View Full Version : Improve the Improv

Brad Weiss
Jan-31-2005, 8:02pm
Here's a bit of a musical biography, and a question about how to move forward. I've been playing for about 2 years now, and have found I have preference for jazz, standards mostly, swing and gypsy to boot. #I've gotten to the point where I can comp pretty well, love to play those "tense" progressions, and I can pick out a tune with some facility. #I've been working on improvising - and have learned a TON from this board, worked on Ted's exercise in Mel Bay, and worked on a bit of theory. #I also take lessons, somewhat irregularly. I've worked in two main ways - mostly working on arpeggios and playing chord tones over changes, and I try to learn keys when I follow a chord chart so I can play in a more linear way. #I'm really lucky in that I have regular jam with two good buddies of mine and it's a GREAT opportunity to try things out, and make things gel, a bit. #My goal -and my problem - is to improvise with much more lyrical phrasing, #I can (mostly) play the "right" notes, but my playing really lacks shape, or movement. #I can sort of "tweak" a melody a bit, but for me that gets repetitive- but it does keep the shape better. #I've also started transcribing some stuff (mostly Jethro and Stiernberg) which is a lot of fun #- I still haven't figured out how to make it my own, to apply it. #

So there you have it- any recommendations for how to pursue a discipline/practice that will help me develop mre lyrical phrasing are MUCH appreciated!

Jan-31-2005, 10:08pm
I've found that playing things in several different positions on the fingerboard, has introduced some interesting new possibilities to me.
Sometimes a closed position melody will present options that a first position melody might not, different relationships, fingerings, etc.
Then connecting melody in a few positions also opened up some ideas or relationships, and helped me in shifting, both up & down the neck.
I've been allowing happy accidents to happen on the route as well.

I was being way too cautious, trying new stuff is how you learn, & when you go out on a limb & actually pull it off, it is very rewarding. Playing transcribed solos has been helpful too, walking in the fingerprints of your heros is a good way to see where they went on the fingerboard over certain chords, seeing note patterns that are new to you, etc. I've been making use of Dix Bruce's Back Up Trax & Grisman's Dawg Tracks, putting a tune on repeat & just keep blowing over it till I hear things I like......YMMV.

Jan-31-2005, 10:17pm
Hey Arthur...Which Backup Trax are you using? I'm using the Early Jazz & Hot as well as the Jazz & Swing and I dig 'em both. The jazz and swing one really has some good mando specific stuff in it. You got any new ones to recommend?
As far as lyrical phrasing, I try to transcribe other instruments for mando, like violin or guitar, even sax- it takes me out of ruts. Good luck on your quest!

Seth Rosen
Jan-31-2005, 10:48pm
Lots of good advice here Brad, but here's a concrete exercise:

1. Learn the melody of the tune
2. Play your chord tones using the phrasing of the melody
3. Play your chord tones using the phrasing of a melody to a DIFFERENT song in the same groove.
4. Learn another melody and repeat

The point is that the "lyrical" melodies of swing and jazz standards are a great source of ideas for "lyrical" improvisation.

steve in tampa
Feb-01-2005, 4:54am
Since you are reading the music, try to get a visual on this.
Notation is a representation of time. Each written note is a pitch with an assigned value.
Slightly changing the values of the notes both using pitch variations(slides/bends) and time variations,(phrasing) will alter a melody with out adding or taking away too much.
Using the example of music as a language, you would be saying the same words with a different accent. THe challenge is to develop your own unique accent.

Feb-01-2005, 8:52am
Yo Tampa Steve.......that is good advice, I've tried to, in a rhythmic way.....syncopate some melodies that way.....like I hear in Grisman's playing.
And Mandomax I have the Jazz & Swing as well as the Fiddle Tunes versions of Dix Bruce's Back Up Trax. Bob Alekno was a great friend of mine, before being killed in a car crash on the way back from a Nashville Manolin Ensemble rehersal many years ago. I dig playing along with Bob & Dix, but it is also sad in a way too. Alekno was a great rhythm player, he was a Jethro student in Chicago before moving to the Bay Area where he played with the likes of Tim Ware & Darol Anger as well as with Dix in Back Up & Push, before moving to Nville. Sometimes I put on Sweet Georgia Brown.... on repeat, & improvise over & over till I push my envelope in new directions that work, those boyz put down a nice groove to jam with. I've never heard the newer Early Jazz, I'll have to check it out. My favorite though is playing along with Grisman, Marshall & Wasserman on the Dawg Tracks.....it has taken me years to get some of those tunes up to speed, but what a ride having that kinda rhythm to interact with.

