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Thread: How to build a solo?

  1. #1

    Default How to build a solo?

    I've been playing for a few years now and I still dont quite get how to build a solo...do you just use the notes in the chords being played or do you stick with the scales in the key that the song is in?

  2. #2

    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    Its something I work on often and feel Im getting a little better at. I use all that you mentioned plus take parts from other tunes and try to plug them in or try double stops or just anything really and see how it sounds. I find the hardest part of that is coming out of whatever i plugged in and getting back onto the melody.

    Sometimes I just play pentatonics over a chord progression and listen...its hard and I think - for me - what would really help is to just play with others which of course is non-existent for me during this pandemic.

    Keep at it, after I post this im going to put on a chord progression on irealpro and just slowly play thru it. One last thing Ill mention is I use the link below to play along with, you can slow YT down, for tunes I don't know I just try and play along. Its frustrating but sometimes its alot of fun so keep at it.

    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCB9...8gDQ2lw/videos
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  4. #3

    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    Always start with the melody. I will repeat that loudly : START WITH THE MELODY!

    Make sure you can play the melody clean and reliably. A simple, recognizable, rendition of the tune, played with good timing and tone, sounds better than a jumble of scales and stuff.

    Then make small changes, a note here, two notes there and see how it affects the sound. Try playing the melody with the fewest possible number of notes and have it still be recognizable. Try playing with the most number of notes till it becomes a jumble. Tinker with double stops and tremolo. Play the whole thing with double stops and tremolo. Add chord sweeps here and there. Try changing the mood of the piece such as play it as a blues, a swing piece, a fiddle tune, etc. Change timing and rhythm and dynamics. Make it bouncy. Make it staccato then legato. Add slides, hammer ons and pull offs. Change the chord backing. Play it as a minor or a waltz. These are just a few ideas.

    The good players make it look easy. Do not be fooled. It is a lot of work to get to something good. Eventually things will emerge and the stuff will flow.

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    CarlM's advice is wonderful. Only think I might add is to make it sing, in fact, actually sing it and see how it works that way. Experiment with phrasing: emphasizing some notes and then different ones. Essentially, what CarlM says.
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    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    Yes, CarlM got it exactly right. Learn the melody then put in your own flourishes.

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    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    Well .…. CarlM gives good advice. Let me add …. A break / solo needs a kick off then some melody modified in a recognizable manner, always make the chord changes with a chord tone or double stop kind of like tagging all the bases then a finish with a lick ending on a chord tone or double stop. When you are unfamiliar with the melody and someone points at you play the chord changes simply with the relative pentatonic scales sliding into thirds and fifths adding flat sevenths. Lastly fiddlers are allowed to turn a break or solo down. Not playing is infinitely better than playing poorly. Having done both I am an expert at those. Play on! R/
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  10. #7

    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    Yes indeed, play the melody.
    The melody could be within the chord tones. You can find it from notation as well. It takes a bit, but if you can play what you hum, and vise versa, you'll be ready for anything. Cuz Murphy's law states, the next tune to be played is one you've not memorized.

  11. #8

    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    My son is a professional jazz bassist. When he was starting out at about 12 years old, he would learn the melody and chords, and then his teacher would ask, "What do you hear inside?" Then my son would figure out how to play what he heard inside and the teacher would give him some feedback. That is still my son's process.

    I think his teacher was wise in making turning on that inner voice the main priority.

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  13. #9

    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    As everyone is saying learn the melody. See if you can pick out key points of the melody that you need to play to make the song identifiable, without playing all the other connecting notes. Use those to define the song. You can pick different ways to travel between those points, whether it be chromatic runs, blue notes, double stops, tremolo, slides, etc.

    For example take the first line of 9 Lb Hammer (if you don't know it look up the song):

    "This 9 lb hammer is a little too heavy"

    I wouldn't mess with "This 9 lb Hammer" because it is pretty identifiable.
    but "is a little too" you could play any way you want as long as you land properly on
    "heavy" - which is a chord change and quite identifiable. So you have a decent little chunk of melody you can swap out for whatever you want while still making the song identifiable.
    Then when you get good at it or something has gone around several times you can replace more of those melody parts. But it is important to properly quote the melody early on so people realize you know what you are doing and not just spitting out parts of chord changes. That is fun, but after a while it gets a little played out and good players will know you are full of it. A big challenge once you learn how to fake it is returning to the melody and playing that authentically as opposed to faking it with chordal "licks" that may seem flashy to the untrained eye.

