Soloing and Improv
Hi again. Since we received positive responses from LT (Linda Taylor)’s first set of questions, she’s been very kind to answer another set exclusively for Guitar Noise on the subject of Soloing and Improvisation.
1) I noticed on Pulse that you gave the lead or “melody” guitar a very distinctive sound. It was very much like having the same singer for all the various styles of songs. Was this a conscious choice? Is this a “signature” sound that you use when performing live as well? What goes into producing that particular sound? What type of guitar, amp, effects? How important do you feel it is to have a singular voice?
Hi, David. Thank you for noticing, man. You really paid attention!
Regarding PULSE, I wanted to create an album that was listener-friendly. Even though the album is instrumental, I wanted the listener to have focus points – melody and voice – and a comfort zone, an instant familiarity, as if they were listening to a pop album. The best way to accomplish that is to give the listener a “singer” and a melody.
The singer is the one most responsible for connecting with the audience. They’re the tour guides; they lead us through the song, and let us know how to feel about the music. (Now you know why they act the way they do – because they can.) When the guitar or any other instrument plays the melody, that instrument becomes the singer and assumes the responsibility. We need to offer the listener an identity, a point of view. As a musician, I can’t think of anything more important than having your own sound, your own voice. It’s like stepping up to the mic and saying: This is how I sound. This is how I play. This is me. It’s your identity, and the only point of view you can truthfully offer. I know too many people who are focused on sounding like someone else. Whatever for? If I want John Scofield’s opinion, I’ll buy his album. But when you’re playing, I want to hear YOU.
So, yes, having a consistent sound was a conscious choice for this album. But it’s more my choice for everything, not just this album. I’m a little different than other guitar players: I don’t have a ton of guitars, amps, effects, etc. I just have one guitar that I play on everything, one sound that I’m looking for, and some stomp boxes for fun. This is not advice, just fact. I’ll admit that this attitude has got me in trouble on more than one occasion. That’s okay. I’m not trying to be everybody’s guitar player. I’m trying to be my guitar player.
Stepping away from the esoteric for a moment, my gear is pretty straightforward. My guitar is a custom-made Strat, made by Renson Guitar in Studio City. They made it for me back in the day when it was really cool to have a custom guitar. I love this guitar. I don’t play anything else. It has Seymour Duncan pickups, the Hot Stacks in the neck and middle, and the Jeff Beck model in the bridge. There’s a Floyd Rose wang-bar, because this was when you had to sound (or pretend to sound) like Van Halen to get a gig. Thank God those days are over. They are over, right? Did I just date myself?
I like Mesa Boogie amps, and I have a Nomad combo, and a Tri-Axis and Simul-290 rackmounters. I like Boogie stuff because I feel like I can coax sound out of them, really play the amp. My stomp boxes are the typical stuff: Delay, flange, wah, etc. I’ve got original Mutron Phasers and Ibanez Tube Screamers. No, the original. No, really. Man, I’m soooo old.
2) Beginners listen to professionals like yourself and tend to be overwhelmed. They want to get to a stage where they can play like you but haven’t a clue as to where they should begin. Can you offer any advice as to what you think is a good school of study? Should one concentrate on chords, scales, copying riffs? How does one make the leap from “noodling” to improvising?
I guess the best way to answer that is to tell you what I do, what’s worked for me, and what I’d do differently if given a second chance. From the time I started (I was four) I was taught to read music. So that has always been very easy for me. Unfortunately, no one bothered to mention the importance of listening and transcribing as well as reading. So when it came time to learn Stairway To Heaven, I went and bought the sheet music. Couldn’t figure out why it didn’t sound right…
It got to a point where I could sight-read Charlie Parker solos, almost at tempo, but couldn’t give you a half-decent solo of my own. When I recognized the problem, I stopped reading, and started listening, really listening. That’s when it started coming together for me.
If I had to do it over again, I would play without lessons for a few years, get my ear going and then start with the theory and the reading, which is, incidentally, the easy stuff.
I would suggest to the guitar student that they listen and transcribe solos, but not just guitar players’, (especially not guitar players’) and not just selected licks. Learn the whole solo, transcribe the progression, try to figure out why the musician is playing what he is, and where. If he’s playing a Bb over an A7, why? What does it relate to? Listen to the band around him. Are they feeding him? Or is he leading them? When does it change, and why? I place a lot more emphasis on musicians other than guitar players when it comes to transcribing. Few guitar solos have moved me as much as a killer singer, or a harmonically deep piano player.
