What separates great improvisers from the rest of us mortals?
Whether based on intuition or on a solid foundation in music theory, all masters of improvised music display the ability to structure their solos.
By structure, I mean that the solo is not just composed notes from scales, but of phrases. Each phrase is a musical idea. Taken together, these phrases build a musical story through tension and release.
No blues guitarist illustrates this principle as much as Albert Collins. In fact, his style is almsot a caricature of a structured approach–but it’s effective as hell. Albert Collins manages to create hard-hitting solos with systematic and sparse phrases that easily lend themselves to analysis (or more accurately, theft).
Albert Collins uses phrases that accentuate the chord that is being played at any given moment of the blues progression (I, IV, or V). One of the ways he does this is by ending his phrases on the third of each relevant chord.
Applying this principle to a blues in the key of C, we get the following three guidelines:
1. On the C (I Chord), end your phrases on the E (third). Albert Collins almost always ends his phrases on the third while playing over the I chord, but sometimes he also ends on the fifth, root, or flat seventh.
2. On the F (IV Chord), end your phrases on A (sixth). The third of the F chord is A, which is the sixth of the C chord.
3. On the G (V Chord), include a B (natural seventh) in your phrases. The third of G is the sixth of C. Here, notice that I use “include” as opposed to end. Ending the phrase on the natural seventh gets you in trouble because you may end up playing the natural seventh over the IV chord, which sounds a little too “out” to my ears. Albert Collins doesn’t use the natural seventh as much as the third and sixth. But you can hear Johnny Guitar Watson use it a lot in his early career.
Like with any good thing, don’t overuse these principles. They were just one of many tricks that Albert had in his bag–and that you and I now have too. I encourage you to study your favorite improvisers and look beyond the surface to see the principles that structure their playing.
Here’s a video to illustrate: