Con­struct­ing a Jazz Solo

Ever wanted to play a bit of jazz but not had the faintest idea where to start? Then join John Wheatcroft as he looks at some fail­safe steps you can take to con­struct the per­fect jazz solo.

Guitar Techniques - - PLAY: JAZZ -

Oc­ca­siOn­ally we'll stum­ble across some­thing on the in­ter­net that can re­ally brighten our day, and make us feel the need to share these rare gems with our friends. such was the case when Jason sid­well sent me a link to a sharply ob­ser­vant and re­ally quite funny di­a­gram writ­ten by Dustin mol­lick. boldly ti­tled How to con­struct the Per­fect Jazz solo, the bar-by-bar timeline plots a 100% fail­safe ap­proach to elic­it­ing a po­lite round of ap­plause from the au­di­ence, along with a “yeah man!” from your band mates, as­sum­ing you plot this course. it had me smil­ing for ages, and i showed it in turn to all my jazz mu­si­cian friends with pre­dictably sim­i­lar re­sults.

while the con­cept of a for­mu­laic solo with a pre­scribed out­come if you sim­ply fol­low the steps by the let­ter is ob­vi­ously quite funny (well it got me laugh­ing any­way), the se­ri­ous side of this is that if you give your solo con­struc­tion some thought then the im­pact of your play­ing will un­doubt­edly im­prove. so it most def­i­nitely pays to give this cru­cial as­pect of your play­ing some thought, and in turn the idea for this ar­ti­cle was born.

solo con­struc­tion can be a tricky busi­ness and we of­ten don’t give this area the at­ten­tion it truly de­serves. Just like some peo­ple seem to be born with a nat­u­ral abil­ity to tell a good joke, or can hold your in­ter­est when telling a story, some play­ers have just got the knack to know what’s go­ing to work when build­ing a solo. while you can learn a great deal by os­mo­sis - by es­sen­tially just lis­ten­ing a lot to great mu­sic - it’s also pos­si­ble to give the process a jump-start by be­ing con­sciously aware of some of the most ef­fec­tive mu­si­cal de­vices that you can em­ploy. the beauty of hav­ing some form of cog­ni­tive ap­pre­ci­a­tion is that you can open the door to an id­iom or an ap­proach, and ex­pand your vo­cab­u­lary in an ef­fi­cient and pro­gres­sive way and, if noth­ing else, can give you a pretty solid foun­da­tion to build upon while work­ing on the more in­tu­itive parts of your style.

while id­iomatic im­pro­vi­sa­tion - play­ing within a genre’s ac­cepted borders - is a huge con­sid­er­a­tion and of ut­most im­por­tance in jazz, it can be a huge help to have some kind of a plan, shape or form in mind as you go. Rather like com­po­si­tion, im­pro­vi­sa­tion is about de­ci­sion mak­ing, not about know­ing all the op­tions. even play­ers with a mas­sive vo­cab­u­lary of ideas have split-sec­ond choices to make; so one highly ef­fec­tive method is to fo­cus on a re­stricted range of op­tions at any given point. you can al­ways change your mind should you find these op­tions too lim­it­ing, or feel you’ve ex­hausted their po­ten­tial. Rather like an en­gag­ing con­ver­sa­tion, you don’t feel the need to talk about ev­ery­thing you know ev­ery time you speak. the con­nec­tion from sub­ject to sub­ject can ei­ther flow, or you can jump to some­thing new when this seems ap­pro­pri­ate.

the pur­pose of this les­son is to look at six dis­tinct ap­proaches or themes you can em­ploy when con­struct­ing a jazz solo, fol­low­ing the tem­plate as pre­sented by our ini­tial in­spi­ra­tion from Dustin mol­lick. For the sake of clar­ity i’ve pre­sented all the ex­am­ples in the key of bb, although of course you should trans­pose each idea when ap­pro­pri­ate through a va­ri­ety of keys. Of course, the mu­si­cal ma­te­rial pre­sented is lit­er­ally the tip of the ice­berg. Once you’ve learnt the phrases and ex­am­ples pre­sented here, why not re­place my licks and ideas with some of your own - even by tweak­ing a note here or there at first? this way you can use your own vo­cab­u­lary, in­flu­enced by your per­sonal pref­er­ences and in­formed by a com­bi­na­tion of the mu­sic you’ve heard, the ex­pe­ri­ences you’ve had and all edited by your cre­ative imag­i­na­tion.

As is cus­tom­ary with these lessons, we fin­ish with a con­tex­tu­alised mu­si­cal study based around an imag­i­nary 32-bar jazz pro­gres­sion fol­low­ing a su­per-typ­i­cal aaba form, with each sec­tion eight bars in du­ra­tion. Once again, we fol­low the tem­plate to the let­ter, with eight bars melody, four bars dou­ble-time, four bars of ‘quotes’ and so on. nice!

I try to think of build­ing as you go, just the same way as when you’re hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion.

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