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    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    In addition to playing (or playing with) the melody, I shamelessly steal ideas, licks, phrases from others. Not only mandolin, but any instrument. Fiddlers can be a huge source of musical ideas (Bobby Hicks and Vassar Clements, I'm looking at you).

    Try mashingup ideas between musical genres, for fun (Ray Charles and Tony Rice, I see you).

    If you have access to a music teacher, some fundamental music theory will truly enrich your life. A great teacher can give it to you in small doses, and if you will hang with it just a little you'll see it's a lot less like rocket science and a lot more like a wonderful key to the encryption that is hindering you from figuring out how to play what you hear in your head.
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    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    Play as much as you can, learn as many fiddle tunes as you can and practice learning and playing by ear. As others have mentioned, if you know the melody its a great starting place. Playing in a jam circle is a great way to learn to hear and find the melody in songs you don’t already know. Styles of music are like learning a new language, eventually common phrases start to emerge that fit nicely into certain parts of songs. You may get to the point where you can play a song you have never played before and anticipate where the song is going, what are the likely chord changes and how to craft a tasteful melody or break over the top. It takes time to develop both your physical ability to play scales but more importantly your mental construct of the music, the timing phrasing and flow. Don’t give up and listen, listen, listen.
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    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    I second CarlM's advice, and Victor Daniel's. I've been obsessing over this lately. A few thoughts: Andrew Collins told me (and he tells everybody) to embrace sucking. The only way to get good is to start by being bad. One of the secrets, along the way, is to learn to be honest with yourself about what you do poorly and spend some time regularly working to improve that part of your playing. It is tempting to focus on what you do well. This is especially true in soloing. I have a well developed left hand from a lifetime of guitarplgaying, and on the mandolin, that translates to Crazy Fingers syndrome -- lots of notes, few coherent ideas.

    I hadn't even heard of the concept of Building a Solo until I heard it from Lauren Price. I asked her how she played such controlled, coherent solos. She says she builds them and then tended to replicated them. Duh. And I thought you just played a lot of fast notes in the attempt to appear amazing.

    My current strategy (and I've only recently adopted a formal approach):

    1. Learn the melody. This is the easiest part and the part I love the best: Learn that fiddle tune and play it as fast as possible -- which is not in fact a great approach.

    2. Learn the chord changes. Coherent solos "play the changes." I bet I played jobs on the mandolin for 10 years without having more than a vague sense of what the chords were to ANY fiddle tunes. That is incredibly stupid. If you're playing "Red Haired Boy" and going to diverge from the strict melody, you need to know EXACTLY when the tune drops from the tonic (the A chord) to the 7 (the G chord). (And you don't have to know theory, but it helps.) I will listen to old recordings or videos of me playing a song like this and wonder why my solo sounds unfocused. It's because my solo isn't sticking crisply with the chord changes.

    3. Learn some double stops and two-string chord and note/open string combinations. This actually is the first thing you can do to "build a solo." Say: When I get to the second four bars in the A part (or whatever), I'm going to add some double stops to the melody. Volia! A variation.

    4. Add blue notes and slides. Basically, flat 3rds and 7ths, sliding from the flat 3rd to the 3rd, etc.

    5. Figure out some places you can add chromatic runs -- playing, at faster tempo, notes *between* and connecting the notes in the standard melody.

    6. Hit YouTube or your music service and listen to other things mandolin players are doing on the same song, for inspiration and direction. A lot of people advocate learning solos. There is a point to playing it like Sam Bush did. But, IMHO, it's fun and expeditious to listen for riffs and ideas you can incorporate in your playing. Be you.

    7. Write it out! Or tab it out. I don't know ANY top tier players who haven't spend a ton of time laboriously and obsessively writing out other people's solos (be it Bill Monroe or Matt Flinner), and, to at least some degree (and maybe a great degree) their own. I seriously doubt David Benedict, Sierra Hull, Mike Marshall are just pulling stuff you hear on recordings out of their ear on the fly. There probably are a few people who rely on improv (like Andy Statman, I think) but my bet is to a larger degree what you hear is intentional rather than inspirational.

