Get In The Zone: An Intriguing Improvisation Strategy from Wayne Krantz

June 2, 2008

TO PARAPHRASE SONGWRITER KRIS KRISTOFFERSON, IMPROVISING AIN’T FOR SISSIES. It takes big ears, an inventive mind, and a brave heart. Bravery is essential, because improvisation means venturing into unknown territories—in front of a live audience, hopefully. Sounds a bit scary, right? Maybe that’s why so many players fold familiar things they’ve worked hard on into their solos. Even the wiliest improvisers fall back on pet phrases and patterns from time to time. Of course, there’s no crime in playing memorized licks—in fact, it’s impossible to imagine many iconic players without their signature maneuvers—but that’s not the kind of playing that drives Wayne Krantz.

When Krantz is improvising, it’s clear he’s not running up and down well-trod licks, but constantly searching for new sounds in real time. Though he favors rock and funk grooves, his rich harmonic sensibilities have a connection to jazz. That gives him lots of latitude for discovery, even when his band is digging ever deeper into an anything-but-jazz groove.

Krantz has a heavy résumé, including gigs and session work with Steely Dan and Michael Brecker, but he’s mostly done his own thing for the past decade or so. He recently ended his long run at the 55 Bar in New York City, where he’d played more-or-less every Thursday with his trio since the mid ’90s. During that time he released several CDs, including four recorded live at the 55. He’s also the author of the book An Improviser’s OS, which defines his unique approach to practicing improvisation. (His CDs and book are available exclusively online at waynekrantz.com, as are numerous live recordings and free, streaming “WK” radio.)

Zoning In

Pure improvisation calls for practicing with a particular mindset. Unlike most guitarists, Krantz isn’t interested in mastering patterns or memorizing fingerings. Instead, he practices while imposing strict limitations, which force him to be creative. He’ll start by choosing a particular zone of the fretboard to explore.

“I call it a ‘zone,’” he says, “because when you say ‘position,’ people tend to think of the scale patterns they already know, in certain positions on the neck. What I do is more an exercise in, ‘Can I find the right notes here?’”

Krantz’s practice zones are smaller than your typical scale or arpeggio fingering—a mere four frets wide, with no allowance for stretching outside the zone. The appropriate fret-hand finger is assigned to each fret in the zone. Say, for example, you’re in the 5th-fret zone (frets 5–8). You’ll play all of the 5th-fret notes with your 1st finger, all 6th-fret notes with your 2nd finger, and so on. “When you limit it to four frets instead of five,” Krantz explains, “you’re necessarily going to leave out notes, which means you’re going to have to think, and not just rely on what you know about a scale pattern. Don’t stretch out of the zone—not even for a note that’s part of the structure, or sounds good—or else it’s wrong in terms of the exercise.”

What can you practice in a zone? Any scale, arpeggio, or chord structure—in other words, to use the general term Krantz prefers, any formula. More to the point, you can work on improvising with these formulas. The notes you find aren’t to be memorized or mastered. Zones are meant to be places where you’re not only limited, but actually a bit lost. Krantz says, “It’s like, ‘I don’t know this—at least not as a pattern,’ and I prefer it that way. By practicing using all these things that I don’t know but can find quickly, I get better and better at finding them. It’s working towards having access to all of the possible formulas. And, within that context, trying to be as musical as possible.”

Formula In Action

To demonstrate, Krantz chooses a formula—Abm7b9 pentatonic. The m7b9 formula is 1, b2 (the same chord tone as b9), b3, 5, b7—which, in the key of Ab, translates to Ab, Bbb (or, enharmonically, A), Cb, Eb, and Gb. Krantz then opts for the 5th-fret zone. It’s a considered choice. Right off the bat, the limitations of this zone become apparent, as we can’t play the sixth-string root (Ab) of this formula, even though it lies a mere half-step below our 1st finger at the 4th fret.

“Going through this low to high,” Krantz says, playing Ex. 1a, “I start with b2 and b3 on the sixth string. The next available note is 5, on the fifth string. I can’t reach b7 on the fifth or fourth string in this zone, so I skip to 1 and b2 on the fourth string. Since I can’t reach the next b3, I go to 5 on the third string, b7 on the second, then b2 and b3 on the first string.

“I could map this out,” he continues, “to try to remember it and get good at playing it fast. That’s how I used to practice scales. It’s how most of us are taught, but I found it really hard to apply that to actual music making. Also, I was always limited to only being able to play what I’d practiced. So I decided to forget that whole bit of trying to remember stuff and getting fast at playing up and down and all that. Instead, I practice trying to find any tonality in any zone, and I make that search as musical as I possibly can.”

