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Improvisation is music on its highest plane. We are creating new and wonderful music each time we touch our instrument; however, considering most of us are not Keith Jarrett or Mozart, we do have creative and physical limitations.
The advantages of composing a solo are many, including: time to create a melodic idea that has logic, direction, and development; finding interesting voice leading, counterpoint, rhythmic variety, and solid bass lines; and playing cleanly. Is this enough to convince you of its merit?
Until we reach that higher plane, composed solos do have their place and can be used as a springboard into what would be considered an improvised solo. My friend, pianist Pat Coil (Michael McDonald band), once told me that he often has students compose solos. He tells them to compose what they would like to hear in an improvisation. He believes this is a valuable process on the road to improvisation. Let's be honest, the greatest improvisers use information they have played, processed and heard many times. The trick to improvisation is creating a large pool of knowledge, ideas, and experience to draw from. The following two examples are composed solos. Let's take a look at some of the elements of them. They may give you some things to consider when you compose your own solos. I suggest you follow the transcriptions as you listen to the audio examples.
Solo # 1 is based on the blues and is filled with notes out of the E blues scale (E-G-A-Bb-B-D); however, I never planned to use the E blues scale—it’s just a sound. The chord progression is basically 1 - 4 - 5, with a couple of chromatic passing chords. The sound of the E blues scale works over every one of these chords. Experiment. Once you get that sound in your ear you will find yourself using it instinctively.
Articulation is the length of notes and is very important. Notice that all over the transcription both melody and bass notes are cut off. An example is the bass notes in the first three measures. This technique adds a lot to the feel of the music. These little moments of silence can be due to notes being cut off or, as in measure 5, beat one, just a rest. This is also articulation. Filler licks I do not think you will find that term in your Harvard music dictionary, but it works for me. I think of filler licks as a way to fill space and add interest between what is considered the melody or the melodic theme of the solo. One such example is found in measure four, solo one. I used a triplet here and it gives it that blues, jazz piano sound. Great players and arrangers know how to fill holes in music, but remember there are times when silence is the best choice. Be instinctive, trust your ear.
Texture is important in all styles of music. Texture refers to the density of the music. It is important to give the listener a variety of texture. I hate it when I hear big block chords one after the other until I beg, “Please play one note, oh please!” Take a look at measures nine and ten in example one. I used a two-note texture, creating a strong melody and bass line. Lines, more often than not, become clearer with only two notes.
Half-step passing chords are very commonly used, especially if the chord is a dominant seventh. Take a look at measures 6, 7, 11, 12, 14 and 15 in example one. Half-step passing chords can approach the target chord from a half step below or half step above. When you look at chord progressions, you have the option of using half-step passing chords.
Syncopation can be found in all styles of music; in jazz it is found in both the harmonic structure (chords) and melodic content. General speaking, syncopation in pop and country music is, more often, found only in the melody. Syncopation is simply playing or singing on the up beat and connecting it to the next down beat. In many cases, the note is syncopated, but cut off, not tied—remember articulation? I cannot imagine how boring music would be without syncopation and articulation.
Slurs and slides add a vocal quality. All instruments fall short of the slurring ability of the human voice; however, they do help breath life into the music. My one suggestion is to not over-use. Good musicians seem to instinctively know where to place slurs and slides.
I referenced measure numbers in solo #1; however, both solos contain these elements. Play through the examples to get a feel for these ideas. I’ll close by saying that your effort to compose your own solos will teach you more than a dozen articles, so get busy!
Download high-resolution PDF of both solos
Download example audio for both solos