Melody Is the Key

We’ve all heard that the key to improvising beautifully is to focus on melody, as opposed to riffs, scales, or theoretical constructs. No one disagrees with this, but very few of us actually practice it.

Heading into my lesson with jazz guitar wizard Bruce Forman, I knew that he would tell me his mantra: “Just play the melody.” But I didn’t understand what this meant until he said it to me face to face and guitar in hand in the backyard woodshed that serves as his musical base of operations.

I told Bruce that I had trouble keeping track of where I was in jazz standards while soloing. He correctly diagnosed that I kept in my mind’s eye a rolling scroll of the chord changes in my head that I would “read” while I played. “But all you need to do,” he told me, “is to follow the melody.”

And that’s when it clicked.

The idea of using the tune’s melody as the basis for improvisation can be taken in two (or possibly more) ways. The first interpretation, which I mentioned above, is to use the melody as a source of thematic ideas for creating a solo. But the second interpretation, which I had overlooked until now, and which is so much more important to me at this stage of my musical development, is that the melody is the most effective vehicle for remembering the song’s structure.

Chord charts on the other hand, in addition to being notoriously inaccurate, are far more difficult to remember than a tune. I bet you never got a chord chart stuck in your head…. but a tune? Forget about it! And assuming you are using a real chord chart while playing, do any of us actually believe that the chord chart actually tells you what the song should be doing? Don’t our ears (or musical imaginations) do a much better job of that?

To hear Bruce expand on this approach further, check out episode 99v of the Guitarwank podcast, hopefully it will make things click for you too!

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:

Recording a Blues EP in India

The following events took place in late December of 2013 when I visited India with some friends I made while living in Nairobi. At that time, I worked at the UNHCR by day and led the house band in a local blues club by night. You can scroll to the bottom and press play to listen to the results of this adventure while you read.

Avneet and Arjun take me to an apartment building at the end of a dirt street somewhere in Chennai. Their friend Manik greets us and whisks us to an empty flat on the building’s top floor. I gather that we are hiding from his wife. The boys settle in a corner, on hard, low sofas. I retreat to an empty room and call my parents, letting them know that I am alive and that I love them.  When I return to the sitting room, it is filled with a bluish haze. Laughter—the sort that only old friends can share—echoes across the barren walls. I sit, listen, and drink. Stories drift back and forth as the bottles go round and round. They used to be business partners, apparently. I don’t know what Manik does now. I notice that when you tease Manik, a dark, barrel chested man, he has the habit of pulling in close, his fist raised, as if to deal a fatal blow, before crumbling into hysterics. I almost feel honored when one of my remarks prompts this reaction. At some point, somebody picks up food. Plastic containers of succulent butter chicken and cauliflower are swiftly emptied. It is some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted, or at least that’s how it felt at the time. Eventually, the bottles are empty and we slide down the stairs and coast back into the street. I don’t know where Manik went, but presumably he had a thorough bath and went back to his family. Arjun, Avneet, and I squeeze into the back of an auto-rickshaw, and an intense debate ensues.

The next day is an important one. I have reserved a recording studio from 9 in the morning onwards. Chennai’s finest blues band, fronted by Arjun and Avneet’s brother Aum, has agreed to spend the whole day with me recording … something. There isn’t much of a plan. I have never met these people before, much less played with them, and I just have a few sketches of arrangements in a notebook. Avneet suggests the most rational course of action: home for everyone and an early start to the day. Arjun, on the other hand, is blabbering about going out to a club. I know that whatever decision we make in this instant will drastically change the outcome of the next day’s session. The weight of the moment settles upon us. I argue passionately, and somewhat incoherently, that we should go to the club and drink ourselves into oblivion. I babble about how true creativity can only originate from hardship, and that I need a challenge to overcome. I propose that we make a story to fit behind the recording session. If we go home, I argue, the recording will be nothing but an empty, emotionless shell.  Let’s fill it with experience of the debaucherous kind—it’s Christmas, after all. Avneet reluctantly agrees. Or rather, he decides it’s not worth his while to argue against two drunk and stubborn idiots.

My eyes flicker open and register pale grey forms spanning the room. Somewhere outside the sun must be shining. For an instant, my mind is an empty receptacle into which my ego pours its memories and experiences. I remember that I came to India, and that I’ve been staying in a small service apartment in a place called C.I.T colony. I am lying on the couch. My shoes are on. A vague sense of regret and embarrassment tugs at the devastated outskirts of my mind. Around me, the debris from the previous night’s insanity litters the room like the aftermath of a small battle. I am drunk, and Avneet is standing above me talking. Talking about the recording. Talking about the recording session we are an hour late for already. I spring off the couch and begin stuffing my pockets with my belongings, which are scattered everywhere.  

I notice Avneet staring at me in horror. Something is wrong with my mouth; it is prickly. I look into the mirror, and see that I’ve shattered my front teeth. I remember a fountain, and becoming a leopard and jumping around in it. I remember an impact, someone yelling out. No time to worry about that now. We scramble out of the apartment, grab an auto, and go to Avneet’s place a few kilometers to the south, on the other side of the river. There, we find Arjun wrecked upon his bed. He mumbles at us, helpless, before slumping back into darkness. We grab some of his guitars and return to the auto. It’s at least thirty minutes to the studio. Avneet’s phone is dead, so we don’t know where any of the musicians are. We can’t even tell them we’re coming. We don’t even know where the studio is located precisely.

