Beyond the Fretboard: Improvising Vs. Soloing, Part 2

by Chris Breen
Posted Dec 3, 2013 at 1:15pm

In Part 1 of this series, I set the stage for the general differences between improvising and soloing.

While both approaches require focused practice to excel, in my opinion, neither is superior to the other. It all depends on the player.

Essentially, improvising is the act of embellishing notes over a given chord progression on the spot. Likewise, soloing can be thought of as the same process, except that it also can be pre-planned and composed ahead of time.

Let's explore improvisation first and liken it to what a surfer does when he or she rides a wave (I've never surfed in my life, but it seemed like a good analogy). The surfer goes into the water with two things: his surfboard and his experience (or lack thereof). Similarly, the musician goes into the improv session with the same two things, except the surfboard is an instrument.

The wave will represent the chord progression. So in both cases, the wave and the chord progression are unpredictable variables. The surfer has to stay ahead of the wave's breaking point and must constantly adjust and react to its ever-changing texture. The musician has the same job in that he must always stay a step ahead of the chord changes and compensate for unexpected shifts in melody, rhythm and key.

An important task for musician and surfer alike is that they work in unison with their respective waves, not against them. The surfer has no control over the wave and the musical improviser, in most cases, has no direct control over the chord progression.

As a musician, you might have a special lick or two you've been practicing and perfecting for weeks or even months. Before the improv session begins, you might think it's the best time to showcase this new lick. But the backing band might decide to jump into a progression that's totally incompatible with your favorite new lick.

So should you force it? Some players will try, but it might not work and could be apparent to your audience. Instead, use techniques, licks and lead melodies that will best complement the chord progression. If a surfer tries to force a particular maneuver on the wrong wave at the wrong time, he'll likely wipe out. Same goes for the improviser.

Let's turn to a slightly different analogy for the concept of soloing and relate it to a skateboarder riding a half pipe. In this scenario, both musician and skateboarder can approach this task knowing there's a pre-determined structure at play. The obvious and crucial advantage the half pipe has over the surfer's wave is that it is a fixed constant and not an erratic variable. This means continually reacting to unknown factors is no longer a concern. We can now methodically craft the best performance over our established chord progression.

The skateboarder can plan out all the particular tricks and maneuvers in his head and relentlessly practice them on the half pipe to perfect his repertoire. The musician can go even further than that and can change the nature of the half pipe itself. If you don't like how the chord progression sounds, you can always alter it to better fit your soloing ideas.

I like to think of a solo section as a song within a song. You can borrow many of the same concepts from song writing and apply it to your solos. Particularly the idea of having a catchy vocal line can be very effective for guitar solos. Slash has perfected this approach throughout his career. Songs like "Sweet Child O' Mine" and "November Rain" showcase his impressive ability to mimic vocal qualities with his phrasing and a "less is more" style. This also makes Slash's faster intricate licks stand out more because they're well placed within the ebb and flow of his solos.

Now, does Slash ride the "wave" or the "half pipe"? As I said in Part 1, as long as the final product works, does it really matter? The audience will never know if you write your best work on the fly or not. But it does matter to you. You have to find your own inner-voice with the guitar, and it might take some trial and error to get there.

Maybe sit down and write out some lead guitar stuff and see how it sounds. Then start from scratch and record yourself improvising over a section without thinking too much. Perhaps you'll like some of your work from both approaches.

This is what separates music from surfing or skateboarding. It's a creative endeavor with virtually no rules attached to it. The only limitations we have are our own. We can rip through an entire guitar solo in one take, we can compose it like a song within a song, or we can do a little bit of both.

It's definitely advisable to be prepared for both the wave and the half pipe, but don't feel like you're a bad guitarist just because you can't do one as well as the other. All that means is you've found which works best for you. Harness your strengths. In my book, that will put you on the fast path to musical success.

Photo: Dani_vr via photopin cc

Chris Breen is a New Jersey-based guitarist with 14 years of experience under his belt. He, along with his brother Jon (on drums) started the two-piece metal project known as SCARSIC in 2011. Due to a lack of members, Chris tracked guitars, bass and vocals for their self titled four-song demo (available on iTunes, Spotify and Rhapsody). They have recently been joined by bassist Bill Loucas and are writing new material. Chris also is part of an all-acoustic side project known as Eyes Turn Stone. Chris teaches guitar lessons as well (in person or via Skype). If you're interested in taking lessons with Chris, visit BreenMusicLessons.com for more info.