    I'm working up a solo -- building a solo -- today for "Missouri Borderlands". It's a simple melody. Previously, my strategy would have been to wing it. But aspiring to a higher level, my approach will be as above.
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  19. #13
    The Amateur Mandolinist Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    Thanks for that, Mike. You're to the point, I think, because the OP asked directly about "building a solo". They didn't mention "improvising". Good comments and suggestions in this thread, although some lean more toward how to improvise and playing live in jams or performances. That's important for sure, but a person who is trying to learn I think its important to work alone on "building solos."

    Also, the OP has some specific questions: "do you just use the notes in the chords being played or do you stick with the scales in the key that the song is in?" For me, the answer is not an either/or. What I've been doing is start with the melody. Always, start with the melody if the song has a discernible melody. Lately, I've been working on some Willie Nelson stuff like Crazy and Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away.

    The melodies for those tunes are very sparse, so the melody lines need to be connected with fills. For me, that means chromatic runs and pentatonic runs and arpeggio runs. Willie uses a lot of chromatic bass runs and pentatonic bass figures in his guitar playing when performing those songs, so naturally a mandolin solo in those tunes will do well to use chromatic, pentatonic or arpeggiated fills that follow the chord changes.

    I second the practice of transcribing other player's solos: Take a song, learn the chord changes. Transcribe your favorite player's solo, and learn it. Learn the barebones melody of the song inside and out, then analyze the solo you learned to discover the devices used, and how they fit the melody and how they follow the chord changes. Rinse. Repeat.

    So there is not one method for "building a solo" - to answer the OP's question, "do you just use the notes in the chords being played or do you stick with the scales in the key that the song is in?" the answer is neither, but all of that and more.
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  20. #14
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    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    Quote Originally Posted by jbonestheviking View Post
    I've been playing for a few years now and I still dont quite get how to build a solo...do you just use the notes in the chords being played or do you stick with the scales in the key that the song is in?
    Yes, and you can also use non scale notes

    While I agree that knowing the melody is important, I think sensing the feel of the tune and understanding the structure are the main points of that exercise, not the basic facility of playing the notes. Tunes are built around ideas typically referred to as motifs, and building a solo can involve modifying those motifs in a myriad of ways, by rhythm, adding or deleting the melodic tones, rearranging the motif, etc. Looking at Django solos versus the melody, I was struck by the fact that most of the solos start on a different chord tone and move in a different direction than the melody. That direction may also be an extension of the original direction of the tune. Bluegrass tunes are somewhat different in there fact that tonal choices are somewhat more limited, ie, a diminished lick over the V chord will raise eyebrows often in a non admiring manner.

    If you take a tune and can arpeggiate over the chord progression, and practice them in a nonlinear manner, a lot of ideas will magically happen, as other notes will suggest themselves to connect those chord notes. If you manage changing chords and the arpeggios to follow the chords using the closest note, your playing will sound smoother. Start slow, maybe only 1 note per beat, and work from there.

    You're writing a new melody, either developing it in the practice room or at speed in a jam. The more sounds you have available in your head and under your fingers, the more skillful your solos will sound. Don't sacrifice clarity of phrase to random notes played quickly in whatever genre.

    I find it a fun journey and it involves throwing out a lot of bad choices to be able to call on demand a sound phrase that I want.

    Lots of books on the subject, if that kind of guidance is useful for you.

    Good luck, and have fun.
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  21. #15

    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    If you don't play the melody on your first break, and only play chord arpegios or licks(worse) it tells me you don't know the tune. Survival mode is fine for a jam. Afterall you can't know every melody. Second break, if given one, play everything you know.

  22. #16
    NY Naturalist BradKlein's Avatar
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    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    You may find this useful. Made for the Cafe a while back.

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    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    This guy covers a lot of ideas for building a break (kinda Don Julin style).

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  26. #18

    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    Thank-you, Bunnyf, for bringing up my video. That's a way of building a break this guy learned from the late great Butch Baldassari.
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    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    Oddly, the TS never states his genre, yet most posters seem to assume that it’s Bluegrass. And several among them don’t really answer the technical question, but rather impose their own limiting views. The melody, always the melody, we simply can’t get enough of that! Don’t you think there’s room for just a little contrast and variety, and shouldn’t we exploit the greater melodic mobility offered by a stringed instrument as compared to the human voice (unless you’re someone like Ella Fitzgerald
    or Jon Hendricks)?