I’ll need to pay cash for the recording session, so I instinctively check my wallet for my bank card, which, to my despair, is not there. I calmly announce the calamity to Avneet. There’s only one solution: we need to retrace out steps and find the card, which is hopefully with an honest bartender. But, seen the way we were acting the previous night, it is doubtful that we’ll be on the receiving end of any charitable intentions. I remember at one point looking for a place to pee in a bar’s stockroom. I would rather not go back to that bar. Avneet asks me for a light, and as I search my pockets for a matchbox, I extract my glasses, which somehow contain my bank card. A miracle. We arrive at the suspected location of the studio in high spirits, and alight from the auto.

We know the studio is one of half-dozen fifteen storey apartment blocks in front of us. We enter one of the blocks at random, where we stumble up and down stairwells and halls without finding anything. In desperation we begin knocking on people’s doors. No one has any idea what we’re talking about. They seem threatened. I realize that while rummaging around my pockets, I left my glassed in the auto. Luckily, I am wearing prescription shades, which enable me to see but give me a rather dodgy appearance. Back in the courtyard, a man directs us to the correct block. When we get to the studio, we find a confused sound engineer, and no musicians.

The sound engineer, Krishna, is obviously skeptical when he realizes his client for the day is a drunk toothless American with no band. I am equally skeptical when Krishna tells me that the studio is for tracking individual instruments only, and that it is not equipped to capture group performances. I am broken. I open my backpack, where I know I’ll find a bottle of Makers Mark I bought especially for this occasion. It is not there, and I despair further. Did we drink it last night? Krishna kindly offers to make me a coffee. Meanwhile, Avneet has reached the musicians, who are all on their way.  

We discuss our options. I categorically refuse to track instruments individually because I believe that blues recordings must be captured live, with all the musicians playing at the same time. The recording should include all the mistakes, the impromptu arrangement ideas, and spontaneous jamming that characterize the specific slice of spacetime occupied by the performance.  That slice will be much richer if it includes simultaneous and imperfect human contributions. Avneet proposes that we set up drums and guitar in the tracking room, then put the bass and the keyboards in the control room, plugging them directly into the console. Krishna is still skeptical: what about the vocals? A microphone squeezed next to my seat, in front of the drums. By the time we’ve set this up, the band arrives.

The musicians were from a band called Blues Conscience, of which Avneet’s brother Aum is the lead guitar player. But neither he nor their regular drummer were available that day. Siddartha was the keyboard player. His passion for music burned dangerously behind his laid back, almost scruffy appearance. He brought a Nord keyboard, so he meant business. Anek, tall and distinguished, played bass. Usually the frontman of his band, he had no issue taking on a supporting role. His bass playing effortlessly spanned from swampy to slick.  George, the drummer, was younger than I expected but the immensity of his chops and his dedication to groove were enough to dispel my doubts. Whatever doubts I may have had about the band must have been slight in comparison to their doubts about me. Hours late, half drunk, reeking, and broken, I had no credibility whatsoever. After a drink and a smoke, we squeezed into the studio. I grabbed a red Stratocaster clone manufactured sometime in the seventies or eighties by a company called Lotus. I plugged into a Fender Blues Deville amplifier and turned all the knobs to 12 o’clock.

We recorded six songs with no hiccups whatsoever. Krishna was not only professional and efficient, he was enthusiastic about the music. Sometimes studio personnel are highly impersonal, jaded, or even hostile. This couldn’t have been further from the truth with Krishna. We recorded for about six hours. We took a few breaks, had some brief discussions about arrangements, but I sought to avoid the creative discussions that can and usually bog down recording sessions. At first, George was disconcerted by the lack of direction. As a session player, he was used to having his work cut out for him. But here, he was given free reign, which was unusual for him. He kept saying he was unsure of what to play, and I just kept telling him to play whatever he felt. He loosened up, followed, and eventually started leading us into some nice grooves.

Good Morning Little Schoolgirl is a traditional number attributed to Sonny Boy Williamson, but I followed the more contemporary Ten Years After arrangement, borrowing a groove from the Band of Gypsies first song from their New Year’s gig of 1970. Grab Your Shoes is a song inspired by one of my Portland friends, Brian. Upon leaving his apartment one night, he told me to grab my shoes and put them on my feet, which I thought was fantastic. I came up with the chords in my bungalow in Dadaab and wrote the lyrics in the terminal of the Jeddah airport. Hoochie Koochie Man, written by Willie Dixon for Muddy Waters, was the first blues song I ever felt comfortable singing. The usual Blues Consicence drummer joined us for this track, and we really meshed. I’m Gonna Make my Home is a Johnny Copeland tune that I like because it reminds me of the crazy days of driving across the country just to play a show or to see a friend. We recorded Crossroad Blues by Robert Johnson, a tune that I usually introduce as being “severely adulterated” when I play it live. For this version, Avneet laid down some rhythm guitar and a new wave guitar solo that gives the song a fresh direction. With just a few minutes of recording left, I decided to record a traditional shuffle blues that we wrapped up in one take after briefly discussing how the song would end.

It was one of the best days of my life, but it came at a cost. I deliberately acted like an idiot the night before because I thought that if I acted like a rock star, I would sound like one the next day. My insecurities brought me close to the edge that night. Not only could my injuries have been far more serious, but I’m also sure that I was a toxic presence wherever I had been. Someone probably should have punched me in the face, but instead, reality did. The financial cost was significant. In total, I paid around 500 dollars to have my teeth fixed. I was too proud to lie to my insurance company to get compensation. One tooth was replaced in India in a neighborhood dentist’s office. The other tooth, which was only mildly chipped, turned black a week later and had to be replaced in Nairobi after a root canal treatment. On the bright side, as my brother remarked, I will always carry a part of Kenya and India with me.