Turning Exercises into Real Music

Playing bass

Q: I’ve been studying for a while now, and I’ve been practicing my scales and modes as much as possible over changes. I’ve also been working through arpeggios, including the methods you talk about in your Improvisor’s Path book. For example, I’ll work arpeggios through tunes in different inversions and so on. However, when I go to solo freely over changes it still doesn’t sound like music to me. It sounds like… well, exercises. All of this work has given me a great knowledge of my fretboard, and I feel like I can hear the changes, but in the end I sort of feel like I have a fancy set of tools that I don’t know how to use. What kind of things should I be thinking about to transition this knowledge into stuff that sounds more musical?

A: I spent quite a few years in this place. The good news is that this level of playing is another evolutionary step. You understand the instrument, you understand the harmony and you can navigate the two well but (and here is the ‘bad news’) now the real work begins. That said, it is much more satisfying and fun work than the repetition of scales and arpeggios through tune after tune.

The most important thing to remember is that in a live setting, we will generally play like we practice. This means that you’ve already taken the first step: truly desiring a good melody over just ’notes that work’ (i.e. harmonically relevant but maybe not as connected as you’d like to be from phrase to phrase or even within phrases). The better you know your harmony and your instrument, the easier it should be to make music. Often, the biggest hurdle is mental but here are some concrete ideas for the shed.

Here are a few things that I have worked on (and continue to work on).

1. Trying to emulate existing melodies. This can take any number of forms in the shed.

Play the actual melody of the tune with embellishments. This forces you to both be creative but also keeps you aware of good phrasing as you use a functional melody over the changes as your guide. – Read the rhythm of a melody over a tune but use your own note choices. Again, this keeps you restrained rhythmically and puts all of your focus on creating solid resolutions and functional melodic passages.

Try to work melodic fragments from the head of another tune into your improvisation. This demands that you understand the harmonic relevance of the notes in the melody. It could be as simple as using a melodic fragment over the same chord type (a bar of melody from X tune that was over a major chord used over a major chord from the tune you are actually playing). It could also be slightly more advanced by playing that major melodic fragment from the relative major over a minor chord. You could also take it further and reharmonize the melodic fragment to fit an entirely different chord type. I practice lines and licks in this way, also. If I hear a lick that I like from somebody, I’ll transcribe it and explore how I could use that lick over any chord type, changing whatever notes need to be changed in order to make it fit. This obviously changes the sound of the lick and I will often stumble upon an entirely new way to build upon that lick.

2. Force yourself to change the shape of your lines even if you are still using the same notes.

I practiced arpeggios so much that I naturally arpeggiate everything. I’m a 3rds junky. Whenever I get annoyed with myself for arpeggiating too much I force myself to stay within a certain range of the instrument. I might start by playing all of my standard arpeggio ideas in one position of the fretboard and might even limit myself to 2 or 3 strings in one position. Then I’ll play my arpeggios but change octaves as necessary to stay in that pre-determined range. This can be a nice way of forcing yourself out of your comfort zone and can lead to some new discoveries.

3. Practice voice-leading.

Practice playing linear lines (no intervallic leaps) by always moving to the nearest tension or chord tone. At times, I’ll force myself to move as little as possible, playing only 3 o 4 different notes (often only a half-step apart) over an entire tune. This forces me to try and phrase using rhythm as I’m so limited harmonically. Other times, I’ll force myself to play rhythmic scales through changes. Playing from my lowest note to my highest and only changing direction when I reach the end of the fretboard, only moving in whole and half steps. This forces me to really consider every note of the scale that’s available to me and challenges my knowledge of the proper chord scale in real time.

Neither one of these exercises will usually result in a ‘great’ solo but they will get you thinking and moving in new ways and force you to consider choices that you wouldn’t normally make.

4. Set limitations on how you will phrase a solo.

Take a tune and decide that you will only play a line for a bar and a half and then give at least two bars of rest before continuing. Now play 3 bar phrases and give 2 bars of rest. Play a 2 bar phrase and rest for 1 bar. And so on…. Explore the tension you can create by where you don’t play.

