If you want to be able to pluck solos out of thin air or even compose a ripping solo, then one thing is certain: you absolutely have to be able to improvise. The honing of this skill demands hours upon hours or practice and an experimental spirit. Only then do you have to power and intuitive flow to weave a stunning solo, even if you’re composing it bit by bit. This is not only about playing along with a recorded track perfectly, but is more about spending days on end inventing little lines of melody on the fly. Essentially, improvisation is the ultimate composition tool.
Photos: Jelmer de Haas
- Chord Progressions and Scales
- Rehearsing Without the Band
- Keyboards and Software
- You Need to Record
- Playing-Ear and Listening-Ear
- Put Virtuosity to One Side
- Start Simple
- Tell a Story
- Play the Blues
- Make That Blue Note Work
- Good to Know …
- Find Solos Played by Your Heroes
- Poor Keyboard Players…
- The Origin of the Blue Note
- There’s Always Another Step
- Even More Bluesy
- The ‘Standard’ Major Scales
- The Pentatonic Scales
- The Major Blues Scale
- The Minor Blues Scale
- See Also…
Chord Progressions and Scales
Most solos are played over a chord progression, so you can’t escape the need for at least some knowledge about basic chord theory and scales. Yeah, you might argue that many Earth-bound musicians pride themselves on not being able to read a single note, but beware, these people are exceptions to the human-rule so it’s best not to try to emulate them, since it’s only likely to lead to frustration. I also think it’s possible that this is not the whole story. In fact, I’m fairly convinced that many of these musicians play dumb to help create some prodigious myth about themselves. It reminds me of one of my old mates at school who would constantly moan about having no time to study but always got As. I think they’re an economist now – so there’s no way that they did that without opening a book. In short, make sure that you understand some of the theory behind chords and scales.
Rehearse Without the Band
We’re going to be talking about soloing on melodic instruments in general, so the same things will apply no matter the instrument you play. As explained, most solos are played over chord progression. The chords are played by the rhythm section of the band and wielding a guitar, saxophone, trumpet, harmonica, or tin whistle, or sitting at your piano, or whatever the melodic instrument of choice happens to be, a blistering solo is played over the top. Bass solos also happen, but these don’t necessarily need to be played over a chord progression. Usually the drummer accompanies a bass solo with a steady beat while the guitarist maybe adds a chord here or there, but most of the time, they just stay out of it. But, unless you’re a bassist, it can feel a little empty when rehearsing alone at home without a band to back you up with some chords. And since you can only really get practising and experimenting when playing along to a rhythm, bass line and chord progression, there are some useful and inexpensive tools available that can help. I actually use a Roland JS-5 Jamstation when practising alone. It has 200 styles loaded in so I can usually find something that matches fairly closely with a particular song I want to practice soloing over, and then I can programme the chords and select the right tempo, set it up to loop and then save the song to the built-in memory. This gives me a full band and song that I can load up any time I want to. And, if you happen to want to change the key of the chord progression, you simply push a couple of buttons which isn’t a bad idea every now and then.
Keyboards & Software
Provided that it comes loaded with accompaniments and internal memory, you could also use a standard keyboard to play your song in, edit and save it. Make sure that you can actually save the song, otherwise, you’ll have to play it in every time. The downside to using a keyboard like this is that you usually won’t be able to programme the chord progression step by step, by manually play them in along to a beat. If you don’t feel quite at home playing a piano and struggle to transition from chord to chord with much speed, then a programmable device is going to be a better option. There are some programmable devices that can be hooked up to a keyboard via USB or MIDI to play back the chords, but the benefits of these aren’t so big. You might also be tempted to buy a drum machine, but then you only have a beat, so no chords and no bass line. Another good option is to use a looper with an internal memory so you can play in some chords and a rudimentary ‘bass line’ so you have a rough guide for practising your solos. A great alternative to physical gear is some software. A really popular software package used for exactly this is Band in a Box.
You Need to Record
As soon as I kitted myself out with my much-loved Jamstation, I made incredible progress as a soloing musician. It’s also much nicer to practice so you actually end up practising even more. Double bonus points! What’s also improved my playing massively is recording all of my home and, if possible, live solos. If you want to get better at soloing, then you simply can’t avoid recording yourself. They don’t need to be high-end studio quality recordings, you just need to be able to clearly hear what you played. What’s actually on offer when it comes to solid, affordable, and often pretty compact recording equipment, is actually enormous. Ok, recording and listening to yourself can be confronting and even frustrating, but to get better, it’s something that we all just have to get over. I was honestly pretty shocked when I started recording myself since I was under the impression that the solos I spun on my Hammond organ swung like the best, but it turned out that the complete opposite was true. My piano solos were even worse. So, since I have worked hard on my motor skills and feel confident in saying that they’re advanced, I am able to reach a pretty impressive playing speed. And, in terms of the musicality, it was alright – as in, the scales I played fit the accompaniment chords, but as a whole, it didn’t sound like anything at all. It was like taking a horrifically cold shower of a wake up call. Why did it sound so bad?
