Relax, and Don’t Forget to Listen

Q: What’s going through your mind when you solo?

A: Ideally, nothing! I play my best when I know the song well (don’t need to think about chords, etc.) and am playing with solid players who all serve the music. In that scenario, I am simply letting the music dictate what’s going to happen and if I have to solo, I feel like I’m playing from the inside out… Simply doing what needs to be done as, to do anything else would destroy the beauty of the moment.

Unfortunately, that is fairly rare. I’m still slugging it out in the trenches with 50 different bands 200-300 nights a year in every venue from the smallest hole-in-the-wall-funk-box with the C-list rock band to large festivals and theaters with some of the best musicians I’ve heard. And, in general, I’m reading everything as I go with only a vague notion of how the music goes.

SO… when I’m flying by the seat of my pants? This is my approach when taking a solo.

(Keep in mind, in order take many of these ideas and use them well, you need to have spent some real time in the shed with arpeggios, scales, chords in ALL inversions and know your fret-board VERY well. it all needs to be second nature. You just don’t have time to think too hard when you’re playing!)

I’ll pick a nice note (maybe the 3rd, 7th, or 9th) on that first chord and let it sit for a second (I’m always hoping my ears will take over for my mind). Maybe using rhythm to make a statement.

I’m always looking ahead at the changes and comparing/contrasting

  • What note am I playing right now?
  • What notes are available to me in the next chord(s)?
  • What’s a musical way to get there?

That’s basically my approach. When playing faster lines, I’ll often go into autopilot with the shapes, patterns and runs that I’ve developed over time that I know fit over these chords and (here’s the important part)… I’m constantly picking targets for myself. Always looking at a chord down the road and deciding how to land on that chord.

For the most part. between playing the inside stuff (chord tones, etc.) and utilizing shapes and symmetrical patterns to navigate much in between, it can all work if you land somewhere strongly!
There is no such thing as a bad note, just a bad resolution!

A line can be completely outside of the harmony, but if the line makes sense in some way on it’s own (not just random), you land strongly.

It’ll sound “hip”.

This is not to say that with the right number of licks and tricks, you’ll be able to wow ’em. Most of that stuff only works because the player is also listening and applying the techniques musically.

Soloing is really just melody + rhythm. You also have to focus on your phrasing!! The right notes can sound all wrong if played poorly (and vice-versa).

Also, try this out: If you’re soloing over a one chord vamp (or have some time on one chord), try adding your own changes mentally and playing over them! Add some ii-V’s, tri-tone subs, etc… You can really give your solo some nice color and shape that way.

Basically, it all still comes down to musicality and doing your homework. There are no shortcuts. People always ask me to teach them licks, but for the most part, that’s like wanting to drive without the brake pedal. If you don’t understand why you’re playing what you’re playing or how to make it work musically, you’re just going to crash and burn musically speaking.

Check out this live solo recording:

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Bull_fiddle

    how do you feel about everyone dropping out during the bass solo? I like to have a little comp from others during my solos.

    Hey, they get someone going through the changes while they are soloing, right?

  2. Now, that’s a beautiful solo! Really inspiring. Thanks for the tips :).