If you are anything like me, you may have a tendency to noodle around when playing improvised guitar solos. By “noodle around,” I mean playing lines that seemingly have no beginning and no ending. On the surface this sounds epically awesome and biblical, but in practice, solos composed of lines that noodle and meander around without intention or resolution are boring and monotonous to listen to. It would be a little bit like meeting someone at a party and then listening to them tell a story where all of their sentences and ideas are either truncated incomplete fragments or rambling run-ons. It probably wouldn’t be long until you politely excused yourself to go use the bathroom just to escape the mental anguish of trying to find order in something so thoroughly disordered. Likewise, if at your recent gigs you’ve noticed a strangely disproportionate number of people getting up to use the bathroom at the exact moment you step forward to take a solo, then you too might be guilty of this as well! But take heart, there is hope for us yet!
I think solos, no matter how short or long, should be similar to a well-written paragraph, or in longer solos, maybe even a short story. By this I mean that solos should be comprised of a series of phrases that all work really well individually while also building together towards a definitive and resolute ending. In the same way, a well-written paragraph is comprised of a series of distinct and thoughtful sentences that work together to help convey an idea or ideas.
There are many skills that contribute to crafting a solo constructed like a great piece of prose, and this two part exercise is going to help us move away from serving up oodles of noodles at our next gig and instead focus us on playing concisely constructed ideas.
The idea for this exercise is based loosely on the exercise concept of interval training, which involves alternating between short bursts of a high energy activity followed by intervals of lower intensity. We aren’t going to be alternating between high and low intensity playing per se, but we are going to be using the idea of alternating intervals of two different guitar activities.
In Part I of this exercise, we are going to alternate between 8 measures of rhythm guitar (playing the changes), and 8 measures of unaccompanied improvisation. Not so hard, right? The rub is that we are going to be playing along with a metronome set to quarter notes, and strictly counting all 8 measures during both intervals. While the goal of this exercise is to develop better improvised lines, we are going to accomplish this through indirect means. When practicing this exercise, our direct focus should be on the counting. For now, don’t worry as much about the actual melodic content of your solos. It may sound easy, but continuously counting measures while playing a set of chord changes is probably a new and difficult thing for many of us to do, let alone counting measures while simultaneously improvising a solo. When I first started working with this exercise I found this to be very challenging.
In this exercise, the benefits of counting are deceptively simple yet powerful. Part of the reason why noodling through solos sounds so bad is because our ideas are divorced and unrelated from the music and chords that are happening underneath them. By counting we are forcing our attention away from ourselves and putting it back on the music. This is analogous to riding a bike while staring at the pedals. If you spend all of your attention watching your feet you’d just be riding around in circles and crashing into nearby objects. When we are only concentrating on the sound and content of our own solos, we are likewise riding around in circles. When we have our heads up, aware of the music happening around us, we can then navigate our solos with ideas and lines that have purpose, cohesion and sophistication.
If you are like me, you probably learned to solo by wanking around in the scale that fit the key of the chords you were soloing over. This can sound good in certain situations, but the problem with learning to solo like this is that not every note of the scale is going to sound great over every chord in the key. Also, great melodies work both horizontally (as a stand-alone independent line) as well as vertically (fitting harmonically with the chords). When we are only thinking in terms of scales, we overemphasize our horizontal thinking to the detriment of vertical thinking. This exercise will help us focus on the chord of the moment and play lines that fit melodically and harmonically. The goal is to move away from “what key am I soloing in” to “what chord am I soloing over?”
Another important benefit of counting 8’s is that we are starting to program ourselves to feel the cadence of 8 measures. After we’ve become accustomed to counting in sets of 8, we will always be able to “feel” where we are in an 8 measure sequence even when we aren’t counting. This is important because music is most often built in 4 and 8 measure patterns, and the ability to feel those 4 and 8 measure blocks internally helps us to play ideas that fit together seamlessly into the cadences of the music.
There are many other benefits of counting while playing, but one final benefit is that counting the measures while we are improvising also brings our attention to the time (metronome) which helps to sharpen both our groove and our time-keeping. When we are inwardly-focused and noodling away, it’s no surprise that sometimes our time can get rushed, behind or just otherwise funky (and not in a James Brown kinda way). Putting our awareness on the metronome helps to ground our improvised lines back to the time happening under our solos.
Since we will be looping the same 8 measures, I encourage you to pick 8 measures from a solo that is a part of your regular set or repertoire. You are going to be repeating these 8 measures over and over, and a nice payoff for all of this work is that when you take this solo at your next gig, you will definitely know the chords inside and out. It’s also fine if you are taking a 4 measure pattern and playing it twice to make 8 measures. It’s also fine if you do this exercise with 4 measure blocks instead of 8 for slower tempos (<80 BPM).
Some closing thoughts…
It’s important that you do this exercise with only yourself and a metronome. Playing along with any kind of background track will deprive you of the burden/joy of time and measure keeping. The whole point of this exercise is the act of keeping track of measures, and just like a baby eagle flying around in their mother’s beak, you can’t work on soaring to new and majestic heights unless you are flapping your own wings.
The concept of counting and playing at the same time might be horrifically new and foreign for some. If you don’t get it at first, don’t give up!! It doesn’t mean that you will never get it, or that there is something wrong with you. I know from working with many students that it just takes perseverance and patience and you will get there, I promise!!
Most importantly, try and have fun challenging yourself with this exercise!!
Here is a demonstration of me playing Improv Interval Training Part I over the chords to one of my original songs, 'Talking to Myself.'
Demonstration of 12 bar blues.