On Soloing

by Randell Young

I once had the opportunity to do a few gigs in a quartet featuring the great keyboardist/composer Rob Mullins.   Nate Phillips, who had worked with Rob in the Jazz Crusaders, and Jeff Suttles, who had just come off tour with Janet Jackson, held down the bass and drums, respectively.  The basic concept was to play instrumental arrangements of funky R&B tunes, sort of like a funk version of Paul Shaffers’ “Worlds Most Dangerous Band” (the David Letterman Show band).  The project was put together with a handful of head charts, one rehearsal and, boom, straight into live performance.  And it worked very well, even the first night out.

I guess Rob and I were sort of surprised at the audience response, especially on that first night. In between tunes, we gave each other a “wow, this going over big time” look.  Then, Rob, only half jokingly, says, “Well, don’t get too full of yourself.  With the groove that Nate and Jeff are laying down you could probably spit on your guitar and get an ovation!”

An exaggeration? Of course.  But he did make a very important point.

As a soloist in a blues or R&B format, the best you can hope to do is rise to the level of the rhythm track. You might think you’re wailing away.  But, if you don’t have a solid groove underneath, it really isn’t going anywhere.

So, if you are looking for the secret to great soloing, perhaps the most important rule is to be very selective about who you play with. What should you look for in a bass player and drummer?  Well, that’s a whole other column isn’t it.  For now, let’s just establish the basic rules and leave it at that.

Before you get up to solo in the first place, ask yourself these two questions. One, do I play in time or do I tend to take liberties with the tempo?  And two, do I have a good sound?

If your time is not solid, you are going to sound sloppy. No matter how creative your ideas, if they are not executed in time, you are still going to sound more or less like an amateur.  If you learned to play by picking up a guitar and trying to play everything you know as fast as you can, you may have developed some bad habits.  If so, you are going to need to work you way out of them and quick.  Start practicing with a metronome and keep it up until your internal clock gets in sync with real time.

Like most guitar players, you probably started adding distortion to your guitar both because you liked the sound of it and also because it seemed to make your axe easier to play. Yes, a little sustain does seem to smooth out the rough edges of the attacks but you don’t want to be hiding bad meter behind lots of overdrive.

Unless you have heard yourself on several recordings and know for sure that you have a great sound, try working with less distortion. And when you are comfortable with that, a little less again.  We generally need a lot less overdrive than we think.  Don’t feel like you have to fill up every space.  Your guitar is not a saxophone.  It’s O.K. for the notes to ring for a while and then fade out.

If it is necessary to sustain a note out for longer than what your amp/pick-up configuration is giving you, add a little finger vibrato and move your pickups toward your speaker to induce a little feedback. A little experimentation with this technique will allow you to add that screaming element at relatively low sound pressure levels and with a good strong attack on the front of the note.

Maybe, you don’t use any overdrive at all. That’s O.K.  Just realize that there are licks that work in both clean and dirty mode and there are licks that work only in one mode or the other.  My solution is to use both.  I have a customized Mesa Boogie with a clean lead channel and an overdriven lead channel.  I use the same graphic EQ, reverb and delay for both sounds.  This keeps a level of continuity.  But there are times when I’ll use a judicious amount of distortion and times when I won’t.

Whatever sound you go for, make it your own. Forget about trying to sound “just like Stevie Ray Vaughn” or “just like Jimi Hendrix”.  Get a pleasant, well-defined tonal center that works well with your repertoire (of both licks and material) and stick with it.  Keep the effects to a minimum.  How is your audience going to relate your sound to you if “your sound” consists of an endless procession of gimmicks?  And if you haven’t got a sound, what have you got?

So, assuming that you have both your meter and your sound together (and, hopefully, are playing with a tight rhythm section), here is our first rule: “Listen”.

Why? Two reasons:  First, to capture the vibe.  Second, for inspiration.  Usually, if you can find one, the other will channel in as well.  Instead of comping up to your solo thinking about what wild licks you are going to throw off, just listen to what the rest of the band is doing.  Whether you are following a vocal, a rhythm vamp or another solo, tune into the vibe and listen to the ideas that are coming from the other players.  When, it comes time to start your solo, maintain that vibe and begin just by playing what you feel (within, of course, the confines of keeping the rest of the rules in tact along the way).

Rule number two is: “Start Simple”.

Good solos are like good stories. They need a beginning, a middle and an end.  Sometimes, you may even add a dénouement.  But the idea is to draw the listener in and take them somewhere.  You have to start simple for two reasons.  One, you need to catch the ear of the listener.  Give them something easy to process at first.  Second, you need to have somewhere to go.  If you start making love with an orgasm, it may feel good for a few seconds but then what are you going to do?

O.K. You’re four bars or so into your first pass.  You started with a nice simple little melody that incorporated some of the structures of the preceding Hammond organ solo.  Everybody in the room heard it and it made sense to them.  Basically, you have them tuned into the guitar.  Now, what do you do?