    Tastes vary, of course, but I’m not really crazy about all those repeated eighth notes as illustrated in the video. And people are giving much too detailed advice about what to include or not and how to start or end a solo. I simply expect a solo to somehow connect with what comes before it, and somehow lead to what comes after. I don’t like the way some fiddlers kick off a solo the same way they would kick off the whole tune. And I don’t like it when the solo doesn’t lead directly into the next verse or chorus but ends with several bars of vamp-till-ready. It is not necessary to end a solo with an exclamation mark, as it were; a comma might be more appropriate. One possible way of doing this is to have the solo end on the dom chord (assuming he next verse starts on the tonic chord).

    Example: https://www.mandohangout.com/song/11930


    This piece was recorded on March 1, in 1969. Someone suggested, quite brilliantly, that we save the full ending for the final chorus (of 5). To my ears it worked splendidly, and still does, even 51 years later: There you have an improvised mandolin solo sandwiched between two guitar choruses, one of them paraphrasing the melody, the whole thing kicked off by a Scruggs style presentation; and a written Yankee style outchorus to wrap things up. Contrast. Variety.

    Of course, this is an instrumental, and the choruses are all 32 bars long; There would be less room for, e.g., improvisation on a vocal number with short solos between verses.

    Well, the TS should know what he likes or dislikes. The tools available are playing through and around the chords (scale- or arpeggiowise), spicing things up with outside notes, e.g., from the blues or minor penta scale, approach notes, chromatic passing notes. How find a good balance between all these devices? Listen, transcribe (mentally; over 53 years of playing the mandolin I’ve never notated, let alone tabbed out, anything except my original compositions). What makes this solo happen? Are there ideas worth developing or elaborated on?

    Etc.

  28. #20

    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    Oddly, the TS never states his genre, yet most posters seem to assume that it’s Bluegrass. And several among them don’t really answer the technical question, but rather impose their own limiting views. The melody, always the melody, we simply can’t get enough of that! Don’t you think there’s room for just a little contrast and variety, and shouldn’t we exploit the greater melodic mobility offered by a stringed instrument as compared to the human voice (unless you’re someone like Ella Fitzgerald
    or Jon Hendricks)?
    I am not assuming a genre but suspect the poster is pop, folk, rock influenced though that is reading a lot into it. The reason for focusing on the melody, to start, is that you are trying to solo over a particular song. Should it not have some recognizable aspect of that song included? I realize jazz people get a long way from the melody but they at least start and finish with the "head", which is the basic melody. Even if you depart from the song you are playing you should have some sense or snippet of some kind of melody in mind. Django got a long way away from the tune he was playing more often than not but he had a sense of where he was going and was saying something musical. It was not random. The same applies to Jerry Garcia or David Grisman or any great player.

    Keeping in mind that the person posting is having difficulty understanding where to start in building a solo. You begin with the melody. As a player advances they learn how to move away from it. He seemed to be visualizing the process as kind of a random hippie note playing where you wander around in scales and arpeggios. Some players do that. They rarely produce interesting solos. What I was trying to get at is that if you want a compelling solo that excites people then you should have something to say, have a melody in mind. Explore, make mistakes, go back and redo things but try to say something. Do not just randomly wander.

    If his technical question, as I understand it, is how do I randomly wander, should I use scales or arpeggios, then my technical answer is that you should not just randomly wander. Use scales, use arpeggios and everything else but have a direction, a melody, something to say. He says he is having difficulty figuring out how to construct a solo. His difficulty constructing solos will not be solved till he thinks more about melody and the song and chord structure and what he is trying to communicate.
    Last edited by CarlM; Apr-24-2020 at 5:29pm.

  29. #21
    NY Naturalist BradKlein's Avatar
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    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    Hey there. Did anyone watch most or all of the TWO helpful videos in posts 16 and 17? Curious to hear if you find a difference in emphasis that goes beyond simply 'learn the melody'.

    Also, I'll note that I think both players have fairly wide musical knowledge that goes beyond bluegrass. Michael has a sophisticated understanding of many genres and studied with Yusef Lateef, the noted jazz musician.
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    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    The OP said he was just playing for a few years, so my assumption was that he was looking for some tips on fundamentals, like what theory, scales or patterns help you find the melody; where are the double stops and which ones “fit” in the progression and when to use them, etc. I started Sharon Gilchrist’s new course on Peghead Nation and it deals with this exactly. It’s very good. Pickloser’s excellent guide on double stops taught me where to find them. Now Sharon’s course is showing me which ones to choose. Highly recommend it!