Making the leap from noodling? I think when you stop playing, and start listening, you will play something that matters. If you can’t hear it then you shouldn’t be playing it. So hear it first, then play it. Stop playing scales, just stop. Stop and try to hear a melody first, then find it, play it. Unfortunately, we get all caught up in “over a Bb7alt chord I need to play Bb scary scale” instead of trying to hear the one perfect note that will connect that chord to the next. Of course, to my shred-head brothers and sisters, you’ll have to take this with a grain of salt. Excitement will probably be more important in your solo than a well-chosen note. But the fundamental idea still applies. I think, personally, my ultimate goal as a guitarist is to never play a note I didn’t mean. That will keep me busy for a lifetime or two.
3) How much practicing do you do, even now? Do you have a routine? When does “practicing” stop and “playing” take over? How does a group practice differ from what you normally do?
I don’t practice nearly as much as I used to, because, you know, I’ve got to pay bills. But what I lack in quantity, I try to make up for with quality. If I only have an hour or two, I have to be really choosy about my study. My routine is basically to warm up with a metronome, and I like to use it with the click only on 2 and 4, as opposed to quarter notes. That gets my feel grooving better. I start with a few scales, focusing on the low end of the neck (where it’s physically harder to play), then move up the neck. Start working some rhythm stuff, just comps with the metronome, get the groove going. Then I’ll start making up progressions and soloing. I like to do this with only a metronome, because then I’m responsible for the groove, as opposed to playing with records or a drum machine. If I can get the solo going and feeling good, just me and a click, and I can hear the changes going by, then I’m happy. That’s when it’s playing, not practicing.
Group practice? You mean rehearsals? Well, let’s see, how can I say something without bagging on every musician I’ve ever met. I like to use rehearsals as the means to working out arrangements, and the finer points of group playing. In other words, I don’t like rehearsals to be “let’s learn the song.” This is the time to figure out if the intro is going to be 4 or 8 bars long, and who’s soloing, etc. You can actually get enough done in a three hour rehearsal if everyone’s done their homework beforehand.
4) What do you feel is the most important aspect of playing (or not playing) to work on in order to be a good soloist and improviser?
Improvising is basically the art of writing a melody instantly, in front of people, and without an erase button. It’s where you pull everything you know together in one brief moment. It’s your commentary on the song.
Because of that, the solo will always be better if you know the song forward and backwards. Know every part, every chord, every voicing, every rhythm. A good soloist knows the melody and themes of the tune, and will use that as a springboard for the solo. The solo needs to relate to the song, and what better place to start than the melody. Or steal some rhythms from the drummer, play something back to him. Or start your solo with the last line the singer wailed. Do you know how powerful that is? The singer’s wailing, wailing away, getting you into the solo, and you start the solo wailing away right on the same note they’re on. It’s soooo powerful. You just got everyone in the room. You just got the singer, the band, everyone in the audience, their mothers…Now you’ve got to go buy all the amps and guitars because you just became everyone’s guitar player.
So, the short answer is: listening. Play within the song.
5) Sometimes, musicians have harder times coming up with lines and leads for simple progressions (like a typical pop or rock song) than they might have with a complicated jazz progression. Do you find this to be the case with you? How do you find ways to create something fresh for a standard progression (say I- vi – IV – V)?
I used to be scared of the involved, complicated jazz-type progression, then it changed, and I dreaded having to do a solo for 45 minutes over Am7. Now, I can go either way. They’re both fun. Sometimes it’s fun to carve for a long time on one chord, really get inside it. It’s like, – I have to build the house. Other times, I prefer to just find a melody over a simple progression; it feels more meaningful and less wanky. Sort of like the house is already built, and I just need to paint. They both have their place. Depends on my mood and the song. Playing over bop progressions is a different vibe. So I try to avoid them, you know, whenever possible. Besides, the keyboard player’s got two hands, let him have it! :
There is real potential for greatness when the solo is over one chord. If the band is with you, and you’re all really listening to each other, then it’s sort of group improv, and the interplay is so satisfying. As with anything that has potential for greatness, there’s also the potential for not-so-greatness. Mind-numbing not-so-greatness. I’ve been in situations, sorry to say, where the band isn’t listening, and I felt like I was banging my head against a wall. If that’s the case, it’s going to be the shortest solo you’ve ever heard.
Getting inside a chord requires a lot of thought. Think of the chord as part of a whole, not just a standalone thing that requires a “scale.” If you’re soloing forever over Am7, what kind of Am7 is it? Is it a jazzy Am, one where the keyboardist is going to be slipping back and forth chromatically? Is it functioning as a “I chord,” or as a ii, or a vi, or what? Is it a funky Am7, actually kind of an implied D9sus, or is it more of a Latin, Dorian kind of Am7, with 9ths galore and E7 all over the place? Know the chord’s function, its place in the progression, and that will guide your note choices. That’s what keeps it fresh.