Rule number three: “Develop with style (yours)”.

Well, we all knew that was coming. But, how do I do that?

Here are a couple of different primary strategies for developing your solo. One way is motif-to-motif.  A motif is sort of a basic musical idea, a short melody or rhythmic device.  The motif-to-motif strategy involves the statement of one idea followed by another version of the idea that either resolves or extends the first idea.  Establishing a phrase and then moving on using different notes but maintaining the same phrasing is probably the most basic example.

The reason this strategy works is that it gives your audience something to pick up on followed by something related to it. Remember, the more listeners you take with you, the more successful you are going to be.  So make it easy on them.  Give them something logical to follow.

Another strategy is to begin with a simple version of the melody, add a few embellishments and work your way towards increasing complexity. Rob Mullins is the master of a rather peculiar version of this strategy.  Rob takes the melody and adds his embellishments going increasing outside until he winds up with a flurry of essentially random tones.  He does this so gradually that, at the climax, you are sure he is playing some exotic scale.  But, he’s not.  He is, in these moments, using the piano as an atonal percussion instrument, but he has taken you there so skillfully that you want to believe he has just invented some whole new set of harmonic rules.

Remember that complexity doesn’t have to mean outside. That’s just one parameter.  You can also add complexity with more notes, longer phrases or different rhythms… or all of the above.  And, of course, you can combine the motif-to-motif approach with the melody embellishment approach.

Hopefully, you will find a combination of these techniques that works well with your repertoire of licks. If, and when, you do, trust it and go with it.  That is how you start to develop your own style.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your stuff isn’t good enough.  You don’t have to play as fast as Al Dimeola or as outside as Alan Holdsworth to be a great guitarist.  Django Reinhardt only had two fingers on his left hand yet he was one of the most influential guitarists of all time.  Your own uniqueness is the your most potent weapon.  If you can incorporate the way that you naturally hear things together with a subconscious adherence to these rules, and play with good meter and good tone (and a great rhythm section), it will work.

And now for rule number four: “If they liked it once, they’ll love it twice”.

As you build to your climax, have this old Vaudevillian adage implanted somewhere in your subconscious. It is the reason that repetition works so well.  Give it to them.  Repetition creates tension.  You want to hear it again but you also want to hear it resolve. When you hit on an intense little theme, repeat it and resolve it only at some logical dropping off point such as the end of a four-bar phrase.  If they liked it once, they will love it twice, or even three or four times.

Rule number five (again from the classic rules of show business): “Always leave them wanting more”.

This is the rule that brings balance to rule number four. You can wear your audience out.  This is especially true when the audience is required to process a lot of musical information in a small amount of time.  Yes, sensory overload can be very effective but works best in small doses.

As to the overall length of your solo, remember the Charlie Parker rule (our rule number six):   “Anything more than four passes and you are just practicing”.

Yes, he really said that and you ain’t gonna play any better than Bird so don’t fight it. Forget about having everybody solo until they run out of ideas.  If you absolutely have to do that, save it for rehearsal.  Don’t subject your audience to it.  Approach your live gigs as performances not practices.  Try to pack as much excitement as possible into your show.  Before you take the stage, know who is going to solo when and for how long.  It’s O.K. to have a few open-ended vamp sections leading into a set-length chorus or bridge for resolution.  Just don’t try to put on a clinic with every solo.  Your audience will appreciate your eloquence.

Actually, I like to keep it down to two passes. I got used to this structure when playing with Melvin “Deacon” Jones, who has recorded three great solo CDs and served as the musical director for Curtis Mayfield, Freddie King and (for 18 years) John Lee Hooker.  With a two-pass formula, you can have two different instruments solo back-to-back (such as organ followed by guitar), bring the vocals back in and still get out of the tune in compliance with rule number five, i.e., before the room is ready for another song.

Although rules four and five (and, to an extent, even six) may appear to the novice as in conflict, they really are not. You can use repetition in a simple phrase or a blinding flurry of notes and everything in between.  You can wait until your blinding flurry to introduce repetition or you can begin with a simpler version and end with the blinding flurry.  Just program all three principles into your belief system and let your creative forces take over from there.

Which leads us to rule number seven: “Don’t think”.

Don’t think?! How am I supposed to follow all these rules and not think?  Either I’m using the rules or I’m not.  Right?

Right! Use the rules… but don’t think about them.

Or, more to the point, don’t think about them while you are soloing.  Think about them now.  Think about them when you practice.  Think about them when you are listening to other solos, both live and recorded.  Use this period to internalize the rules.  Decide for yourself that they are, in fact, the rules… that they do, in fact, work… that, with these rules, you can trust your stuff and it will work.

This will allow these concepts to penetrate into your subconscious such that you won’t have to think about them when you do go to solo. They will just be there.  Just like your open G chord is there when you want it.  Then, use them… but don’t think about them.  Stay focused on feeling the vibe and listening to the other players.  Trust your stuff and let it happen.

See also More On Soloing.