Before I start on modes, I just wanted to say a few words about phrasing and developing your own style.
I’m thinking with my guitarist head on but the same applies to keyboard playing. It’s just that the guitar for me offers more creative potential in terms of open tunings, different playing positions for example.
Ultimately you want to develop your own sound and style. I not saying there’s anything wrong with playing covers but remember that you are not James Hetfield. If you are copying you will only ever be an imitation. However, you need to start somewhere and your favourite songs are often a good starting point. I have tried and failed numerous times to learn certain solos, if you’ve managed – well done! But to make yourself a more rounded player you need to develop your own style whereby you can put a bit of yourself into the song. I remember hearing countless bands at my local heavy metal pub play Metallica songs badly. Then one day this band played Enter Sandman. It took a little while to realise what the song was because they’d put their own stamp on it but it sounded great.
There are many techniques you can use. Blazing solos is one but they’re not for me, unfortunately. You can play on the beat, slightly ahead or behind (known as swing in EDM when applied to drums) alter the volume of notes, mute some notes, have a lax tempo etc.
There are way too many examples to go through here so I’ve limited the list to a few of my favorite artists / songs which use these sort of techniques and many more besides.
Neil Young often plays few notes in a solo but builds tension by sustain and feedback. Often it sounds like he is about to let loose but reigns it back in, kind of looking like you’re about to jump off a cliff but stopping at the very last second.
Counting Crows are a band that use this technique to great effect. Songs like Mr Jones or Sullivan Street teeter on the edge whilst Angels of the Silences is good to compare these against as it doesn’t hold back.
J J Cale sadly passed away in July. Very deceptively difficult style – sounds easy almost lazy at times but it’s quite the opposite. Songs like Don’t Wait have seemingly few notes but each one really counts.
James McMurtry uses a lot of open tunings (I think) and fairly unique phrasing. Levelland has pretty sparse playing, it just so happens to be one of my favourite ever songs.
Robert Earl Keen covered Levelland, it’s interesting to compare the two versions to hear the differences in styles. He’s also written some great songs like Corpus Christi Bay and Shades of Gray.
Shawn Calvin’s Cover Girl album is a great example from start to finish of different ways of phrasing.
Darrell Scott’s song Heartbreak Town is another good example as is pretty much anything by Lyle Lovett.
That’s quite a few examples but it barely scratches the surface, there are many, many more I could use but hopefully this will give you some inspiration for playing modes which will be the subject of forthcoming posts…