Choosing and using the handcuff approach to playing

Last year I wrote about handcuff based improvisation. No, nothing involving real handcuffs but rather creating self-imposed limitations to how you approach playing.

The idea being, non-specific 'noodling' isn't particularly useful to gauge development but choosing, say, string bending on the top three strings as your sole means of expression, is.

After a few moments of playing, the more particular the handcuff, the quicker you'll run out of your stock licks. It's then you need to slow down and start engaging your brain; 'What about trying this new scale?' 'What about my usual lick but higher up?' 'What if I used more slides between notes?'

While you maybe able to accommodate this approach on a live gig, the ultimate place is in your practice room where you have the time and focus to be as macro as you want. In short, your practice room is your research and development 'hot house'.

As I've said several times in the past, many of us at GT rate practicing to a backing track as our most favourite way to develop our musicianship. Give any of us half an hour with the same five-minute backing track and we're guaranteed to discover new licks or even a conceptual nugget (eg x scale over x chord) that can be developed upon over time, courtesy of handcuffing.

And so I found myself on a recent weekend playing for well over an hour with a simple 2 bar B minor riff that I had looped. Before I began the session, I wrote down the areas I wanted to cover on a sheet of paper and then placed it on my music stand to reference for each 5-minute time slot.

To begin, I explored B minor and F# minor pentatonics all over the fretboard in different rhythmic permutations, moved onto various scalic approaches (the Iwato scale featured in GT217's Rockschool article was much fun!), delved into implying chord changes with arpeggios (eg II7-V7-I in B minor), some pitch axis ideas (shifting between B natural minor and B Phrygian, then B natural minor to B melodic minor).

This catered to the theoretical side of things so I alternated those with technique based approaches; sustained string bends above the 12th fret; licks that 'bounced off' the open first, second and fourth strings; second and fourth interval based doublestops; scalic sequences based on 5th and 7th pattern groupings and string jumps between the first string and third and fourth strings.

After the hour, I turned the backing track off (to the relief of my neighbours no doubt!) and took stock. I felt quite heady with the musical terrain I had covered as well as inspired with new conceptual routes the next time I gigged.

So amongst all the rewarding musical nuggets you find in GT each month, I'd heartily encourage you to try out some improvising handcuffs for yourself. Far from shackling your playing, I guarantee you'll find considerable freedom with all the new licks you discover!