A guide on how modern R&B and pop could unlock your inner practice addict.
• Discover the absolute genius of Jerry Hey.
• Learn how to adapt riffs to create exercises.
• Understand how to phrase like a vocalist. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Before we begin, dear reader, I have a confession to make: I hate the idea of practicing.
“Hate is a strong word,” I can hear my dad say. Sure, many people don’t love the idea of practicing, or strongly dislike it. But when I say hate, I mean hate, Dad… I really, really do.
I say I hate the “idea” of it, because once I finally begin practicing, I do truly enjoy it. It’s much easier to achieve “flow” while practicing than we anticipate. But the idea of sitting in my room for an hour, waking up my metronome, and coming face-to-face with all of my self-doubt and shortcomings? I would prefer to super-glue Red Vines to my upper lip like a shiny red mustache and march around in public belting “Carmina Burana.”
But despite all my whining, these past 20-plus years of dreading my practice time have been good for something: I’ve learned ways to trick myself into jumping over that initial hump. While I still get that chewy, anxious feeling in my stomach every time I think about practicing, I now have a few sure-fire ways to get over myself and get to work.
Gold Mining Your Music
The method I’ll focus on today helps me to remember what the point of practicing is anyway: making actual music. Listening to music you like, and recreating parts of it in your practice session, is an obvious way to remind yourself why you want to be better at this in the first place.
And I’m not talking about Michael Brecker, or Dream Theater, or whichever god-level artist you love that sometimes makes you feel a little defeated. Instead, shuffle through to what you might consider the “candy store” section of your music library—even the “guilty pleasure” stuff. I’ll out myself. I love Ariana Grande. Nail down whatever music you put on to clean the house, to drive a little over the speed limit on the freeway, or to put more pep in your giddy-up.
For a lot of us, this means some form of pop music. And while I wouldn’t necessarily classify our current era as a golden age in pop, there are a few places to look for nuggets of ideas that can both drastically enhance your practice routine and remind you that practicing is supposed to be fun.
The most effective way I’ve found to do this is to look outside of my instrument. Rule out anything that has strings or frets. That sounds too much like a normal practice session to me. I have the most fun when I explore two less obvious areas: horns and vocalists.
Before I dive in, I’m obliged to pay homage to the man who inspired most of the examples I’m referencing in this section: Jerry Hey. As a trumpeter and arranger, you’ve heard his work on records by Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Weather Report, Joe Cocker, Cher, Celine Dion, Joni Mitchell, Chaka Kahn, John Mayer, Randy Newman, B.B. King … are you getting the idea? The guy is whatever’s cooler than a legend. His horn lines are nothing short of genius—and they always make me want to practice bass, which, as strange as that may sound, makes them even more genius in my opinion. The following examples are inspired by the originals, so after you get them under your fingers don’t forget to go back and learn them from the source.
Dirty Loops: “Roller Coaster”
First up is a Jerry Hey offering from a more surprising source. Yep, if you’ve heard the band’s debut album Loopified, many of those punchy horn parts were supplied by none other than Jedi Master Hey himself.
The horns in the intro of “Roller Coaster” make for a very simple minor pentatonic warm up, which inspired Ex. 1. (For an extra adrenaline rush, work out what’s going on in the horn soli at 1:56 and hang on for dear life!)
Bonus fact: The members of Dirty Loops are currently working on a book containing sheet music of their tunes, so be sure to keep an eye out for that in the near future.
Earth Wind & Fire: “In the Stone”
Outing myself again: The horns on this tune are so epic they make me cry when I listen to it. Is that weird? Probably.
Arguably the best feel-good song of all time, and some of the greatest horn writing I’ve ever heard, opens one of the first albums Jerry Hey worked on when he showed up in Los Angeles at 28 years old. No, I’m not kidding.
My inspiration exercise (Ex. 2) comes from the glorious outro, which adds horns around 3:16.
Michael Jackson: “Working Day & Night”
If you’ve ever played in a corporate event band, you’ve heard brass players complaining about how tough this line is. The soli at 4:33 is known to continue for over ten minutes when this song is played live, and horn players are usually cursing Jerry’s name after the first round. But what the Hey, it makes for the perfect warm-up!
I derived two exercises out of this one: the horn arrangements in the chorus (1:22, Ex. 3) and that classic killer ending (4:33, Ex. 4).
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.