And if you’re going to develop your muted part a little bit—perhaps put some accents in, some little pushes, some chords—that’s when your ears have to be very, very big, so that those accents come right between those hi-hat beats. That’s what’ll make your rhythm section gel really well. In the next chorus, I might start developing this little part with guide tones and guide chords [Ex. 2]. These sounds give a little more pad for the solo, which makes the soloist very comfortable. The guide voicings I’m playing are an A6 sliding down to a G6—even though the bass is holding the root A the whole time—then D6-C6 for the IV chord (with the bass playing D). This is one of those sounds that all blues players use at some point; it’s part of blues vocabulary.
Notice that after I played that bent C, I did not re-pick the A that follows. I pulled off to it, and then added some vibrato. That’s pretty cool—suddenly this little lick has a thing to it, doesn’t it? You can even bend the G, too [Ex. 6]. Now it’s starting to sound like the blues! This is just one way to express these four notes. You have the options to do any of these same things on the rest of the notes in this position. For example, do a little bend with the index finger [Ex. 7], and put a little vibrato on the last note of the first bar. Play the phrase again, ending on a high note [bar 2]. Express thyself!
The other thing I’ve found to be helpful as an improviser is to think like a vocalist or like a singer. Singers have a specific melody that they’re going to interpret. You, as a guitar player and improviser, get to make up the song while you’re playing it, but if you can keep in mind that you’re a singer telling a story, it will at least remind you not to play all this stuff [plays fast, un-singable, scale pattern]. Stuff like that really doesn’t mean anything, because a singer would never think of singing it. They would concentrate on the lyric and the melody that they’re trying to get across.
Lastly, think about how to structure your solo. Again, thinking like a singer can help you develop the melody you are improvising, so start simply, like a vocal song would. Leave space between your lines so that if your lines were lyrical phrases, the listener would have time to digest the words. Tell your story.
This jam [Ex. 11] started with a one-chord vamp in C, with just the bass line happening [as notated]. I’d probably start off with a muted sound, created by resting my picking-hand palm on the strings. (Sometimes the deader you make the string, the better it feels.) Notice that the tonality is not C major or C minor, it’s just C. I’m not going to commit a major 3 against that C riff—because that would make it too pretty—or a minor 3, as that would make the song sound minor. The notes I can use are the root, the b7, the 6, and the 5, as none of those will commit to a tonality.
When I start jamming with some guys and am creating a part like this on the fly, I try to organize my part. The way I start—and this has always worked for me—is very simply. I give it space, space, space, because I don’t know what else is going to be happening in the music. Maybe there’s a clavinet player or a percussionist on the track. And as it develops, I’ll just add to my little motif. We know the bass part is working—it’s carrying the weight. So I start simple and leave space to see if anyone else is doing something. If they don’t jump in, I’ll play it again. Later, maybe I’ll add a spiky little interval like this thing you hear a lot from funk players [strikes A (second string, 10th fret) and Eb (first string, 11th fret) simultaneously].
Now, I’m going to solo off these jazz/blues changes, and obviously, I’m going to be listening the chordal part, because I want ideas fed to me as a soloist. I’ll probably do the typical Larry thing and start pretty simple, and just be listening. Hopefully, I’ll get a little help from the comp track to help me develop the solo so it’s more interesting. I’ll be listening for altered chords, any kind of “Rhythm” changes [I-VI-II-V turnarounds in the style Gershwin’s famous “I Got Rhythm” progression]. Now let’s dig in to that and see what happens [Ex. 14].
Again, the most important thing for me is always to try and make a musical statement. Even if I’m playing the blues and I’m excited or I’m passionate about it, I ask myself how important can I make what I’m playing? So, always try to get in the habit of saying to yourself, “Do I mean this? Is this something I really want someone to hear? Or am I just playing these licks because I know how to play these licks?” Don’t do the latter. Instead, make your statement.
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