Anderson .Paak: “Am I Wrong”
Okay, I think you get the picture for Jerry Hey. There are literally thousands of his ideas you can steal for a lifetime of practice fodder, ranging from deeply moving to maniacally challenging. I’ll leave you to explore the rest of that cave on your own.
For now, we’ll turn to another shining star of our modern music era, Anderson .Paak. Anderson and his band are fellow Southern California natives, but I promise, I’m not showing bias. These guys are incredibly talented and write some fantastic horn lines.
The outro on “Am I Wrong” (3:56) features a repeating brass part that I’m fairly sure I’ve played over a million times now. I’ve written a similar exercise for Ex. 5 (but for the last time, take down the real thing and play along!).
My approach to pop vocalists is quite different than horn players. Most of the time they’re just singing predictable melodies. What could possibly be fun about that?
Melismas. That’s what’s fun. The melisma (or vocal run or riff, if you prefer) has made an epic comeback in today’s pop music, thanks to its innovators like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson, and its current champions like Mariah Carey, Ariana Grande, and Beyoncé (and pretty much everyone else).
Half the fun in stealing singers’ licks is figuring out what the heck they’re actually singing. Many vocalists can run so many notes in a split second that it can take quite a few passes to hear the line exactly right. Once I’ve got it down, I run it through various cycles: chromatically, around the circle of fifths, or as a timed fill along with a groove.
Fitting this idea into your practice routine not only makes it more enjoyable, but can also lend a more natural and (obviously) vocal-like quality to your playing. A constant piece of advice I’ve heard in my career is to be able to “play what you would sing.” But if you can play what the pro singers are singing, that makes for some serious chops.
All of these examples are riffs from live performances, not melodies from copyrighted songs, which means I can transcribe them for you exactly as they’re heard in these reference videos. There are tons of great melismas on studio albums too, of course, but vocalists seem to love showing off in front of an audience. Shocking!
Ariana Grande: “Problem” (Live)
When researching for this concept, did I simply type “Best Vocal Runs” into YouTube? You bet I did. And what I found was this amazing performance by Ariana Grande on the Ellen Show, singing her song “Problem.” Her live vocals are just nuts, and at the 3:00 mark she sings a minor pentatonic line that is perfect for creating an exercise. Here it is transcribed in Ex. 6.
Tori Kelly: “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” (Live Cover)
She might not enjoy the same mega-star popularity of the other artists I’ve mentioned, but Tori Kelly’s vocal ability should absolutely earn her as much. Check out this quite adorable homemade video of her covering Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.” in 2012, before her career took off. Her riff from 2:22 to 2:26, transcribed in Ex. 7, will turn you into a pretty young thing.
Beyoncé: “Halo” (Live)
I may have had an insider scoop on our final clip, and if you catch a glimpse of the blonde girl playing bass in the string orchestra, you might see why.
Beyoncé sang an incredibly moving rendition of her song “Halo” for Kobe Bryant’s memorial service at the Staples Center, and I completely lost it sobbing when I heard her sing the riff at 6:07 … on stage, directly in front of Jay-Z and Shaquille O’Neal. I don’t think they could see me anyway, we were all crying too hard.
Queen Bey is the actual queen of melismas. You can hear her prowess all over her live performances, and especially some vintage Destiny’s Child, where her signature move is using more complex scales and note choices than the typical R&B pentatonic book. I love this particular run because it’s a beautiful use of the melodic minor scale (a major scale with a b3), which resolves to a major chord right after she finishes the phrase. This has to be one of my favorite musical moments of all time, and you can find it transcribed here in Ex. 8.
If nothing in my personal musical candy store suits your tastes, feel free to explore your own, and see what licks and phrases present themselves in a way that didn’t occur to you before. Of course, once the candy trail has enticed you into the practice room, the hard work is still to come, but when the going gets tough, keep these concepts in mind. The fun part of music is making it, and even in the least likely of scenarios, practice can always be made musical.