Playing Ear & Listening Ear
Once I’d managed to put all of my frustrations aside, I started to experiment with my solos and continued to record and listen back. What I noticed first, is that there were a couple of little ‘tricks’ or patterns that I would use again and again – to the point where I actually irritated myself. A problem like this is actually pretty quick and easy to solve: stop using those patterns so much. But that’s not actually where the problem really lay. After some intensive (and sometimes painful) listening and analysing sessions, I’d managed to pinpoint the two most important things that make a good solo: good timing and phrasing. If you can nail these two things, then you’ve won three-quarters of the battle. The remaining quarter can be packed with as much virtuosity, expression, feeling, dynamics, intensity, originality, and blistering stage-presence as you want. But, make sure that your timing is bang on and that your phrasing is in order – then the rest will naturally follow. So, what do these things actually mean? First of all: timing. Timing literally means that your playing matches the rhythm – it needs to be tight. The basic rule is to play according to the measure. This can be difficult enough since a lot of soloing musicians can fall out of time. If you resist recording yourself, then it’s likely that your playing won’t get tighter – and might never be tight enough. The fact is that your ‘playing ear’ functions in a very different way to your ‘listening ear’. This kind of focussed listening requires training so that your playing ear and listening ear start to look exactly like one another. If you neglect the training, then the music you play will sound entirely different to what your audience is actually hearing – so you’ll miss the ‘reality’ of your own playing. And it’s a pretty bad situation when you realise that what you’re actually playing sounds entirely different to what you think you’re playing.
Put Virtuosity to One Side
You can hone the teamwork that goes on between your listening ear and your playing ear by regularly recording and listening to yourself. When you listen back, concentrate on the timing. Is it tight? With me, it often wasn’t. So, what can you do about it? A little advice: simplify your playing. Put virtuosity and speed to one side and stick to more simple improvised melodies. Don’t worry, just concentrate on playing simple improvised melodies and keeping your playing super tight, and once you get there, you can start to build towards faster work step by step. Only ever take the next step once the timing of your simple melody is perfect, otherwise there’s no sense in moving further. When listening back, you might feel that your simple melody is actually not inferior to your more rattling ‘virtuoso’ lines that pack as many notes in, sometimes rendering the melody opaque, because that’s exactly what happened for me. A simple melodic line can say a lot and pack much more power than you might think – as long as it’s played at just the right moment and that just the right notes have been chosen. We’ll come back to the ‘right notes’ a little later.
I’ve actually discovered another advantage to playing more simple melodic lines. It’s always worth forcing yourself to start solos off with something simple. This is also true of playing live – where you almost can’t help but want to show off your skills. Holding back and giving yourself an easier start makes your playing feel more relaxed and less pressured so that you can actually enjoy it more and you have the rest of the solo to go as wild as you want. Another advantage of beginning with a simple melody is that you have a great pivot point for your solo – something that you can build on, make more complex, and eventually play faster – always with a solid, simple melody providing the foundation. I have to say that this approach works really well, and your opening melody doesn’t even need to be that long. Just three notes can be enough. Repeat them a couple of times to ease yourself into the solo and repeating it later is never, ever a bad thing. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need to play something different for every bar (I used to think this). A nicely placed note or a sweet little line definitely bears repeating; maybe even multiple times. This can not only sound great, but actually gives you a little thinking time for the next sections. Try it out at home. Record it and listen back. While you wouldn’t think it, even the most successful musicians use this ‘repetition’ approach. A great example is Stevie Ray Vaughan who is still known as one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
Tell a Story
Some instruments are able to hold notes for a long time, which is great for soloing. This is something I discovered when I finally picked up a real Leslie box for my Hammond. The tone is so packed with life which means I can hold a note for bars on end without losing any power. Electric guitars can also do this. I actually find it a shame that I rarely see Hammond organists take advantage of this and head down the virtuoso pack-in-all-the-notes kind of route. It’s understandable, especially if you have the skills and, since keyboard players don’t actually get the opportunity to solo all that often, it’s hard to resist putting everything you’ve got into them. But I always find that the most impacting solos tell a kind of story and have something powerful to say. It’s here, we come to the next section: phrasing.
