Recently I participated in some correspondence with a guitarist that I have the utmost respect for. He was preparing for an important gig and informed me that, for probably the first time in his career, he was actually planning a solo "in advance" of the performance. He felt pretty guilty about it, from an artistic standpoint, and I was moved to offer him a few of my thoughts on the subject. I'd like to share them.
In the first place, I could really relate to his dilemma, because there was a time in my career that I felt exactly the same way. I would just about always accept a "first take" on a solo, regardless of whether it was my best effort or not. If it was during a live performance, I obviously had little choice. But I often found that even my recorded solos would eventually "grow" on me, sometimes after just a day or so had passed. I could live with that. It was the right way to go about improvising. Well... yes and no.
I still am a strong believer in the "just-go-for-broke" approach, but I've gradually changed my philosophy. The reason for this change had to do with my own artistic dilemmas, coupled with my observations of so many great jazz and blues musicians. First, my dilemmas...
Despite years and years of tedious study and compiling an enormous amount of improvising ideas through my transcribing efforts, I still found myself frustrated by my inability to apply the acquired knowledge spontaneously. I could play lots of great riffs, but they just wouldn't seem to surface during an actual solo. To compound matters, there were a number of challenging tunes, especially in the jazz genre, that would repeatedly kick my butt on a regular basis. Oh sure, I would sometimes really be "on" and "rise to the occasion," but those times were simply too far and few in between to compensate for what I expected of myself. I just had to do something. But there were other factors that led to my ultimate decision.
One of the most apparent factors was listening to my dad and his colleagues improvise. I would often hear the same basic solo, an improvisation that had been slowly constructed through time and experience, plus countless gigs. I also was amazed by the sheer harmonic strength and consistency of the artists that I had transcribed. It finally dawned on me that the combination of talent, obsession, and the playing environment that they grew up with was what led to this level of perfection.
Well, nowadays the student of improvisation doesn't have the luxury of that kind of environment, even if the talent and work ethic is there. I found that, by taking a challenging song/progression, slowing it down and writing a "model" solo (incorporating those riffs and ideas that weren't getting into my "automatic pilot"), I began to make significant breakthroughs in my playing. One of the truly ironic things about this process is that, even though I manage to write out and study these model solos, it's still rather difficult at times to execute them. But nevertheless, the improvement in my spontaneous ability and my newfound command of a tune and the language itself has been astounding.
So, in closing, I'd highly recommend that you take the same path and attempt to write some model jazz or blues solos yourself. And don't pronounce any solo complete until you've drawn up something so strong that it will set a standard for all of your future solos as well!
"Coach's Corner" is an ongoing addition to Vision Music. The purpose of these brief articles is to share philosophy, offer practical insights, and to enhance your musical studies.
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