Sunday, December 7, 2014

Soloing Like a Pro

Q: I've come to realize that playing a good solo isn't really so much about technique but a bunch of other factors. I just haven't figured it out exactly. I've been working on scales and arpeggios but I'm not sure that my guitar solos are interesting at all. Is there some sort of moment when all this work I've been doing will pay off and my solos are going to start sounding great?

A: Because I teach, I think about these things all the time. I sort of traced my career backwards and looked at the way I progressed as a soloist to the point I am today. These are the things I think one has to do to become a really good soloist:

1. Scales, arpeggios and sequences - I think this goes without saying, you really have to practice playing scales and arpeggios a lot. They help you develop technique and needless to say, you use them as the tools for soloing. So what you are doing is not wrong really, it just isn't enough. It is the right place to start but you have to start moving on to other important steps. Guitarists who don't practice scales and arpeggios will never really develop great technique. But relying on scales and arpeggios exclusively leads to pretty lame solos. It is like knowing a ton of words and not really know how to put them together in any meaningful way. If the goal to learning scales is to use them a soloing tools, there is a better way to practice them other than to simply play them front and back to a metronome. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Practicing to changes - I was lucky that I figured this out early. On my first lesson, my teacher taught me the minor pentatonic scale and Blues changes. I didn't realize that they were a set so I practiced them separately assuming one had nothing to do with the other. When I went to my next lesson, my teacher played the changes and I played the scale and it really surprised me. I was sort of playing a solo. It wasn't anything great but I could tell that the notes worked against the chords. With a little time I could change the order of notes and make up simple phrases and with some prodding, I learned to bend certain notes as well. From then on, I have always practiced my scales to chord changes. I first recorded the changes on a cassette tape and jammed along. As technology progressed, I eventually bought a sequencer which was even better because I could play over rhythms that I never considered before and change the chords at my own discression. I had never heard of using chord tones or anything like that but I think my ears sort of developed to the point where I could navigate through the changes mostly emphasizing the right notes in the scale for each individual chord in the progression. Playing to a metronome won't really lead to great solos, playing over changes will help immensely. So if you are at the stage where you can play scales, rather than just playing them, try to play them to chord changes being as musical as possible. If you are learning the major scales, try practicing them against various combinations of the diatonic chords. There are seven in all. Using C major as an example: C-Dmin-Emin-F-G-Amin-Bdim or Cmaj7-Dmin7-Emin7-Fmaj7-G7-Amin7-Bmin7b5 (you can also use the major pentatonic scale ver the same set of chords). If you are working on the minor pentatonic scale, try practicing the scale agains a Blues progression. I still do this type or practicing, even after 35 years of playing although the scales I practice may be slightly more advanced. 

3. Collecting - Without doing this you will remain a pretty lame soloist forever. You see, it is pretty difficult to come up with a bunch of genius phrases on your own using all the scales and arpeggios that you know. You can try of course but it is much easier to steal them. Scott Henderson said to me once; "Why would you want to try coming up with great licks and ideas by yourself when you can simply steal them from Wayne Shorter or Jimi Hendrix." Like I said before, as a teacher I listen to my students all the time and they don't really have to many interesting things to say in their solos. They don't have any cool licks. I started thinking back on how I picked up my phrasing, licks and ideas and remembered that at various times in my learning process I would often listen to musicians I liked and steal a lick. Even if it was just a measure or so, I would steal it and try to figure out a way to use it using my theory knowledge. How could I make it major or minor or whatever. And then I would make a conscious effort to use that lick when I got a chance. There is a danger however in learning exclusively from one person, you risk sounding like a less impressive version of that one musician. The true geniuses stole from a wide variety of sources. Jimi Hendrix is a great example, a musician who truly had his own voice but had varied influences. When I listen to him, I can hear Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Curtis Mayfield amongst others. I remember from Miles' autobiography him saying that he listened to Sinatra for phrasing.

4. Phrasing - Phrasing is about timing and space. If you play nonstop, you aren't phrasing. The best way to develop phrasing is by copying a longer section of a solo and playing along. Rock and Blues are pretty simple to play along because they are generally short. I mean, you can learn 12 bars of an Albert King solo if you want to learn great phrasing. I can promise you, you will never be able to play a good Blues with doing this a lot. Blues is especially about licks and phrasing. It is more difficult with Jazz because the solos are long. I remember copying a bunch of solos on Miles Davis' Kind of Blues. The tempos are pretty slow and Miles' solos are moody and cool. On top of that, trumpet isn't like guitar at all so the lines aren't like the ones we would play so it makes for interesting licks and forces to to think about how to physically play them. All the great musicians I know told me to transcribe and it is true, the greatest musicians are also the greatest thieves.

5. Listening - Don't underestimate the power of listening. Copying and transcribing will do wonders for your playing but listening has a similar effect. Listen to the players that you like, over and over. Eventually how they phrase will begin to show up in your playing. I tend to listen to a wide variety of music and these days a lot of it isn't even guitar music. I find that a lot of the harmonies and melodies begin to show up in my playing simply by osmosis. I'm hoping that Musrat Ali Khan, Stravinsky and Miles will influence the way I play and think about music and I listen to them all the time.

