Unleash Your Inner Blues Beast
This week, we are going to gear things a little more toward musicians. However, the information will give anyone insight into how a musician “does that.” Even as fans of music, we are innately curious on how someone achieves certain results. There are many elements that go into a blues solo, especially one that is improvised. Improvisation is an element that makes music fun and unpredictable.
Improvisation is the act of creating something from nothing, on the spot, without rehearsing beforehand. For those who like actual dictionary definitions; improvise: to compose and perform or deliver without previous preparation. Think about an improv standup comedian who tells jokes as they come or uses the audience for inspiration or a talking point. Another example would be a rapper freestyling a verse. They just hear a beat and devise a rap on the fly using anything they can to keep the story flowing.
There is something amazing about watching someone improvise. To the viewer or listener, the performer is conjuring things up as if by magic or a divine source. They aren’t reading any sheet music, or following any guides. They are simply releasing ideas as they enter the brain. This is what makes music so interesting and appealing. How do guitarists like Eric Clapton, B.B. King or Joe Bonamassa make improvising solos look so easy? Let’s briefly explore some options.
So, these obviously are not going to be mind-shattering or new concepts. From athletes to musicians, all of the greats have to practice, there isn’t a way around this fact. As a jazz guitarist, I would find myself locked in a practice room for hours every day, breaking occasionally to eat something. There is even an age-old saying about this: practice makes perfect. All of our parents instilled this in our brains, no matter what we were doing. However, one slight alteration to this piece of advice makes all the difference and changed my outlook on practicing: perfect practice make perfect.
What does this mean? The simple act of picking up an instrument or whatever you use for your craft, does not insure improvement, no matter the duration. Deliberate practicing and outlining your goals will help you get the most out of your time. Even a 30-minute session can be used wisely. Aimless practicing, or practicing with distractions will not help you to grow and will ultimately lead to frustrations when you don’t improve.
To the average audience member, someone like Eric Clapton was given a gift or sold his soul to the devil to achieve his talent level. That’s the only explanation for why he is so good and can improvise well. Excuses like this are actually insulting to professional musicians because guess what? Clapton practices all of the time in various settings and has been for many years.
There is a lot more to cover about this topic, but we will revisit this at a later time.
Listening has a vital role in improvising and actually can be achieved in the practice room as well. What I mean by listening is to simply hear what the musicians you want to sound like are doing. They are the professionals and have been playing a lot longer and are doing things you want to do. So, it makes sense to follow in their footsteps and be guided by their road map.
For example, listen to “Born Under A Bad Sign” by the great Albert King. Listen to it over and over again until it is ingrained in your head. Study the way King plays his riffs and try to imitate them on your instrument or by voice. If you repeat this process for all of your favorite musician’s solos, you will soon have an arsenal of blues licks you can return to at a moment’s notice. After all, this is what practicing and listening are ultimately for; to harbor as much knowledge as possible and sound like the professionals.
Listening also stems to ‘on the gig listening.’ This is hearing and understanding what your bandmates are playing and being able to respond accordingly. Have you ever listened to a band that seemed disconnected, like it was a bunch of individual musicians playing on their own? This is a crucial part in improvising and sounding like a cohesive unit. As ideas are coming to you, use things you hear from the rest of the band to enhance and build upon your solo. For example, one of my favorite tactics is to copy a rhythm the drummer used. I will continue to play that rhythm until the band catches on and joins me, which has a powerful effect. That spark between bandmates is why we play music.
We will concentrate on other aspects to a successful blues solo in later weeks. However, one thing that is crucial and oftentimes overlooked is utilizing space. As a jazz musician, I became familiar with how to do this by befriending many horn players. As guitarists or string players, we do not have to breathe while soloing. Trombone or sax players do or they won’t be doing much of anything.
Guitar players especially do not view space as a musical element in soloing. But, it can actually be useful and musically tasteful, especially in the context of blues. Think about B.B. King. He holds a note for long periods of time and puts gaps everywhere in his solos. This not only gives his solos a lot of feeling and emotion but also keeps the audience guessing. No one wants to hear all of your talent spilling out in one 5-minute solo. Build on your story gradually and people will be anxious to hear more!