In might be obvious to point it out, but within the word phrasing, sits the word ‘phrase’, meaning ‘sentence’. In that sense, phrasing means nothing more than sentence building. In my humble opinion (and in fact the opinion of many others) phrasing, together with timing form the solid foundation for a good solo. Actually, these two seemingly small elements actually form the base for all good music, whether it includes a face-melting solo or not. So, with the written word you have an arrangement of sentences, full stops, comma, question marks, and quotation marks. Anyone who happens to be a good storyteller will know how to make all of these elements work in favour of the story. They tend not to babble continuously either, which can test the patience of even the most focussed reader or listener. With music, the same applies. It’s best not to rattle on but make clear sentences. So, small, melodic phrases. Solos are only enhanced by applying this simple theory. Toots Thielemans, one of the most renowned harmonica players in the world was originally a guitarist. The story goes that as a guitarist, he was guilty of tinkering around a lot until someone advised him to pick up a harmonica. You can really rattle on or tinker around when you’re playing the harmonica, simply because at some point, you need to breathe. So, when playing an instrument that doesn’t literally demand that you take a breath in order to play it, it’s still worth taking a breath. In short – make sure that your solos breathe. You can do this by consciously making sure every phrase is no longer than a natural breath – so a sung note, or as if playing a trumpet. This also makes a solo easier to follow for the audience and will definitely pack more power as a result. In this way, by using ‘breath’, or punctuation, you’re telling a better constructed story. This is certainly something you can practice at home by forcing yourself to take little ‘breaths’ in the flow of playing that would otherwise feel strange. Maybe just regularly quit playing for a whole bar, which will feel strange at first but it’s great training. Enhancing your phrasing in this way will also give you the ability to work a sort of question-and-answer into your solo. Maybe you play a sentence over the course of two bars and then in the following two bars you play a ‘melodic answer’. In this way, you could even have two soloists conduct a sort of musical conversation.
Play the Blues
An important, and instantly recognisable element of Blues is that’s it’s almost always played using blues scales. These scales can be heard in pretty much any style of music – certainly in pop and rock. Almost any guitar solo will also use a blues scale, even if the song is definitely not a blues number. So, if you’re ever playing a solo, you’re (almost always) playing the blues. It doesn’t have to be a fully blues-flavoured solo, but building some bits of some blues scales into your solos will always make them sound better. The most important part of a blues scale is the affectionately named ‘blue note’. This is a diminished note, and the most well-known blue note is the diminished third. So, in the C blues scale, the third, note, E, is diminished to an Eb. To really make a solo speak, adding a ‘bluesy’ element will almost always work and it’s often said that every musician should learn to play the blues, since it provides the source for pretty much all contemporary music. There’s a lot to gain from doing this. Even if you couldn’t call yourself an aspiring blues musician and play in a straight-up pop or rock band, getting some blues under your fingers will give you an outstanding foundation that will fit any other style of music. So, I’ll say it again: play the blues.
Make That Blue Note Work
As explained, the most well-known blue note is the diminished third (in the C blues scale, the E is diminished to an Eb). But there are another two: the diminished fifth (where G becomes F#) and the diminished seventh (where B becomes Bb). You could say in one way or another that the diminished third is the strongest of the blue notes – since it packs so much expression. By playing a blue note, in a sense, you’re taking a step out of the scale and playing a note that actually rubs against it – but in a truly effective way – especially when you grab the note on a guitar string, or bend the note down while playing a harmonica, for example. For pianists, this trick certainly works. I’ve been playing the blues now for ten years. When I started, I was a self-confessed rambling organ player with terrible timing and no phrasing. Over the years, this has gotten a bit better, and can always get even better, but something I’ve definitely noticed and learned over those years, is that you should never just let a blue note pass by. Ok, if you’re using blues scales in your solos, then you’re playing the blues, but when you hit that blue note, it deserves emphasis. So that it has real impact, it shouldn’t be hidden away in a little melody, but the little melody should close on the blue note, giving it space to breathe before continuing. Or kick off with the blue note – hold it and build some tensions before releasing it for another note. In short, if you want to get better at playing solos, do as much improvising as you can, get yourself some basic music theory knowledge, pick up your phone, invest in a recorder or get some recording software and make recordings, work on your timing and phrasing and always make blues notes work for you! Put the time in and don’t be fooled by the myth of ‘natural talent’ since talent takes work too.
Good to Know…
Find the Solos Played by Your Heroes
It’s definitely not a waste of time to listen to or watch your heroes solo. You’re likely to come across little ideas that would never have come up using just your own motor skills. Also try to seek out solos played by musicians that you’re not necessarily a hardcore fan of. It will only broaden your horizon and that’s never a bad thing.
Pianists that want to solo can’t avoid having to drill scales. In any case, the major, minor, blues major, and blues minor scales are the most important to nail. The annoying thing about playing a piano or keyboard is that one scale must be played in a completely different way to another scale. You can’t simply shift up like you can with a guitar or bass. To get good at soloing as a pianist, you need to be able to play every scale automatically, almost unconsciously – in your sleep.
