Uggh…ouch…Have you ever made these sounds when you’ve listened to a solo? You know, one of those solos where you hear a couple of unsavory phrases and that’s it…no more! For the love of God, please make it stop! If you listen to a good amount of music, I’ll bet you have. But what exactly was it about this particular solo that turned you off so much? The scales the soloist was using? The type of instrument they were playing? No? Well it must be something…
You might be surprised, but a lot of what makes a solo sound bad doesn’t have anything to do with the notes or scales.
Harmonic tunnel vision
When you first start learning to improvise it’s all about the notes. All about the notes…
Major scales, minor scales, modes, arpeggios, chord tones, blues scales, bebop scales, the 3rd’s and 7th’s, dominant 7th chords, Major 9 chords, ii-V7-I, and on and on.
There’s so much theory to think about that you end up getting harmonic tunnel vision.
All you can see are chords and scales, scales and chords – every other aspect of the music becomes invisible.
You desperately want to play the right note at the right time so you clutch onto music theory like a stranded swimmer hanging onto a life preserver.
As a result, you forget about some very important parts of musical expression…
Remember, improvising isn’t just about which notes you play, it’s about how you play them.
And this is exactly what a lot of improvisers forget as soon as they start a solo.
Don’t let this be you.
Here are three common mistakes that you can easily avoid in your solos:
1) Playing with Bad Time
R h y t h m i c Clarity.
These are the first things that go right out the window when many improvisers begin a solo.
You’ve got to think about all those notes and chords right? Yes you do, but that doesn’t mean that you can completely forget about the time.
The time and rhythmic ideas that you play are just as important as the harmonic elements of your solo. A swinging phrase that’s locked in with the players around you can elevate those “normal notes” in your solo to an entirely new level.
However, achieving great time requires focused study.
Just as you would think about which scale or note to play over a chord, you must pay attention to how you’re placing each note within the beat, how you’re accenting it, and how you’re swinging (or not swinging) the line.
These are details that every listener, from the amateur to the professional, innately picks up on. Time is physical. We move to the beat, tap our toes, and dance. If the groove is happening the audience will know it right away.
Listen to any master musician in any genre and you’ll hear great time.
The same should be true of your playing. Anytime that you practice or perform, focus on the time.
2) Ignoring Sound and Intonation
There is no excuse for playing with a bad sound or for playing out of tune. Period.
Because your sound is the voice of your musicality. It’s how your musical message is delivered to the listener.
Your sound and intonation are the first things that a listener hears. Before they even think about the notes, they become aware of your sound.
“We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the tone of voice in which it has been expressed is unsympathetic to us.”~Friedrich Nietzsche
You can be playing the hippest notes in the world, but if you aren’t in tune or playing with a good sound it won’t matter one bit. No one will want to hear it.
Listen to Freddie Hubbard’s solo on this tune:
Not too shabby, right?
Now imagine those same exact notes out of tune or played with an abrasive sound. A bad sound or poor intonation will immediately cancel out everything great that’s happening in your solo.
3) Playing without Phrasing
Have you ever heard a speaker that just runs on and on without a pause?
Word after word and sentence after sentence that just merge into one incoherent block of sound. After awhile you can’t help but stop listening or paying attention.
These long-winded speakers are just like the run-on improviser who plays lines and lines of eighth notes without pause. No beginning and no end, just a wash of notes.
This can be taxing for even the most dedicated or sympathetic listeners.
It’s important to keep in mind that musical phrasing is essential for getting your message across to an audience. Just like a great speaker or writer, your ideas need to be presented clearly and confidently.
Every musical idea that you play should be a statement made with confidence and intent.
For an example of great phrasing, listen to Miles play on Blues by Five:
Sure, Miles could play hundreds of notes in this solo, yet he plays beautiful musical phrases, and this is why it sounds so good!
It’s all connected
All three of these areas of your musicianship are connected. To sound great as you solo, you need to play musical phrases in time with a great sound.
Simple enough, right?
Sure it sounds simple, but it takes some serious practice.
At the end of the day it comes down to awareness. If you don’t consciously think about these three aspects of musicality in the practice room and on the stage, you’re going to miss them.
A great exercise is to record yourself improvising over a tune. The recording is impartial and won’t hide anything – believe me!
As you listen back to yourself, ask these questions: Am I playing with good time? Am I in tune and playing with good tone quality? Am I making musical statements? If not, you’ll quickly know exactly what you need to work on in the practice room.
I can’t stress it enough, each time you play your instrument you should be thinking about time, your sound, and playing in coherent musical statements.
When you master these three aspects of musicality, the notes don’t really matter – it’s all about the musical message that’s happening in the moment. You’re connecting with the listener and the musicians around you.
This is what makes a great solo.