay in the key of D minor. The progression I came up with is D, F, G and A.
Now that we have a bass and drum mix in place, we can experiment with some melody. If you're using Soundtrap, add another track and select the guitar preset from the "Jazz" category called "Delay No Swell."
From the effects section, I added and tweaked the delay and tremolo effects, while also adding more bass and reverb to the EQ. Here's a shot of the settings I ended up using in the actual recording:
The notes I used for this section are simple, but effective in term of creating a dark and brooding melody. To build the melody, I used primarily four notes: D, C, F and G, all derived straight from the D minor scale:
Here's a tab sheet with the melody line from the above audio:
This tab isn't exact, but it covers the backbone of the melody and gives you a place to refer to if you want to start improvising a similar pattern. We can also take the tabs from the beginning of this article - the ones we used to get familiar with minor melodies in the key of D - and plug them into our bass and drum track. At this point we've developed a kind of riff writing structure that includes the following attributes:
- An established speed (80 BPM)
- A consistent key (D minor)
- Familiarity with improvising in this key (the first three tabs we covered)
- A kick or drum track
- A chord progression and bass line in the key of D minor
Together, these five items provide all the context you need to improvise with a certain goal and direction in mind. Going forward, you can more melodic guitar licks using any of the following tactics:
- Mod the melody from the last recording in this article
- Mod or install the melodies from any of the first three tabs
- Use the constructs we've come up with to build new melody that is entirely original
It would be beneficial to do all three of these and not simply rely on what has already been presented in this piece. Use your own creativity, coupled with the theory and the structures you've learned here, to build your own melody. There's even value in starting from scratch and building your own rhythm track as well.
Improvising Without Recording
If you use the rhythm track I've created, or you've come up with your own, it might be simpler to use an external guitar (acoustic or electric) and improvise your minor melodies by simply playing along with the track instead of trying to record on top of it. The main reason I recorded the improvisation was to illustrate what the final result might sound like and to give a more complete example.
In most cases I would simply learn the theory, figure out the sound I wanted to work with (i.e., a minor melody in the key of D) and then create a rhythm track to play along to and experiment with different melody lines.
This gives you the opportunity to test ideas without having to put anything down on paper.
If you have questions about the music theory involved with this exercise or questions about using the Soundtrap software, leave those in the comments section below. I'd rather answer there, as opposed to an email, so future readers can benefit from our discussion.
Corrections, additions and thoughtful criticisms are also welcome additions to the comments area.
If you need links for any of the above material, you'll find them in the following reference section.
Credits, Contributions & References
- Notebook Graphic: Freepik Designs
- Article Structure and Formatting: Bobby Kittleberger
- Soundtrap Software: Chrome Web App
- Guitar Pro 7 Tab Building Software: Free Download
- Piano Keyboard Diagram: Guides and Video (for matching up notes on Soundtrap keys)
- Banner image courtesy of Neico on Pixabay
- D minor scale reference: Wikipedia