A Simple Trick for Improving Your Blues Solos (Video Included)

What separates great improvisers from the rest of us mortals?

Structure.

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:

Don’t Play Stuff that Sounds Bad

 

Many years ago, someone came up to me after my band finished its set and told me: “You sounded great on that last song!”

I was shocked, because I had just limped through the roughest part of the set.

The song in question was Peg by Steely Dan, a song that to this day I can barely play. I knew the chords, but they didn’t sound good to me when I played them. And I hated soloing over the song–I couldn’t make the guitar sing over the chord changes.

So why did this audience member compliment me for a song that I didn’t really play on?

(Of course, he could have been bullshitting, but for argument’s sake, we’ll assume that he was being sincere.)

I received the compliment because I played only what I knew would sound good. I didn’t muck up the mix or distract my band mates with flubbed notes or overbearing chords. Instead, I employed the fundamental principle of good guitar playing:

Never play anything that sounds bad.

Most guitarists would agree with this principle, but as I’m sure you’ve noticed, many of us do not put it into practice. It’s too bad, because not playing is so much easier than playing!

I try to avoid sweeping generalizations, but when it comes to live musical performance, it’s always better to not play anything rather than to play something that you’re not good at or that doesn’t fit the song.

You may feel stupid not doing anything on stage while your band mates rock out, but looking awkward and checking your ego is a small price to pay for not ruining a performance with substandard guitar work.

Choosing when to play and when to sit back isn’t just good for the overall sound of the band, it can also help to showcase your playing. If you wait for just the right moment to add to the song, people will notice and enjoy.

When it came to Peg, the only thing I could play that sounded good was “popcorn rhythm” on the verses. Everything else that I tried was outside of my technical abilities or stylistic preferences, so I just stuck with what I knew how to play. For those of you not hip to popcorn rhythm, check out this video by one of my heroes, Skunk Baxter:

 

 

 

How To Improve Your Phrasing

One of the most frequent questions my guitarist friends ask me is how they can improve their phrasing. In improvised music, phrasing refers to the musician’s ability to articulate his or her solo around melodic lines, or phrases. If you picture the solo as a story, the musical phrases are the sentences that convey the information necessary for the story to have meaning.

If the soloist lacks the ability to create tangible musical phrases, the solo will fail to arrest the listener’s attention. Instead of sounding like a compelling story, the solo will sound like incoherent babble. We call that noodling in the music business. Of course, there are some situations in which babble might be appropriate–for comedic or psychedelic effect, for example. Sometimes, the lack of phrasing is a legitimate form of phrasing.

Phrases are Intentional Musical Statements that Give Your Solos Meaning

The key is to use phrases to build the musical narrative you want to share with your audience. Phrases are defined as much by melodies as they are timbers (or the sonic quality of the notes you play). Sparse notes drenched in reverb might set a melancholic mood, twangy staccato notes may give a sense of urgency, while heavily distorted shredding will convey confidence and power.

There is a phrase for every musical situation, and there is no right way to go about creating and assembling phrases. You might play a melodic line, or riff, that you’ve memorized, then let your fingers explore the fret board at a frenetic rate, before settling into some bends that pull on your heart strings… The possibilities are endless.

Learning Melodies Gives You the Tools to Make Your Own Phrases

So how do you learn a skill that is inherently dependent on personal tastes and abilities? There are a number of ways, the most important (and boring) of which is learning melodic lines from other musicians that you enjoy. As painstaking as it may be, deciphering and memorizing melodies from your favorite songs is the single best way to improve your musical vocabulary.

Once you have some of these memorized melodies in your toolbox, you’ll be surprised at how often you can deploy them in different contexts. This leads me to another exercise for improving phrasing: repetition and alteration. If you have a cool lick that works in a given harmonic and rhythmic context, practice repeating it with slight tonal and rhythmic variations. When you make a mistake, repeat it and try to alter the rest of the remaining notes of the phrase to make it resolve to your liking.

Get Comfortable With the Unknown and Feed Off Randomness

Mistakes are important, as they frequently lead to new ideas–perhaps more frequently than consciously driven creation. Most of us, however, like to sound good when we play guitar and are thus averse to taking the kinds of risks that lead to mistakes. Worry not, there is an exercise for that.

When my friend and mentor Ben Shelton was teaching himself jazz guitar in high school, he used to lay on his bed at night with the lights off and play with his … guitar. Called the “random note game,” the exercise involves soloing over a familiar tune and routinely moving your fingers to an unknown spot on the neck. You’ll end up hitting some weird notes. Practice your ability to get back into known territory without using your eyes.

Improve Your Phrasing by Privileging Time over Pitch and Tone

Another method, which Ben Shelton also taught me, is called the single note solo. Play over a backing track, and use only one note to build a solo. I believe music exists in three dimensions: time, pitch, and timber. Most guitarists focus only on the latter two dimensions–hitting the right notes and achieving good tone. The single note solo forces the guitarist to focus exclusively on time, much to the relief of his or her band mates.

You should practice the one note solo until you are able to create a musical story with only one note. Teach yourself how to build tension and release by varying your rhythms. Let the note ring for a while and feel it’s power, then feel how the mood changes when you play dense clusters of notes. Once you can reliably create musical narratives with one note, add another one. Once your two note solo is decent, practice the three note solo, etc.

I’m convinced that not a single person I’ve taught this method to actually does it–otherwise, I would have noticed a quantum leap in their soloing abilities. The exercise is hard to accept, especially for guitarists who already have decent chops. But the truth is, you will never be a good soloist until you can take a ripping solo using one note.

Still not convinced? Check out Johnny Guitar Watson’s solo on Those Lonely, Lonely Nights, which starts at 1:25. But start listening a bit before the solo starts so you can appreciate the context.

Speaking of context… context is everything. Solos do not exist in a vacuum–they are anchored to the song (and to some extent, the time and place) in which they are played. Johnny Guitar Watson’s approach to the solo from Those Lonely, Lonely Nights may sound ridiculous in a different song. Or maybe you think it sounds ridiculous as it is. And that’s a fair assessment.

Our tastes as musicians are relatively unimportant, what’s more important is our ability to get audiences to listen to and appreciate our subjective emotions and ideas. The best way to get listeners’ attention and potentially gain their appreciation is to lay out our musical ideas in a series of cogent phrases that effectively tell our personal stories.