~ improvisation ~

~ building a solo ~

' ... just getting to tell our own stories ... '

~

In a nutshell. The following ideas and chart are provided to help develop a perspective in regards to creating an improvised solo. These concepts and suggestions are mostly for beginning soloists. While the building of a solo is a highly personal endeavor with potentially as many unique twists as the many players who create them, we all need to start somewhere and can share the same basics that everyone uses mostly all of the time. Like a 12 bar blues? Yep, on any given Saturday evening that we can find us a blues club, we're bound to hear cats blowing over the same 12 bar form of thousands of songs.

To build or not to build, why is this important for the evolving guitarist? Well, mainly that in all of the American styles, improvisation can play a role of some kind. Organizing our improvisations can make all the difference in how our ideas fit into the music we are performing and are received by our bandmates and the audience. As players, we get together and negotiate the music, oftentimes making up our parts from rote memory as we go along. Audiences love this spontaneous energy. Dancers recreate their interpretations on the dance floor. And depending how it all comes together, creating nice solos can play a major role in the creation of the Americana music as well as becoming the focus and highlight of the performance, i.e., featured soloist.

This is perhaps more true today in the jazz and blues worlds, for many rockers have dropped the 'extended' soloing or jamming from the format, moving towards blistering bursts of energy of 16 bars or so to get the job done. So whether our solos are spontaneously improvised or written out and performed, are four bars of a pop hook or four choruses of 12 bar blues, many of the same musical ideas and components are involved.

Solo Structure. As we advance in our studies along the Essentials core philosophy, the idea that the number of pitches, harmonic and melodic groupings and tonal gravity / aural predictability help determine musical style, the building of our solos can eventually become very, very complex. And while we'll surely evolve our abilities throughout our careers and gain strength in building solos, the following ideas are mostly with emerging players in mind, core ideas that will provide a solid structure to build upon as new concepts, strengths and abilities are acquired over the decades.

No climax. While the following discussion centers on building up musical tension and its release during a solo, which follows most of what we hear in our musics, there's the flip side to simply tell a version of the song being performed that follows an even flow and simply extends the song, arrangement and personality of the song. We hear this in many folk improvisations, cats playing the melody often embellished, or in jazz where the mood stays quiet, no need to climax a solo and perhaps too disrupt the flow and essence of the mood of the piece being performed.

Both of these approaches have their places in our music. We should have a sense of how to create both. And with the no climax and / climaxing of a solo, realize we can't really do it alone, we need the band to get involved to energize and support the whole process through listening attentively as the music flows along. The following ideas should give us some insight, tools and ways to help you direct your groups to bring these energies forward.

Musical styles / folk. We really have two ends of a spectrum here in regards to how much soloing is going to happen in the music. On one end we have the folk styles, where traditionally improvisation or soloing is limited so as to not take the spotlight off of the storyteller. Folk players nuance their voices in telling their tales, an instrumental break or fancy intro is not uncommon, each contributing to make for a memorable presentation. But soloing over the entire form of the tune, as in blues and jazz is just not that common. Surely as soon as folk music begins to move towards 'folk rock' and beyond, we hear the solos emerging

Country / bluegrass and beyond. As we move towards country music and its various offshoots, there's soloing in every tune. And as the players get stronger, longer solos are very common. Players often split up the form of the song they are performing, each taking a 'break' of 8 or 16 bars then passing it along to the next instrument. Stronger players take longer solos and audiences love it.

For the music of these styles is often upbeat and cookin', meant to get the folks up dancing, and soloists work to develop some serioso chops that joyously burst forth from the magical aural colors created by fiddles, banjos and guitars (which are now amped). Remember, these instruments by their very design are historically created to 'bring it' loud, which even heard from afar brings folks of all walks of life to a music they can all enjoy together. The list of monster Americana 'pickers' goes on and on over the now full century of country and bluegrass music history of Americana :) My all time fave is the now classic group and album titled 'Old And In The Way.'

wiki ~ Old And In The Way

Blues. Soloing and the blues are a match made in heaven and as such historically becomes the basis of mucho of our Americana musics. Here the players will solo over the entire form of the tune, most always the 12 bar form. Stronger players taking multiple choruses is not only common but usually expected. Those really 'bring it', often with strong climaxes to their solos, the word gets around and folks come out to hear their magic. They gradually build their solos with the help of the band and create the blues sensation that audiences love.