With that, Krantz flips his metronome on. It’s nothing fancy, and a piece of clear tape covers the mini speaker grille to dampen the sound a bit. He’s got a similarly utilitarian portable cassette recorder nearby. He hits the record button and starts generating Abm7b9 lines in the 5th-fret zone. The first phrase that comes is Ex. 1b. Melodically, it’s a bit jagged, which is to be expected when you’ve only got a five-note formula to work with, and some of the notes are out of reach and out of bounds. Krantz is getting into the flow now, and plays Ex. 1c using the same limits. What’s interesting here is that he’s using both melodic elements (one note at a time) and harmonic elements (two or more notes at a time) within the same phrase.

If you’re wondering how useful it is to practice on a m7b9 harmony—not a chord you see in many songs—consider that this novel pentatonic scale can be put to other uses. For instance, it works great in E major. (Enharmonically reconfigured as G#, A, B, D#, F#, it’s easy to see that it’s a subset of the

E major scale, which is spelled E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#.) Also, modally speaking, it’s a cousin of F# Dorian (F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, E), so this pentatonic acts as a cool alternative (not your average blues box) over F#m7. It’s similarly related B Mixolydian (B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A), so try it over B7.

Yes-Fly Zone

Krantz is ready to generate more lines, and now he’s got a new formula and zone in mind—Gmaj7 (G, B, D, F#) in the 1st-fret zone shown in Ex. 2a. (Notice that no Gmaj7 tones occur on the 1st fret, which means the 1st finger lays out entirely in this zone. Trippy!) He dishes up Ex. 2b, rife with cooing half-step bends. “I allow bending into any note that’s in the formula,” says Krantz. “Any kind of guitaristic articulation is cool, as long as the note comes out right. I usually don’t include open strings cause they expand the zone and fill in too many notes in the formula, allowing for more stepwise motion. Without them, bigger intervals are built right in—which I like.”

Krantz hits the rewind button, then listens back to what he has just played. “I listen,” he explains, “so I can ask questions about it—whether the time is good, and the phrasing is right. If the note choices sound completely random, and I’m trying to play melodically, then I’ve failed. If I’m trying to play in a random way, then I’ve succeeded. It could be an attempt to play prettily, or an attempt to play funkily. Whatever I try to do, I judge it by listening and then ask, ‘Is this as good as it can be?’”

A Change Is Gonna Come

Krantz’s zone practice gets even more interesting when it is applied to chord progressions. Each new harmony requires a new formula, so notes available in one measure may be off limits in the next. Hold on to your hat!

“Sometimes I’ll make a list of random changes,” says Krantz. “It doesn’t matter what they are.” He scrawls E7, Cmaj7#5, and Bbm7 on a piece of scrap paper, then says, “First thing I’ll do is choose a formula for each chord. For E7, I’ll use symmetrical diminished. For Cmaj7#5, I’ll use Lydian augmented. For Bbm7 I’ll use Dorian. These are common names for common formulas. I know symmetrical diminished is 1, b2, b3, 3, b5, 5, 6, b7; Lydian augmented is 1, 2, 3, #4, #5, 6, 7; and Dorian is 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7. Then I’ll pick a part of the guitar—say the 3rd-fret zone—and then run through the changes. One bar for the first chord, one bar for the second one, and two for the last chord.”

Krantz cycles through the 4-bar progression twice, with varied results. Ex. 3 has a bluesy vibe; Ex. 4 is syncopated and hyperkinetic. (“That was me just kind of bouncing around and being rhythmic.”) And at other times, Krantz plays simple, supple, sustaining lines of just a couple notes per measure—which is perhaps a good approach to start with if you’re new to rolling through changes in this manner.

(Don’t) Get a Grip

Most of our examples so far have been melodic, focusing on one note at a time. But Krantz’s approach can be applied to chordal improvising as well, allowing new voicings to be generated on the fly. Work this angle for a while, and your comping may never be the same.

Returning to the same progression we explored in the previous three examples, Krantz puts his harmony goggles on and plays Ex. 5. It’s melodic enough that it could simply be part of a solo, yet it’s harmonically rich enough to be effective as comping. In a sparse power-trio setting—as Krantz most frequently plays—the ability to bridge the gap between soloing and chording is a vital skill. (Note: When playing chords or even just diads during zone practice, Krantz allows himself to break the one-finger-per-fret rule if adhering to it would make the fingering at hand awkward.)