5. Use rhythm to create interest.

Sometimes a simple scale or arpeggio can sound totally intriguing simply because of where we put the notes.

Play a scale in dotted 8th notes over the changes for 2 bars and resolve on the downbeat of the 3rd bar and let it hang for a bit. Play arpeggios over changes on the third 8th note triplet of each beat, etc. This can have a wonderful effect, especially if you change inversions at every chord change (voice leading again. If you end one arpeggio on the 7th and you are a half step away from the 3rd of the next chord, then continue your arpeggiation from that 3rd (1st inversion) and so on). You can also continue your arpeggios to include available tensions (ie: 3 5 7 9, 5 7 9 11, etc.). Combining these arpeggios to include the full chord scale as well as playing with the subdivisions can sound pretty cool! Combine this exercise with #4 above to try and force some phrasing into the equation.

Now these are still just exercises. In order to make music you will also have to explore how you want to sound. In a simple sense, rhythm + harmony = melody but it’s not as easy as that because good melody also has a lot to do with tension and resolution. You’ll have to explore how different notes sound against a chord to your ears and practice trying to create tension and resolution.

6. Practice ending lines on various chord tones to explore how they feel to you.

Play through a tune and end on the 7th of each chord. Then try the 9, etc.. pay attention to different chord tones sound over different chord types. I love the sound of the Major 7th against a major chord however the b7 on any type of minor chord does not sound like a good place to land to my ears, often (but not always). The 3rd is always a safe choice for any chord but maybe note for every resolution. – Set up a chord drone or loop. Practice playing tense notes and resolving them to consonant notes. Use chromaticism to create tension and then resolve the note. Practice playing entire arpeggios a half-step off and resolving them to the chord.

Explore tension so you can better understand how to resolve it.

7. It’s all about control over your rhythm, time and feel.

I personally think that solid rhythm is more important that harmony when it comes to great lines and solos.

Practice playing entire choruses of a tune using no notes but only rhythm. I’ll often realize that I am hearing a melody in my head as I do this. Then I’ll try and use that melody as inspiration for my improvisation. When you play with rhythm only (mute string ‘thumps’ work well) you really force yourself to pay attention to what phrasing really is about and forget about scales, etc.. – Practice rhythmic call and response. Play a rhythm and try and answer it logically (and without harmony to dictate resolution). Try and maintain a rhythmic conversation with the song while remaining free of the mental gymnastics of fancy note choices. Get to the heart of the phrase first.

8. Improvise over changes without a backing track.

This can be a real eye opener. Can you improvise over a tune for chorus after chorus and actually hear the song in the improvisation? Can you maintain the form without a backing track leading you along? Can you quote the melody of the bridge when you get there and work it into your line so it makes sense and doesn’t sound like you jumped out of the conversation you were having with the song?

9. Play one tune for longer.

Jody Fisher is a phenomenal guitarist who excels at the solo guitar jazz thing. He can work wonders over just about any tune and leave your jaw on the floor. When I first heard him, I immediately asked for a lesson and the thing that stuck with me was how he practices. He will play one song for an hour by himself. He likes to reach that point where he has played all of his licks and lines and hits a wall. And then he plays through that wall until he finds something new. Many of us don’t give ourselves the time to discover anything new because we’re too busy playing what we know and, when we run through our standard stuff, we stop and move on to a new tune or a new exercise. There is something to be discovered in the frustrated haze of not knowing what else to do. It often pushes us to try new things and take new chances that we wouldn’t have had to take otherwise. It can really open up your ears to new things.

Really, I think that in order to really play openly and honestly through a tune and use our ears instead of our brains, you build all of the mechanics and math-y stuff into our muscle memory. If we are thinking about how to play, or what notes we can use, we are listening less well. The only way to really play with freedom is if we don’t have to think about how to play at all. This takes repetition and countless hours getting to know our instruments, harmony and our technique.