Ted Eschliman
Feb-01-2005, 10:26am
Brad, certainly don't sell yourself short. You've covered most of the "basics" of learning to improvise, having gone through the laundry list of steps to master this art: follow chord tones, take existing melody and tweak, jam with tracks and with others. (Thanks for the mandolinsessions.com (http://mandolinsessions.com/feb05/mandology.html) plug, by the way.)
One thing I might add that can help you conceptually is the idea of creating "backwards." There's a fine line between intent and intuition in the creative process. Some musicians are already blessed with a great degree of built-in "intuition," others require more planning and cognition, but one shortcut you can add to your pursuit of improvisation prowess is isolating the "tonal centers" of your chord progressions, and moving in reverse.
Look for the momentary periods of peace or "resolution," the "I" chord, if you will. These are where you want your melody to end, or take a breath before starting the next linear "nugget." Now go backwards, look at the chord(s) that sets this up. It's probably a dominant or 'V' chord. There might even be a series of dominant preparation and dominant chords, but in essence, you are playing a game of musical chairs here. When the music "stops," grab a chair and sit. (Take a breath...)
That's in a harmonic (chord or vertical) context; you can do the same thing with your melody or chord tones. Find them, and work with notes that lead to them prior.
This may seem cerebral, but I assure you, over time, you develop a subconscious skill to exploit tonal centers as they become more familiar ground. That's when they'll become second nature, and perhaps intuitive. For now, pencil them in on your music, though.

Pete Martin
Feb-01-2005, 11:54am
A good thing to help your improvising is to take a play along program like Band in a Box, type in a simple chord progression #(like IIm7 #V7 #Imaj7), then play in all 12 keys. #Next a different progression, say IIIm7 #VI7 #IIm7 #V7 #Imaj7 and play in all keys. #Gradually expand these. #Find common short progressions from tunes and isolate these and practice.

There are a number of Aebersold play along CDs that have excercises like this. #Look at Vol 2, 3, 16, 21, 24, 47 and 84.

Feb-01-2005, 5:19pm
I just try to find or arrange time when I am sure nobody is listening. I put the stereo on 8 and play along with my favorite records, or with bad ones that are nice to play along with. Trying to nail down melodies on the fly, trying to create counter melodies, copying movements of the musicians, chopping along, freak out, ruin the dobro breaks, whatever. To me exercises are exercises, and playing is playing.

Feb-01-2005, 6:53pm
Leave big unexpected holes...

It sucks the listener's ear in, and makes your next chosen phrasing seem to explode out of the blocks...

Feb-01-2005, 7:44pm
I can improvise anything as long as I'm whistling. I can't improvise much of anything picking. It boils down to instinct, as best I can tell. I've seen others recommend playing the notes you're whistling simultaneously. I've done that a few times, and I need to do it a lot more. When my fingers can just make the notes instinctively (like whistling) that my brain hears, I think I'd be there. "There" is a pretty long way from "here" though.

Feb-01-2005, 8:01pm
Absorbing solos from horn players will help your overall musical conception and phrasing.

As far as making things your own- it happens automatically. If you spend the next year absorbing one solo a month from players like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Clifford Brown, etc. their phraseology and sensibility will creep into your playing like kudzu. And you'll have 12 incredible solos with tons of lyrical phrasing under your belt.

To play any style convincingly, you have to soak up the vocabulary.

Sounds like you are making great progress, especially considering it's only been 2 years.

Jeroen said "To me exercises are exercises, and playing is playing." I respectfully disagree- if all you ever play is what you can ALREADY play, you won't move forward. I'm not big on "exercises" either, but taking musical phrases that you like and working them through 12 keys IS playing, and allows you to play in all the keys, not just the usual ones. That's standard operating procedure for a jazz musician learning their instrument.

"Just #jamming" has it's place, but if it's all you do, you'll probably plateau for awhile. Maybe a real long while...

