Approaches to Soloing

Q: I have a question. How do you go about soloing for various styles? Quite often I get the nod to do a solo for 4/8/16 bars. I’ve tried approaching by working out what key I’m in and then by trying different modes… but it just seems that my phrasing is limited and that it never seems to have a sense of direction or anything. I’ve tried jamming, tried to transcribe other players, tried band in a box chord sequences but it just doesn’t work. Especially when I’m recording or when I’m performing live. Do you have any suggestions / advice?

A: I hear you friend… The bad news, if you’re like me, you’ll never really like the way you solo. The good news is that there are a million ways to practice it and you will always get better (albeit slowly, step by step).

It sounds to me as though you might need to get away from what you’re comfortable playing on the instrument first in order to get away from the modes, etc.

Try putting the bass down and singing along with a section of a tune. Record yourself singing a solo. Notice how when you take away the instrument at first, you also take away the physical or melodic patterns that wind up restraining us musically when we play (until we get beyond that point anyway). Once you’ve recorded what you actually would like to hear there, grab your bass and transcribe THAT. How does it feel under your fingers? Are the patterns completely new or variations on what you already know?

You can also do this with the bass in your hands. Sing along with yourself. I like to oscillate between trying to sing what I’m playing and then trying to play what I’m singing (all at the same time, just a matter of which is leading the improvisation, my voice or my bass). Take turns. Sing a melody, then try and play it.

If you’re already transcribing other soloists but feel like you’re not getting anything out of it. You may not be digging quite deep enough. Pick a cool phrase or lick that you like from the solo. Figure out how it’s being used harmonically. Now practice using that lick or phrase in every way you can think of. You’re bound to get something out of it!

You also mentioned that your phrasing is limited… What is phrasing? RHYTHM, right? So it sounds like you could stand to (we all could) expand your rhythmic palette.

I like practicing drum rudiments and patterns on my bass to get my fingers moving in ways I might not have thought of otherwise. Sometimes I’ll also write out two bars of 16th notes and think of different places in which to accent (or rest or mute or play the root) and break up the rhythm. Playing with rhythm is a great way to open the creative floodgates. Often when I’m not sure what to play during a solo, I’ll stop fishing harmonically and sit on one strong note and play with rhythm instead Until I start to hear something worth pursuing. Try playing different rhythms and stretching them out: triplets in groups of four, 16ths in groups of three, you get the idea… just play around.

One key thing to keep in mind. Don’t just noodle… when you hear something you like, turn that into a motif and use it as the basis for what is to come next!

Generally speaking, when we can’t hear what to play it is often because we are not really listening. We are too caught up in the ego and moment. We are thinking so hard about sounding good or coming up with something cool that we stop listening and interacting with the music. Thus, every note that comes out is disconnected and falls flat (at least to our ears). Sometimes the simple act of NOT playing for a moment, taking a breath and beginning with one long note can lead to a world of interaction with the music that we long for.

This is one reason why the singing approach can help. We almost never want to sing the way we play (ideally, they’d be one and the same I think). When we sing a line we are using our ears, we are breathing (introducing space!) and we are resonating with the music. Try the singing exercises and remember to take a moment, relax your body and chill the brain for a sec and just begin to sing a note, let that lead to a phrase and then play that phrase. Don’t be impatient. I find that the more impatient we are, the less present we are when we play or practice (always thinking about how much there is left to do) and we actually get less done. It’s a self-fullfilling prophecy. Just relax like you have an eternity to improvise this melody or solo (I think it’s best to think of it as a melody) and let it happen. If you get caught up in scales, forget the scales and just let your ears do the work. What’s the worse thing that can happen?

One other thing: Janek Gwizdala has a wonderful podcast which, although updated infrequently, has a lot of great content on there. Especially the last hand-full of podcasts are wonderful to listen to. You can basically listen to him practice motifs, melodic ideas, solo concepts, etc… (and I think he’s one of the most melodic players out there on bass). You’ll get a lot of insights also into his methodology, which is very helpful. Definitely worth checking out! Search iTunes or go here.

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. Brian V Bonini

    Great advice – I agree on every point and would only add: Learning melodies (be it horns or vocals) will often expose much melodic and harmonic insight to build solos from.

    With respect to phrasing and rhythmic ideas, personally I use all the same percussion books you’d find in any percussionists library. Often just kicking back on the couch and tapping out rhythms with my hands (no instrument). The mental/learning effect is still there and can be applied to the instrument subsequently.

    IMHO, Rufus Reid said it perfectly, “We should be able to swing and radiate energy on our own”. I.e. as bassists our rhythmic and melodic/harmonic concepts should stand-alone, the other members of your combo should not a crutch but rather an enhancement.

    Just my $0.02…

  2. Think…now, speak aloud upon your thoughts.

    Imagine…now, play aloud upon your day-dreams about music.

    Each is an idiosyncratic process defined by our experiences and the “FEELINGS” they generate within us and each should improve and expand when we Think, Speak, Dream and Play with those who are determined to excel beyond the ordinary and the complacent.


    Ernie Leblanc

  3. excellent article. i think the main point you were driving at is, ‘don’t overthink it’. i also like practicing using vocal melody to break into new ground, and likewise figuring out my sax players lines on my bass. great insight.

  4. Nice article Damien. Made me think of some things to try! It never ends and that’s what I love about music! Peace Out!

  5. Thanks a mil Damian, opening our minds with various styles of music and singing them is the key…

  6. Great article.You might try adding some of the melody. I’m not saying for the whole time you solo..possibly the beginning or end of your solo. I don’t really have much experience in this matter, so I could be completely wrong haha.

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