Approaches to soloing
By Darrin Koltow
There are lots of books and teachers that can help you solo better. But what other resources are there to help you take your unaccompanied guitar expressions to the next level? How can the Internet help make you a better soloist?
What *is* soloing, anyway? And, what's the difference between soloing and improvisation?
What is soloing?
Soloing is when the singer stops singing, and *you* take over the melody line of a tune. That melody line may be one you worked out before you got on stage, or it may be one you're making up as you go. If you make it up as you go, you're *improvising*. So, improvisation is a specific kind of soloing.
We're going to focus on improvised soloing here, for a couple of reasons. First, working out a solo ahead of time memorizing it, in other words is a pretty straightforward process: you figure out what notes you're going to play, and then you rehearse them until you can play along with the chord changes, and without needing to read the notes.
Improvisation, on the other hand, requires the ability to think on your feet. It forces you to *think* musically. Maybe most important, improvised soloing delivers you a greater feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment than solos you write on paper first.
Where to start
One of the hang-ups that a lot of players have about learning to improvise is that they don't know where to start. They might know lots of theory, chords and scales. But when it comes to "winging" it, they don't know what to do.
The great thing about learning to improvise is that there are *many* ways of learning to do it. Some ways will be agreeable to you and others won't be.
If we narrow our focus to just talk about improvising a *melody*, instead of improvising harmonies, then it gets a bit easier: we can weed out the huge selection of approaches so we can focus on just a few.
Here are some approaches you can take to improvise a melody:
Fill in the blanks
: You know those long pauses that some songs have, like Elton John's "Don't Let The Sun Go Down on Me," for example? Sing those songs; when you get to those long, sustained notes or long rests, sing something to "fill in the blanks."
Another approach: forget the melody, and learn to flow arpeggios
over your favorite changes. In short, this means
- learning the chords to a song
- singing a chord tone from the first chord, and then ascending or descending through the remaining chord tones
- then, when the chord changes, you flow right from the last chord tone of the previous chord, to the nearest chord tone of the new chord
When you actually do this, it feels a lot more fun and natural than reading about it. To learn more about this arpeggio flowing technique, check out these resources:
- The Improviser
- Chord Melody Workout
- Also, the Blues Triad Mastery
- Michael Furstner's excellent JazClass, at http://www.jazclass.aust.com/im1.htm
Another approach to improvising: "Baby steps
": over your favorite chord progression, start by playing just one pitch, repeated as often as you like, over each chord in the progression. Once you feel good about expressing yourself with one note, move on to two, then three, and so on.
And if you believe you can't make an effective solo from one note, B.B. King and Eric Clapton can say more with one note than some symphony orchestras can with a thousand.
Improv approach next: play riffs
. These are short, catchy melody fragments. Pick 'em from any song and play over a chord progression. It doesn't matter if you take a phrase or riff from Somewhere Over the Rainbow and play it over the changes to Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love. It may not even matter if the keys don't match. The point is to get playing over the changes, and listen to what you're doing.
Play chord scales
: this is real similar to fill in the blanks, except you're playing chords instead of melodies. The idea is to play a scale with a chord attached to it. Here's a quick example, going from C to F
Notice we're also using the flowing concept here: when we hit the last melody note, A, in the first bar, we don't just go back to the root, F, of the next chord in the next bar. We *flow* from A to C. It's a small step, not a leap.
Another improv approach: learn *lots* of melodies
, and let them naturally flow out of you when playing over an arbitrary chord progression.
This next approach is pretty cool. It takes some effort, but it can open your eyes to a universe of possibilities. It's kind of similar to the "Fill in the Blanks" approach described earlier: Sing along with a favorite tune
Pick out a certain point in the song. When the singer on the recording sings a higher note from the previous one, you do the opposite: sing a note that descends. If the singer is descending from the previous note, you do the opposite again: you ascend. Practice doing this with just one part of the song. Then, when you "wear out" that part, move on to another part.