Watching Ana Popovic ferociously attack a guitar solo is something that should be done from behind concrete bunkers and footthick safety glass. Hair flying and eyes defiant, she gives off enough impassioned (yet clean and carbon free) energy to power a Tesla factory. Heed the warning. And yet, Popovic—who recently worked with Keb’ Mo’ on her upcoming solo album—admits she can’t really fire up all cylinders without the right groove providing the ignition.
What’s the main concept behind your approach to soloing?
I try to make the pentatonic scale innovative and exciting. It’s really not easy to do that, as you only have so many notes to work with. Plus, everybody plays pentatonic. Everybody plays blues. And yet, there is so much you can do, because there’s this ocean of possibilities in the phrasing. Robben Ford has a different phrasing when he plays blues, and it’s the same with Hendrix, Robert Cray, Ronnie Earl, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. There’s jazzy phrasing and soulful phrasing. You can play slick and clean, overdriven and edgy, fast and slow, or any combination of it all. Actually, I think a lot of players get lost doing the fast stuff, and they should just go back to that slowhand approach. Ultimately, you have to find a way to get the notes to breathe, and make the phrasing your own.
Can you share any critical elements that inform your phrasing?
My playing depends so much on the rhythm section. I’m always searching for that specific groove to lock in with them, and then I can be free to experiment with the notes.
Are there any types of grooves that inspire you more than others?
Absolutely. I grew up on the Memphis sound: Stax, Eric Burdon and War, Mandrill, and the funky side of Albert King—those kinds of grooves. So I insist that my band always play with a deep pocket, and everything I do with my solos has to have that funk thing—even a slow blues. I forget everything I’ve learned when I lock into a great rhythm section, and I just play. I feel it. In fact, whenever I’ve had a bad night performing, it has been when I wasn’t locked in with the band.
I’ll assume you’re not a fan of informal jam sessions, then?
I don’t look forward to them. I try not to do them. I usually don’t know the rhythm section ahead of time, and if the drummer and bass player have never played together, the natural result is that they don’t lock in, and that means my solos will sound totally different than I want them to. I’m not very comfortable to be myself in those situations, because I need to have that groove. I just end up going, “What would Albert King do here? What would Stevie do?”
Have you noticed other guitarists having trouble when the groove gets squishy?
Actually, I’ve been surprised at how many well-known guitarists don’t listen to the rhythm section at all. A lot of people go for that—I don’t want to say “show off,” but they play these flashy licks, and almost forget there’s a band driving everything.