Pop and Rock. Pop soloing is almost always about playing the hook of the tune or something that is worked out in advance. Not always of course, but a lot of the time. Cats might get 8 bars in a song, 16 on occasion. Pop music is not about the soloing for the most part. Rock soloing is wide gamut of potentials. All depends upon the strength of the player and how the group is structured around them. Extended soloing arrived in the later 60's down South and on the West coast and continues today in jamm bands of all stripes. Folks dig it.

wiki ~ jam bands

Jazz. American jazz is a soloist's dream come true for there is really no limit to the improvisation. Not only do individual players take individual solos within the group, but the rest of the group is improvising their parts from rote memory while the soloist is soloing. This creates the perfect environment for players to "feed" each other ideas. The more astute players can hear something and reproduce it on their ax. Here the magical principles of call and response, originally in the early blues and gospel, oftentimes happen at a very rapid pace :)

Most often jazz players play entire choruses of the form of the song. Modern players taking two or more full choruses. They use the harmonic structure or chord progression of the song as the basis to create new ideas that create variations on the central theme and mood of the composition they are performing. Sky's the limit or no limit really and audiences love it.

What we need to build a solo. Top of the list here is knowing the parameters of the section of music where the soloing occurs. As discussed above, our ride time can vary with the style we're playing. Knowing the length of our solo we then can figure out what'll happen during the section. This leads us into the form of the song, the structure of the melody and the harmony which supports it.

Where it comes from. Perhaps the most important concept of building a solo is that the majority of musical ideas we use to create and climax our solos, are ideas that we have already under our fingers. The scales, licks, melodies, quotes and clusters we've learned and shedded become our solo building resources. If we do end up playing something new, something that we've never played before ... then consider yourself lucky. Believe you me, fortune is truly smiling upon us if we find one good, brand spanking new idea each week.

The idea with building an improvised solo is to explore how we each combine our resources in telling our stories, while using the magic of the live performance environment to energize our efforts. By adding this 'live' energy, experienced improvising players will collectively create some incredible musical moments for all to share.

Building a solo. So in trying to present this idea of building a solo, probably best just create one and then analyze what happens. Using a 12 bar blues tune I wrote titled "Headin' For Charlies", listen to the tune first and get a sense of how it goes. The audio here is a mp3 file from notation software. Click the music to hear the song. Example 1.

Charting out a solo. The depiction which follows creates a basic roadmap for taking a blues solo. Using my "Heading To Charlies" tune, a 12 bar blues, each completed 12-bar cycle is referred to as one chorus. For discussion sake, we’ll take three choruses or so. Using a pictorial graph to chart out common elements, with musical / artistic excitement and real time as our X and Y axis respectively, the letters 'a' through 'g' denote points of interest along the way. From the direction of the arrowed line within the chart, we can see that as time goes by, we indicate a gradually building of excitement. Click the graphic to hear the recorded solo of Jacmuse and the band playing through the tune. Example 1a.

Jacmuse and the band

A. A good place to start is with the melody of the tune you're playing, or even a variation of the basic motive. This helps to reset things back to where we started clearing the way for the new story about to be told.

B. At the end of any given chorus is the turnaround. Many players feel that these turnarounds contain the 'heart' of the improvisation in multichorus solos. This turnaround is the 'link' into our second chorus, allowing us to continue our story. Gaining strength with getting through the turnaround with a strong rhythmic idea helps us to lengthen our solos and stretch out artistically.

C. Into our second chorus, perhaps using a rhythmic motive from the melody of the tune as a basis for ideas, we gradually try to begin to build some musical tension.

D. Turnaround into the next chorus, perhaps quote the melody again, rhythmically keeping our forward motion alive.

E. Last chorus, build tension. Repeated notes, fast rhythmic passages, octave doubling, double timing the groove and sequences can all help to build tension. Head toward the climax of the solo.

F. Climaxing the ride, the release of tension can be achieved many ways. Hold one note, play 10,000 notes, displace the rhythmic pulse by turning the beat around, lots of ways to climax, it's something to strive for and control, giving everyone in the group a chance to cut loose a bit and it over the top.

G. Ending of the solo, if applicable, play a simple phrase that the next soloist can pick up the thread of to start their improvisational story. Using the original melody at this juncture will provide a convincing sense of 'closure' to your improvisations.

Review for building a solo. Overall, the basic artistic components of building a solo include the melody of the song, its harmony, form and timing. Experienced improvisors oftentimes will simply create theme and variation ideas based on the original melody, quote other melodies or use the harmony to generate ideas. A gradual building of musical tension and its release is very common, or not as the case or performance environment makes climaxing the ride inappropriate. When first beginning to improvise, if you run short of improvised musical ideas, your artistic interpretation of the original melody should always work. All else fails, play the roots of the chord and tell that part of the story. Cool?