I like to think that mastery of the instrument + mastery of harmony + mastery of technique = freedom of expression. Then it is a matter of what it is we want to say on the instrument. All of that is relative, of course and I use the word mastery loosely but we need to remove as many obstacles as we can in order to free up our minds and start listening and reacting in a musical way. Have you ever noticed that the best improvisors don’t use as many licks? This is because they are interacting with the music in real time and a lick is “gimme”. It’s a phrase like “in other words” or “and in conclusion”. It is a way to navigate or direct the conversation but it is never the meat of the conversation. It doesn’t carry nearly as much weight, it’s just a placeholder.

I will be the first to admit that I have a ton of licks that I fall back on and I will tell you that I only play them when I don’t know what else to do. Jazz is not my first language by any means so I consciously tried to develop lines I could just grab over different types of changes. I don’t actually like to solo on the instrument but I have to by virtue of some of the gigs I take. I’d always just rather play bass and leave the solos to the soloists. I don’t consider myself a soloist but rather a rhythm section guy who can solo if he needs to. I don’t expect to evolve as a soloist beyond a certain point because I simply don’t care to. That said, I have put a LOT of time into learning how to solo well enough over changes because I also don’t like sounding bad or being the weak link in any situation. I try to make myself well rounded enough that I can hang in just about any musical situation I find myself in.

I also never shy away from a situation out of fear. Honestly, I am profoundly uncomfortable in certain musical situations but I always say yes when they come around because it can only serve to educate me in one way or another.

All of that was a kind of disclaimer, in a way. Many jazz educators will likely have completely different advice with regard to your question. This path is how a non-“jazz guy” works on it but I think it a valid approach because it can only serve to open you up to the possibilities of your imagination combined with real & concrete harmonic and fretboard awareness.

Readers, I look forward to hearing how you tackle(d) the transition from sounding like an exercise to playing music in the shed. Jazz guys, pitch in! Please share in the comments.

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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Leave a Reply to Brandon Miller Cancel reply

  1. Rachel

    Great advice!

  • What I’ve found helpful is adding rhythm to an idea and trying to break up anything that sounds too “scale-wise.” A group of mine has this lick that I came up with experimenting with harmonic minor, but the lick ends up using decent voice-leading as well because of experimenting with the rhythm (let’s say groups of five for this hypothetical case) that take away from the “scale” patterns. There are patterns in the music, stuff that would be exercise-esque. Due to the rhythm, one’s ear is unfocused on something somewhat ‘mathematical.’

    One of my favorite licks from John Patitucci’s album “Remembrance” is on “Monk/Trane,” but it’s just descending thirds moving upwards scale-wise, which was a pattern in college we were assigned our first year. I had that “aha!” moment listening to that album several times. Jazz is a good source for hearing scales and patterns turned into breathing music, but I understand it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

  • Disclaimer: please don’t get the impression that I’m great at soloing. I suck and I know it. Yet, here’s my two cents on the matter.

    I guess the real deal is how to spot and cross the thin line that separates comping (including whatever groove or lick one may come up with) from melody. In other words: what makes up melody? Why does “one note samba” work, and what does it mean that it “works”?

    On the side of my bass playing (which already happens on the side of my nine-to-five job), I like to play solo guitar – not in the sense of playing solos with the guitar but rather in the sense of playing two voices at the same time (I use that for composition purposes, as the double bass is not really suited for that).

    On some of my compositions, occasional listeners expect me to sing. On some other, they don’t. I haven’t found out yet what it is exactly that sets the two experiences apart, but sometimes what I do is enough to keep the listener interested, sometimes it’s not. To me, THAT is the thin line that you have to cross to make sure that listeners will interpret what you do as music and not as instrumental support to some music which still has to be delivered.

    From a different point of view, in moments of great musical inspiration, phrases always felt to me like words or sentences – there is somehow a vocal dimension connected to it. It’s hard to dig up the details again, but I have come across some studies that link the ability to make music (or was it improvising?) to the same brain activities involved in speech and verbal communication.

    Third and last, both my own experience and that of friends and fellow musicians is that, at a certain point, you STOP thinking of the notes you play. I can’t say whether you really stop doing that, or whether you internalise it so much, that you do think of them but stop being aware of it. Still, making melodies through mathematical transformations of a random bundle of notes at a certain point stops. What begins in that moment are a bunch of very hazy mental associations, images & visions that somehow find their way to the fingerboard.