Brad Weiss
Feb-01-2005, 8:45pm
Wow!! I am really thrilled to get such I've great insight from the heavy hitters on the board. Seth, I like the idea of using different chord tones over (different) melodies - boy, it's tough! It's hard to make it sound melodic, but I can see how it makes sense. I always practice over rhythm tracks- usually I just record my own, and play over 'em. It's really helped me learn my arpeggios, and I can get the melodies under my fingers more quickly.

Ted, I can understand in theory what you mean- I find that what does work as phrasing for me is knowing where I'm going, usually trying to end a phrase on a tone that complements the tones where the progression comes to some sort of resolution. What I don't quite get is how to work backwards from there. I'm all for writing it down! My playing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, so I'm not opposed to working and preparing to develop "intuition."

I like the idea of transcribing horns. I'm also a big piano freak, so I might try some Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans, though the polytonal quality may not translate to mando so well. Ok- one transcription per month! That's my new goal!!

Thanks all! Keep it coming!

Feb-02-2005, 12:19pm
Quotes from Bill Evans:

"I believe in things that are developed through hard work. I always like people who have developed long and hard, especially through introspection and a lot of dedication. I think what they arrive at is usually a much deeper and more beautiful thing than the person who seems to have that ability and fluidity from the beginning. I say this because it's a good message to give to young talents who feel as I used to."

"When you begin to teach jazz, the most dangerous thing is that you tend to teach style...I had eleven piano students, and I would say eight of them didn'tít even want to know about chords or anything - they didn'tít even want to do anything that anybody had ever done, because they didn'tít want to be imitators. Well, of course, this is pretty naive...but nevertheless it does bring to light the fact that if youíre going to try to teach jazz...you must abstract the principles of music which have nothing to do with style, and this is exceedingly difficult. So there, the teaching of jazz is a very touchy point. It ends up where the jazz player, ultimately, if heís going to be a serious jazz player, teaches himself."

"Technique is the ability to translate your ideas into sound through your instrument. This is a comprehensive technique...a feeling for the keyboard that will allow you to transfer any emotional utterance into it. What has to happen is that you develop a comprehensive technique and then say, Forget that. Iím just going to be expressive through the piano."

Pete Martin
Feb-02-2005, 12:53pm
Terrific quote John, thanks!

Peter Hackman
Feb-05-2005, 8:53am
If you have the ear to transcribe these solos, and the
mind to analyze them, ideas will probably pop
up when you least expect it. My experience is
that improvisation is a skill or a tendency
you discover in yourself.

Be prepared! Learn the the changes by playing them
this way and that way, perhaps just arpeggios starting
from the root to get them into your ear.

And, if you get stuck, and feel your just playing your
stock phrases over and over, compose. Composing
can help you in two ways. One is, by incorporating
these phrases in a composition you will feel
less drawn to them while blowing on a song,
The other is, composing helps you create whole new areas of
rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic possibilities
that help broaden your mind and ear. But - always
compose with a purpose. Pose a problem, then solve it.

Feb-05-2005, 12:06pm
Great post, Peter! When I was starting out, Russ Barenberg gave me the advice that if you write a tune, you think nothing of spending hours crafting and reshaping things until they are "right"- so why not do that with solos as well, until you are able to improvise fluidly? This applies to jazz as well as bluegrass/fiddle tunes...

It boils down to the challenge of improvisation, which is composing in real time. Now, that's asking quite a lot of someone who may not have a lot of stylistic vocabulary ( or "stylistic doo-dads" as the great F. Zappa called them). The way in is to sit down and slowly work out phrases (maybe based on things you've nicked from great players). You can put together a one-chorus break this way, and memorize it. Play it awhile. When you are sick of it, do a new one and see if you can make it a logical extension of the first, by revisiting the phrases and maybe ending them in different ways, call and response, etc.

Many Django solos are absolute gems of composition, rather than "licks strung together" (blech http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/sleepy.gif ). A good example is the 1949 "After You've Gone", where he revisits certain ideas and develops them in the same way a great classical composer would. That, to me, is one of the greatest improvised solos in history!

Do this a lot on various tunes and you begin to develop a repertoire of ideas that can be accessed on the fly...when you start juggling them around, you are improvising, and on the way to developing the ability to create "spontaneous composition", only distantly related to "spontaneous combustion" as seen in "This Is Spinal Tap" http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/laugh.gif

Feb-16-2005, 7:55am
some excellent advice archived right on this site


Feb-17-2005, 12:43pm
Wow ! Great article ...