Where it happens, an improv performance format. Well, mostly in the blues, in the various rock idioms and almost always in jazz performance, Oftentimes in blues and jazz performance, a song is called, the melody or head is played down to set the mood, and then the soloists of the group get to improvise their own ideas about the melody within the mood of the piece. When the soloing is done, the originally written melody of the song is oftentimes played again and the tune ends. Basically the ancient theme and variations format used with modern Americana sounds by players who know this basic structure for live performance.

Performance / soloing venues. Soloing / improvisation has been a part of the Americana sounds as far back as we can go in our recorded library. In today's world of musical performance, there's still a fair bit of improv. The following discussions look at various performance formats, how they generally work and the role of improvisation / soloing that might happen.

wiki ~ recording music

Jam sessions. Jam sessions go way back in our American history and bring players together to find some common musical ground, get a groove going, have some fun, need a band for a party and see what shakes loose. One focus of the jamming is to let players exercise their soloing / improvisational abilities and stretch out and explore. Oftentimes following the traditional 'head, solos, head and out format' as described above, stronger cats oftentimes get to play as long as they want.

We'll find this basic performance formula / format whenever players are negotiating the music without having the benefit of preparing by rehearsals, i.e., a jamm session. These sessions are oftentimes the first time cats might play together, thus the start of a new group or collaborative pairings etc. When this happens for money, which is the basics of a pro gigging musician, everyone involved brings their 'A' game, gear, threads, the whole pro tamale. The more bread the bigger the production. And on the production side of all this, ever hear of Bill Graham?

wiki ~ Bill Graham

Casuals. As the name implies, casuals are generally a professional performance for loot where the leader of the group has organized the best players available by what they do best. The idea is to match up skills with the gig. Casuals range from club dates to weddings, grand openings to intimate, private parties at folk's homes. Leaders call appropriate tunes for the event and the band oftentimes will follow the above song performance format, often creating arrangements 'while you wait using big ears and experience to gel it all up. Visual and conducting cues from the leader are important to keep everyone on track.

The soloing on these types of gigs will vary with the setting. Wedding gigs find jazz cats sticking close to the melody and oftentimes splitting up choruses between voices. To hear the term 'play pretty' from the leader is not uncommon. This mostly implies to embellish the melody of the chosen song. Yet, when the get down dancing starts the sky's the limit of course, so more blues soloing mostly. In club dates, art openings and mostly everywhere else, players will feel out the room and try to figure out what's best to play, maybe take requests, remembering that ya just can't please everyone yet playing melodies everyone knows can help.

These casual dates can over a period time create definite combinations and groups of players, as it gives leaders a chance to hear a number of different artists and select which ones can create the sound they are looking for, can work well together and can hang. As the players become more solidified into a group, the leader often creates performance formats based on the strengths of their soloists, placing this important aspect of the performance in it's best possible light, allowing the whole group to shine, the soloist oftentimes leading the way.

One example of this would be say, on a jazz gig, and having strong blues players in the band, and using a cool blues number for the last tune of the set, or the encore of the show etc., giving your soloist a solid chance at a familiar format to hopefully 'bring the house down' at the close of a set or show, to thoroughly blues testify, maybe looking for that often elusive 2nd encore?

To sum up. Pretty loose I know, but the sequence of choosing or calling tunes because of their mood, then getting to solo within that mood, and that over the course of the length of the performance, i.e.,where ya get to play more than one tune, leaders simply sequence the moods of tunes, creating extended pathways for their soloists. With advanced players, oftentimes the music never really stops, moods evolve, players drop in and out of the mix as their art determines, oftentimes with a nod from the leader, who, as the leader, and oftentimes the person responsible for getting the gig together, has the overall say and responsibility of deciding where the music is going to go. Lot's of work and responsibility? Absolutely.

So, why do we want to work this hard? History reveals to us the idea that the impassioned soloist is often the leader of the band, who receives the 'laurels' and is cherished and remembered for creating memorable musical moments for their audiences, which with the technologies of today, often are global. And while fame and fortune are fickle sometimes, the hard work to become the best is always rewarded in one's own heart. That this inner confidence radiates into all aspects of one's own life and personality and is boundless in potential rewards when freely shared. So, learn those pitches? Yep, learn those notes :)

And do always remember that as improvising musicians, we sometimes get the opportunity to make someone's day, or even a lifelong cherished memory, by playing the notes of a melody that is dear to their hearts.

and in doing so, create a special 'moment in time' that they'll now hold forever. That we get to interpret 'their song', in our own unique way, through expression of its pitches. For surely this opportunity to imortalize moments creates that all inclusive energy and vibe that .

"So what do the last four letters of A m e r i c a n spell ... ? "

"I can !"