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.

7. Playing Heads - Teachers always told me this when I was younger and I always ignored their advice. One of the most important aspects of soloing is simply expressing yourself in musical terms. What this basically means that it isn't only the notes that you play but how you play the notes. You can slide up to any single note or bend up to it. What kind of vibrato will you use? All these things are really important and one way to learn how to do it is to play the heads to various songs. Listen to the way various musicians including vocalists sing or play the heads to standards, see if you can mimic their phrasing and approach. This will also help you to express yourself while soloing.

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