  31. #23
    The Amateur Mandolinist Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    Quote Originally Posted by BradKlein View Post
    Hey there. Did anyone watch most or all of the TWO helpful videos in posts 16 and 17? Curious to hear if you find a difference in emphasis that goes beyond simply 'learn the melody'.

    Also, I'll note that I think both players have fairly wide musical knowledge that goes beyond bluegrass. Michael has a sophisticated understanding of many genres and studied with Yusef Lateef, the noted jazz musician.
    Hey Brad!

    I did not choose to "re-watch" both of them, just watched a little of Don's that day ... but I have watched both those videos numerous times in the past. I was first acquainted with Michael's when you posted it in the forum a good while back. I find it very informative. I was first acquainted with Don's when he created it to help someone in another thread a good while back. Again, very informative.

    My opinion and experience differs from that of another post made in the past day or two, but that's alright, to each his own. Thank you for posting.
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    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    Quote Originally Posted by CarlM View Post
    I am not assuming a genre but suspect the poster is pop, folk, rock influenced though that is reading a lot into it. The reason for focusing on the melody, to start, is that you are trying to solo over a particular song. Should it not have some recognizable aspect of that song included? I realize jazz people get a long way from the melody but they at least start and finish with the "head", which is the basic melody. Even if you depart from the song you are playing you should have some sense or snippet of some kind of melody in mind. Django got a long way away from the tune he was playing more often than not but he had a sense of where he was going and was saying something musical. It was not random. The same applies to Jerry Garcia or David Grisman or any great player.

    Keeping in mind that the person posting is having difficulty understanding where to start in building a solo. You begin with the melody. As a player advances they learn how to move away from it. He seemed to be visualizing the process as kind of a random hippie note playing where you wander around in scales and arpeggios. Some players do that. They rarely produce interesting solos. What I was trying to get at is that if you want a compelling solo that excites people then you should have something to say, have a melody in mind. Explore, make mistakes, go back and redo things but try to say something. Do not just randomly wander.

    If his technical question, as I understand it, is how do I randomly wander, should I use scales or arpeggios, then my technical answer is that you should not just randomly wander. Use scales, use arpeggios and everything else but have a direction, a melody, something to say. He says he is having difficulty figuring out how to construct a solo. His difficulty constructing solos will not be solved till he thinks more about melody and the song and chord structure and what he is trying to communicate.

    Well, what I said is that I expect a solo to connect with what comes before it and lead to what comes after. Usually that’s the melody of a verse or chorus so I needn’t be told that it’s necessary to know the melody. Also, you are playing with other people, hence there’s the need for some common ground, i.e., the chord structure.

    The logical opposite of paraphrasing the melody is not random noodling; it’s simply everything else, e.g., some other melody bridging the two verses, or whatever. Some people here entertain the strange notion that you must quote or paraphrase the melody to *prove* that you know it. Really? Is that what music is about?

    Miscellaneous comments:

    #11 At least in Bluegrass fiddle tunes are a good way to build a vocabulary of scale and arpeggio figures. I took up the mandolin in 1967
    because the fiddle tunes I had transcribed (e.g., Brilliancy and Rutland’s Reel) involved very frequent and awkward string crossings on guitar. The fifths tuning of the mandolin invited further experimentation with these devices over standard chord progressions.

    #12 At least on simple songs I usually find the melody and the chords simultaneously. On trickier or more notey songs I will usually learn the chord progression first; it’s so much easier to transcribe the melodic details if you know their place in the general scheme. A good exercise is to take a tef file from, e.g., mandozine.com, listen to the MIDI and see how much of the song’s layout you can decipher without looking at the notation.

    #21 why watch instructional videos? Why not listen to actual music instead. Transcribe and analyze. When I was young I transcribed a number of tunes and always with this attitude: so that’s how and why, then maybe this will work too. None of the videos is really about building; the first is about the execution of individual phrases, and the second about embellishing a melody.

  34. #25

    Default Re: How to build a solo?

    Quote Originally Posted by CarlM View Post
    Always start with the melody. I will repeat that loudly : START WITH THE MELODY!
    This is just one approach. Solos don't have to reference the melody. If you ALWAYS start with the melody, you will NEVER engage your inner voice.

    It's not a Bluegass or fiddle tune, but it's well known, so consider the solo on Hotel California. There is a lot going on there that has nothing to do with the melody, and it's a brilliant solo.

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