Speaking in Longer Sentences

Q: How should I go about developing longer solo ideas?

In my solos I’m having trouble playing fast lines for more than a couple bars or so. I feel like I can really let the conversation flow by using lots of long notes broken up by short (maybe 4-ish bars at most), quick “chopsy” phrases. When I try to keep those short fast ideas rolling into longer phrases I draw a blank! I feel like I just hit a dead end, like my head and hands stop working at the same time! When I hear great bassists (yourself included) solo, I get green with envy when I hear a fast/rhythmically dense idea play itself out over 16 bars or longer. How can I develop this? As a young (23) bassist, I sometimes feel it’s just that I don’t have that much to say. Technique may be the issue too? Help!

A: That’s an interesting question to try and answer. So much goes into a solid solo, and it really comes down to vocabulary. The more you have to say about something, the longer you can talk about it!

In a way, music is really just melody + rhythm. Solos are an improvised take on what you hear and what you have to say about the music being played. It sounds like you simply need to continue (as we all do) to work on your vocabulary and fill your bag of tricks with both more tricks, as well as melodic content.

You need to make sure that you’re able to play over/approach/visualize a chord or set of changes from more than just a few positions. If you find yourself having to shift positions in order to play over a chord, than you’re only seeing half of the picture. Practice playing over a set of changes in every position. For example: ii-V-I changes.

Practice playing over the changes or arpeggiating them starting each finger from the root of the ii chord. Put your pinky there. Are you lost for what notes are available to you in that position? How about if your index finger is there?

Here are some things I’ve worked on to help me out get out of ruts when it comes to soloing (a topic with which I very much still consider myself a student who’s just beginning to grasp the concept).

Restrictive Practice:

1. Eliminate harmony (mostly)
Practice taking a solo over a set of changes and restrict your self to just a few notes but try and speak with rhythm only. You can literally pick two or three notes (C, C# and D, for example). And/or you could decide on just certain scale tones (play nothing but 2, 3, 4 for whatever chord you’re playing over).

Focus on rhythmic call and response here. Try and say something with very little harmonic information.

2. Eliminate rhythmic information
Practice playing quarter notes or eighth notes and focus on expanding your ability to know what notes are available to you.

Example: play quarter notes, using only 4 chosen notes from the scale (say 3, 4, 6, 7) and try and walk using nothing but the notes you designated yourself. Hard, eh?

3. Play any rhythm you want in any position you want but only allow yourself to play certain notes of the chord, say just 3, 7 and 9 for any given chord.
That kind of work really helps you to get comfortable knowing what notes are available to you over a set of changes.

4. Take a four-fret span over two strings and only allow yourself to play those notes over a standard jazz tune.

5. Try playing a solo over a set of changes using only the relative majors/minors of each chord!
Example: If you see a CMaj, play Amin, etc. Experiment.

6. Alternate back and forth between relative majors/minors
Example: A-7 , D7 , GMaj
You could play CMaj, D7, Emin7

You get the idea!

I constantly invent little restrictive exercises like that for myself to get myself out of my box and typical patterns, etc… When you give yourself less to work with, you force yourself to do more with it!


Now, to get the creative juices flowing…

1. Learn the melody to the tune you’re working on.
Now play a solo using nothing but the RHYTHM from the melody, but use your own notes!

2. Play the rhythm of a melody to another tune over a different tune!

3. Look at a transcription of a solo you’ve transcribed. Try and play the shape and flow of that solo over a different tune.

4. Whip out a simple book or magazine article.
Try and use the flow of the paragraphs, etc. to shape your solo. Play the rhythmic phrasing of the sentences

I believe that the possibilities are boundless. It’s really our own ability to think outside of our box and having the motivation to do the work. If you can honestly look at your playing and what you’re good at and then spend an hour (or more) doing things you stink at and trying to flip everything you know on it’s head so it becomes a challenge, you can only grow and discover something in the process.

In the end, it all comes down to vocabulary (foundation), technique (so as to not inhibit our ability to speak our minds fully) and our own creative spark (to have something to say worth hearing). Have fun with it all!

Hopefully there were a few ideas in there that clicked for ya’!

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. Ed Dietrich

    Great column! Lot’s of good ideas.

  2. Great ideas – I look forward to giving them a go!