6. Tone - I think it is OK to practice without an amp if you don't have one available but it is much better to practice with one. I think the best guitarists have this intimate relationship with their guitars. And the only real way to develop it is by playing through an amp a lot. Jeff Beck is a good example, he is always switching between pickups and adjusting his tone and volume on his guitar. He knows how to get a wide variety of tones out of the instrument. Developing this tonal sense is impossible without years of experience actually playing through an amp.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Guitar and Singing?

Q: Hey Chris, What's your opinion about the importance of singing as well as playing? I know besides playing guitar, you sing too. Did you start singing when you started paying guitar or did that come about somewhere down the line? I'm wondering because I want to sing as well and think I could broaden my horizons, so to speak doing more than just playing guitar. What are your thoughts?

A: I started singing after the fact. I actually began by singing chorus in my band, they made me do it. I think you have a better chance at getting a gig if you can sing as well as play. Things I've learned about singing from singing myself and watching students at college: 

Pitch - Singers who can play an instrument have good pitch. There are things you can do to change your singing voice to some extent but, I don't know, some singers just have great tone. Pitch more so than tone can certainly be developed and having a good relationship with an instrument is sort of a short cut. So if you play guitar already, you'll have a decent shot at singing as well. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Scale Patterns

Q: I was wondering about scale patterns. Looking through your lessons, I notice that the major scale patterns that you use are unlike the ones that my teacher showed me. He seems to think that the 3-note per string patterns are the best ones to use. The problem is that there are 7 different patterns to remember while the ones that you refer to have only 5. What is your opinion?

A: The ones that I generally refer to are sort of the standard patterns for teaching. That doesn't necessarily mean that they are the best but they are the more or less, generic (for the lack of better words). They are just simple to play and remember, and as you said, there are only five. 

In truth, there are countless ways to play any one scale. Take a C major scale for example. It is just a C-D-E-F-G-A-B note scale. We, as guitar players, tend to think in physical patterns but it doesn't have to be so. Just play every note C-D-E-F-G-A-B note on your fretboard, and you will be playing a C major scale regardless of where you start or finish. I can play it from my open 6th string (which is an E note) all the way to the 22nd fret on my first string bent up to E hitting every diatonic note in-between.  I can shift strings here and there to get up there, and by my calculations, from E to E, makes it a four octave major scale (technically E phrygian, a C major scale mode). 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Dominant 11 vs. 9sus4 Chords

Dear Chris: downloaded your book today and I'm really enjoying it. The way you explain where the altered chords come from scale wise, I feel is really going to open a lot of doors for me. So thanks.

Q: I've found your explanation of sus4 chords and 11 chords quite new. I got stuck with the idea in Mark Levine's books. I've been having to read a lot of Top 40, pop and rock in a cruise band and I'm finding many 11 chords which (I'm pretty certain) are looking for a F/G voicing. I'm gleamed from this that its all context based. The wikipedia article says similar things to your book...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Q: I just went over your minor pentatonic lesson, and never have I seen anyone explain chord/scale theory in such a straight forward no BS manner. I am an advanced intermediate level guitarist, with big expectations. I have a day gig and a family and want to know how to get the most out of the little time I have to practice everyday. Can you give me some pointers?

A: Expectations should be big my friend. Good for you. I talk a bunch about practice routines in this lesson on my site and in THE INFINITE GUITAR. It's hard to give specific advice without listening to you play and getting a handle on who you want to become, in other words, your vision. I can tell you though, this vision is almost everything. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Finding The Right Chord

Q: One of my biggest songwriting problems is when I have a song in my head, and I'm figuring it out on guitar, and I tend to get a few chords into it and inevitably, it seems, there is an "elusive" chord that I can hear in my head but just can't seem to work out on the fretboard. Do you ever have this problem, and what do you do/how do you find it?

A: Theory will help you immensely in these situations. As I describe in chapter 18 of THE INFINITE GUITAR, composition is a matter of finding a chord for your melody note. There are basically two ways to do this (at least for me). The first is working with diatonic harmony. When we work with diatonic harmony, we basically are working within the chords in one key (sometimes using secondary dominant or borrowed chords). If you aren't getting this, start over here >>. If you understand intervals and chords this is actually pretty easy. Let's say you are writing in the key of C. The chords in the key of C are: C - Dmin - Emin - F - G - Amin - Bdim.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Amps and Other Things

Q: I know you love Marshalls, and I am looking at building a JTM45 head from parts. There is so much to love about Marshalls BUT they are SO loud - and that's the 45, forget the 50s and 100 super leads. What head and cabs do you use, and how do you tame them for say recording? Do you use a hotplate or something? And how do you find the lack of reverb? (I notice you mostly seem to run some delay though).

A: Regarding Marshalls, I definitely like the 100 watts the best. The best thing about Marshalls is that they are easy to rent for a gig, meaning I don’t have to cart my own, I can just rent one and the production company will have it on stage for me when I get there.