• Develop a better sense of internal time.
• Learn how to float around a tonality.
• Understand how to play over “broken” beats.
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In the world of improvising, I’ve found that it’s incredibly handy to have tons of sonic and rhythmic bases to draw from. From my days with Wayne Krantz and drummer Keith Carlock, I was able to develop a sound that was unique while drawing from funk, electronica, jazz, avant-garde, rock, metal—you name it. It all came out in the wash. All of it was done in the name of support and interaction. Now, if you’re not familiar with the sound of this band, here’s a video. At approximately 3:20 you can hear how we take this stuff out in B minor.
I’ve been able to take the concepts in this lesson and apply them to just about any project I’ve been involved in since then. I hope to show you a gateway to getting rhythmically and harmonically deep into playing in static keys, in eight-measure phrases. In the following examples I’m playing over loops taken from a pair of my favorite drummers, Eric Harland and Mark Guiliana. I’ve provided audio examples of each concept with transcriptions. These are simply what I was feeling that day. It always changes for an improviser. Sometimes it’s more edgy or more melodic.
Use these as launching points for your own ideas. I happen to play all these ideas in the key of G—at least as a general concept. Be sure to practice these ideas in eight-measure phrases with a metronome (the examples all sit at 92 bpm) or with a drummer who has the metronome in his or her ears.
You can add complexity, remove notes to add space, anticipate, shorten notes, increase note lengths, use a pick for sonic differentiation, etc. There are endless ways to vary up the concepts. Have fun exploring each zone!
I call the first concept (Ex. 1) the “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” or the James Brown zone where you hold out big notes (G and D). There are fills at the end of the fourth measure using the same G to D idea. I built in some complexity in the Willie Weeks or James Jamerson vein. The thrust of this one is to drive the simple groove home, but add embellishments as you go along.
Ex. 2 is straight out of the George Porter zone, where you play a motif and drive it with some punch. The thrust of it is playing a lot of 1-5-1 patterns either going up or going down. George has such a vibe with that stuff. A good example is “Just Kissed My Baby” from the Meters. I just improvised something in that vein with George in mind. The second time around you can embellish your line in that spirit. Go for very simple note choices, but drive the feel and groove home. I think of this and Ex. 1 as an anchoring kind of groove, but a nice departure from where the music might have been before this moment. Your bandmates will love the way you change up the grooves if you’re really strong and sure about the idea.
I’m moving into a darker, almost movie soundtrack vibe with Ex. 3. I used the b5 (Db) to give it a more weird and sinister feeling. The tritone is also prevalent in a lot of electronic bass lines due to its darker and mysterious feeling. It leaves space for more atmospheric things to occur in the music.
I also played the phrase in a somewhat rhythmically complex way, leaving space over the barline and inserting movement in unusual places. You have to have a strong sense of the beat to pull this off. A way to approach this is to take a rhythmic phrase and keep moving it around inside the four-measure phrase. The Swedish metal band Meshuggah are masters of taking an ostinato and twisting it until the phrase comes around again.
Ex. 4 is a funk idea that gets repeated and embellished and played in different octaves. The interesting twist is the “response” that appears in the last two measures to give the phrase more shape and interest. This can be done in any key, of course. I chose to play a complex but melodic G minor run that holds and starts in unconventional places. This was a trick I learned from Wayne Krantz. He is a master of taking an idea, then punctuating it with a complementary phrase. Practice developing and solidifying an idea for six measures, then answer it in an altered way. This gives your idea some added interest.
Sometimes you can dance around the root. For Ex. 5, imagine you’re the rhythm guitarist for Sly & the Family Stone. There are a lot of single notes based around G7 that are played short and punchy. Once in a while, give the line some release by bringing it home to the root. This is another way to switch gears and draw some more interesting ideas out of your playing.
I describe the concept in Ex. 6 as using “obtuse sustained three-note variations.” This is simply choosing three notes and working them rhythmically in different variations. The roots of this idea came while playing with Krantz and Carlock. It’s another nice device to have in your rhythmic toolbox.
In the final two examples I’m going to play over a broken urban beat played by Mark Guiliana. This is a very current phenomenon right now. Many young cats have incorporated this skill into their repertoire. It requires that your time be very steady.
One of the most important approaches to dealing with this kind of beat is to not mix it up too much with the drummer. Playing longer notes and even chords like Pino Palladino is an effective way of creating a groove that is fun and hopefully listenable to your audience. In Ex. 7 I developed a little motif using space and not fighting the jagged beat much. At first, practice playing simply over messed-up beats.
Finally, in Ex. 8 I’m playing eighth-note based lines and embellishing them on top. In this example, I intend the thrust of the line to be pulsating eighth-notes à la Pino or Sly Stone, then adding jagged tenths to keep the line moving. Practice playing steady eighth-notes against the beat, then toss in the occasional off-kilter note or fill.