The Origin of the Blue Note
So, where does the blue note (also known as the ‘worried note’) actually come from. There’s actually no clear answer. In any case, it definitely emerged from the birthplace of blues in the United States, where ex-slaves introduced the blue note to western music. One of the possible myths surrounding the blue note is that the golden, diminished notes were discovered due to poorly built instruments that struggled to stay in tune. But this explanation is pretty weak since it would follow that every note is out of tune. Another theory goes is that African music never originally used the western, 12-note system, but a 5-note, pentatonic system that wouldn’t include a third. So, this blending of systems maybe left African musicians wondering what to do with the third, or maybe it simply bored them, so the blue note was born. Whether or not these stories are true, it does seem that the blue note existed in Africa and within African music before any Africans were ever forced to set foot on American soil. It just had a very different name.
The incredibly influential blues musician, Robert Johnson
There’s Always Another Step
A great exercise for enhancing your solo game is to just start on a different step. If you usually play the blues in E, maybe stick to E for the first round, then change things up to a G and so on. You’re even likely to stumble across some new little melodies when working like this.
In this blog, I’ve been pretty insistent about the effect of building blues elements into solos, even if you’re playing pop or even metal. Below, I’ve included an overview of some scales that are even bluesier. Trust me, these scales will give you enough material to experiment with for a fair few years.
The ‘Standard’ Major Scale
This scale doesn’t actually have a bluesy element to it. You’re simply playing the major scale depending on the key it’s played in. Is the song in C? Then you play the C-major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Always good, but not always that exciting. A song can, of course, also be written in a minor key, so the corresponding minor scale will fit it. However, you can’t really play these ‘standard’ scales over a blues chord progression. In a blues progression, dominant seventh chords are often used, so including a diminished seventh. If you try to play the C-major scale over a C7 chord, then the B of the scale would clash with the Bb of the chord. To play along with a blues chord progression in C, you can use the mixolydian scale in C whenever the C7 chord is played. This scale runs, C, D, E, G, A, Bb, C.
Pentatonic scales only have five notes. They don’t actually include any blue notes, but they are used a lot to play the blues. The most common pentatonic scales are the pentatonic major and pentatonic minor. The C pentatonic major scale is, C, D, E, G, A. The C pentatonic minor scale is, C, Eb, F, G, Bb. You could see the Eb and Bb as blue notes, but the Eb doesn’t go well with the C minor chord (C, Eb, G). This is definitely the case if you’re playing blues in a major scale, since the Eb will clash with the E of the C7 chord (C, E, G, Bb). The pentatonic minor scale, however, sounds great alongside blues played in minor, for example.
Major Blues Scale
The first blue note makes its entrance in the major blues scale – namely, the diminished third. But it’s actually kind of hidden away since the major third is also played. The major blues scale is C, D, Eb, E, G, A, C – almost exactly the same as the pentatonic major, but then with an added blue note. The major blues scale is a great improvisational tool for songs in pretty much any genre. Try it out, and if you use the diminished third as a ‘passing note’ and don’t dwell on it too long, then it sounds fairly civilized, but it still packs your solo with that all important, kind of playful character. Nail the scales and start experimenting. Here are a few major blues scales to start you off.
C: C, D, Eb, E, G, A, C
E: E, F#, G, G#, B, C#, E
G: G, A, Bb, B, D, E, G
A: A, B, C, C#, E, F#, A
Minor Blues Scale
A solo will sound most ‘bluesy’ when you use some blues minor scales – whether you’re playing a blues track or not. Experiment with them and find what works and what doesn’t work. The C minor blues scale is C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb, C. Three blues notes have been packed in: Eb, F#, and Bb. The more you milk those blue notes in your solo, the more bluesy you’re going to sound. If you actually want to play the blues, then if the blues track is in C, then you can comfortably play the C minor blues scale over every chord. This happens a lot. You can also select your scale depending on the chord, but there’s a little snake in the grass here. Say that you’re playing a little blues in C and suddenly the progression shifts to an F7 (the fourth step). You can’t get away with playing the F minor blues scale over an F7 chord since … well, it just doesn’t sound nice. Whenever you hear an F7, it’s best to reach for the F major blues scale since it will sound infinitely sweeter. The same applies to the G7 chord (the fifth step) – when you see it coming, pull out a G major blues scale. Here are a few minor blues scales to give you a flavour:
C: C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb, C
E: E, G, A, Bb, B, D, E
G: G, Bb, C, D#, D, F, G
A: A, C, D, Eb, E, G, A
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