Language-Based Soloing (Part 1)

When I teach improvisation to guitarists who’ve never done it before, very few launch right into it naturally. What’s much more common is a student freezing up – some won’t play anything at all; most will do a few notes, or even a few measures and then stop.

When I ask what’s wrong, the answer is always the same: “I don’t know what to do!”

Over the years I’ve been teaching (33 so far, and still having way too much fun to stop!) I’ve developed an approach that solves this problem with almost all students. I can’t take the credit for this – my kids helped me with my homework.

My youngest son now towers over me – he’s got me by a good eight inches in height. But I still remember when he was just a tiny thing, and starting to learn about his world. The thing that really helped my teaching was him learning to talk.

Children start talking by imitating. Momma hold the little one and says “mama” over and over. After ten thousand or so repetitions, the little one gurgles something that might sound a little bit like what she’s saying. Mama’s pleased. The little one notices. “Mama” starts tumbling from the little one’s lips whenever he or she wants someone to fuss over him or her. A linguist is born.

I remember wearing out the grooves in my Led Zeppelin albums, playing them over and over trying to imitate the sounds. Just like our little linguist, I had no idea what Jimmy was actually doing. But I tried and tried to imitate what I thought it sounded like, and every once in a while I’d succeed a bit – at least enough so I’d feel good. Music and language aren’t very different.

Just like Junior, I wasn’t really saying anything. I was just imitating, and not understanding what I was doing. But a lot of good guitarists started soloing just like I did. They imitate what they hear, and eventually internalize the sounds they make. It’s a long process – think about how long it took you to learn to speak, to build up a reasonable vocabulary. Years, right? Maybe you still stop to look up a word now and then (I know I still do, and I’ve been speaking English for quite a while). It’s a long road, and you’re never quite done.

Let’s skip ahead a bit in the child’s development. The big leap comes when he or she starts actually communicating – the point where the child figures out that they can ask for something.

And that starts with one word. It doesn’t even matter what that one word is! Your little one might say “want!” (and point to something), or “give!” (and point to something), or “now!” (and point to something). Whatever word they choose, they’ve communicated. This marks a massive shift in development: they’ve gone from using a word to gain approval to using one word to say something!

Saying something with music is what soloing is all about. When my kids reached that stage, I had one of those “Aha!” moments, and it changed the way I teach.

Think about how most teachers teach soloing: they show you a scale fingering, and say “now play”. I wouldn’t dream of tossing a two year old a dictionary and saying “just put together the words you want”. We’re giving too much information to be truly useful. Our students end up struggling in a “˜poke and pray’ manner, trying to find the combination that works right – and if they do, struggling some more to understand why it was right.

I know you’re not two years old. You might have learned a scale fingering or two (or ten or twenty), but I can assure you that taking the big step back to the very beginning of language acquisition will change the way you solo: you’ll be more deliberate about it, and actually communicate in music.

It starts with one word. In a musical context, that means it starts with one note. Every solo has to start somewhere, right? So start with one note. And stay on that one note. See what you can do with it.

I had an improvisation teacher in college who had me solo over five choruses of the blues using a single note. I hated the exercise. But I also had to admit it made me better. At the time, I thought he was getting me to focus on rhythm alone; it wasn’t until more than ten years later, when my oldest child began to talk, that I realized what he was doing: he was teaching me to speak in music.

One word = one note.

I want you to start by putting on a backing track. You’ll take any note from a scale you know “should” work over the chord progression, and you’ll use that note exclusively. But before you start, I want you to close your eyes and think about how a small child uses one word… they may say “give” (and point) with a soft, trembling, quiet voice and pleading eyes… or they may say “Give!” (and point, and stamp their feet and cry). They may fall sobbing to the floor, repeating “give, give, give….”.

Your note is your “give”, or your “now”, or your “want”, or your “need”, or your “mine”, or whatever other image works. Picture in your mind’s eye how many ways you can use that one word in different ways.

Now play. Wring everything you can out of that one note – rhythm, volume, duration of the sound, timbre (the quality of the tone). I’ll wait.

How did that feel?

I’ll bet you got to know that one note better than you ever have. You’ve explored some of the possibilities. You’ve made it your friend. You now know what that note can do.

Editor’s note: If you’re interested in more on soloing, be sure to check out the Guitar Noise page on Solos. After reading this essay from Tom, you might find our series on “From Scales to Solos,” Part 2 will be particularly helpful in preparing you for the second part of Tom’s series.

Tom (“Noteboat”) Serb is a longtime Guitar Noise contributor and founder of the Midwest Music Academyin Plainfield, Illinois. This advice first appeared in Volume 4 # 11 of Guitar Noise News. Sign-up for our newsletter to receive more free tips like this by email.

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