Choosing the m7b5 formula (1, b3, b5, b7), and the 4th-fret zone as his workspace, he sails through the formula in different keys [Ex. 6]. This one-zone/all-keys strategy is a great way to organize your practice time. Conversely, you could pick one key and explore it in every zone on the neck. Remember, though—the clusters you find aren’t meant to be the ultimate chord voicings, to be used time and again. They’re simply to be found, then forgotten.

“These things are being generated by my knowledge of the formula,” says Krantz. “These aren’t patterns, in the sense of ‘Hey, look at this cool Ebm7b5 voicing I have.’ The whole idea of improvising is that you find cooler stuff than you could ever think up ahead of time. The more you’re attached to form, the more likely it is you’ll only know x number of voicings for a given chord, and the less chance there is of something truly spontaneous happening.”

Keeping It Real

Krantz acknowledges this math-y routine can get boring if the approach taken is too straight or pedantic, but finds ways to keep it interesting. If he gets bored working with a formula—for example, a four-note pentatonic formula—he’ll change it up by adding a note. (“It could be a note that’s diatonic, or just a weird note from the chromatic scale.”) Adding two notes is another possibility. At the extreme, he’ll take the chromatic scale in one key and subtract its 5, so it’s an 11-note scale. Even then, he’ll try to center his improvisation around the given chord.

Varying the common formulas isn’t the only way Krantz staves off ennui. He’ll change the tempo, or use different time signatures. He’ll play melodically for a while, then harmonically. He’ll try using bends, then not using bends. “I might even put the click on just beats two and four,” he says, “and then practice being swingy, or not being swingy.”

Krantz reminds us that however creative you get with this routine, at the end of the day it is just an exercise—to be left behind in the practice room. “If I’m on a gig, I don’t limit myself like this. The whole thing about playing live is that things come up in the moment that have nothing to do with limitations. You find stuff that’s cool, and you play it.”

Central Time

Besides Krantz’s harmonic command on the guitar, another remarkable element of his playing is his time feel—his groove. Without ever sounding mechanical, he consistently nails the beat bang on and, as he puts it, “lines up vertically with the click.”

“That comes from my Steely Dan experience,” says Krantz, who played with the band on and off from 1996-2006. “I always thought I had good time, but when I got into that band I realized that they were playing in a part of the beat that I didn’t have access to—dead center. Donald [Fagen] plays from there, Walter [Becker] plays from there, and it’s where their rhythm section guys—usually heavy R&B and funk players—play from. When I first tried to hook up with that, especially in the studio, I wasn’t there and I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t control it. It’s a place—a physical place in the beat that you either play or don’t play. Once you know where that is, and can hear it, you can go there. I got to thinking that would be a very clear strong place to come from with my own rhythmic ideas. Now, when I’m practicing, the two things that are always on my mind are, ‘Am I playing right notes?’ and, ‘Is this in the center of the click?’”

To fine tune your pocket in this manner, says Krantz, the most important thing is simply the desire to do so. “That sounds trivial,” he allows, “but without that, you won’t be able to shift. Also, you have to record yourself, because this is something that’s invisible to you as you’re playing. You have to listen to it on tape, and hear it in relation to something that is centered. There’s nothing more centered than that horrible click of a metronome. If you can make a bare click sound good, your placement will get better.”

Finding the Notes

When practicing zonal improvisation, Krantz uses one of two tactics to find “right” notes. One is to think of the actual note names he’s looking for. For instance, to create an Ebm7b5 harmony, he’ll think of and play its chord tones: Eb, Gb, Bbb (or, enharmonically, A), and Db. “The other way,” he says, “is to think of function, which I do a lot. In whatever zone, I’ll say, ‘Where is Eb?’ Then, ‘Where’s b3 above it? And b7 below it?’ And so on. That’s how I move around. I can see that ‘that note’s the 5,’ or ‘that note’s the 3.’ You learn to see intervals.”

When jumping up or down the neck, however, and not working on site-specific improvisation, Krantz tends to think in terms of note names. “When moving horizontally, my hand may not know that from one note to the next is, say, a major seventh. So I have to think, ‘What’s up there?’ If I need an F#, I go to F#.”

Wayne’s Rig

Guitar Tyler Studio Elite with Suhr single-coils (neck and middle), Seymour Duncan Full Shred humbucker (bridge).
Strings D’Addario .010-.046
Pedals Moogerfooger ring modulator; Dunlop CryBaby wah; Boss Blues Driver, Octave, and Digital Delay; Loooper true-bypass signal router
Amp Marshall 2553 Silver Jubilee

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