It’s been ages since I posted anything on this site, so here’s something to break the trend of laziness!
When I hear other guitarists play, at first I really try to listen with an open mind – regardless of the type of music, or what context I’m hearing them, I try to see what they bring to the table as far as style, approach, tone, technique, etc… It usually does not take long for a player (of any instrument) to reveal some things about themselves, such as experience, seasoning, taste and technical ability…often this can all be displayed in mere minutes during a performance. If I really had to pick the one thing that separates players and sums up an overall approach to music, it would be how a player reacts to the rhythm in a song.
In short, the two types of players are:
1. Ones that really play with the rhythm
2. Ones that don’t
Sound like an over-simplification? I don’t think so. Either you’re really trying to lock onto the rhythms, syncopations, and tempo, or not. Sure, technical ability plays into this…but if you’re not comfortable playing over certain rhythms and can’t lock-in, you should probably simplify what you’re doing and focus on the beat…this will do more for your overall musicality than just shredding a million notes with no regard for time or groove.
Locked In Or Just Go For It?
Not that one approach is necessarily better or worse, as it is hard to say what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to an art form, for me personally, listening to a player that really acknowledges the time and syncopation in a song makes it more listenable. To give an example of what I’m talking about, here are a couple of little improvs, the first one being ‘Just Go For It’ style, and the second more of a ‘Play Off of the Beat’ approach.
Not in the pocket
Notice how I just jump in and start noodling, with no real connection to the drums or groove – it sounds like I’m more concerned with impressing somebody (somebody who doesn’t expect much musically!) instead of really digging in and interacting with the track.
Hey – There’s a band there!
In this example I put a little more ‘air’ in the phrasing…I’m reacting a bit more to the drums and groove of the track, which really (to me anyway) is what music should be about – especially in a band situation – you should try to lock in with the other players, and when they play something you react to it musically, so it sounds like you’re playing together.
Avoid Being Predictable
Another aspect of playing more rhythmically is that you will not sound so predictable – when a solo is constant noodling and scale gymnastics, the listener wears out quickly. There is little in the way of surprises…no tension and release, which is a big part (or should be a big part) of music, especially improvised music. The key word here is Phrasing, which means playing ideas that fit together, compliment each other and the rhythm section, and keep the listener interested.
So What Makes Good Phrasing?
For one thing, phrasing really isn’t just about playing technical ‘licks’ or fancy lines on your instrument. Phrasing is the combination of rhythm and melody, in contrast to the song you’re playing along with. Also, phrasing is not just an improvisational tool – vocalists phrase the words they sing…in fact some of the best phrasing you’ll hear is in old-school crooner’s work like Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett just to name a few. Elvis had a really strong rhythmic sense to his singing – which of course people have copied for decades ever since. Guitar players like George Benson, John Scofield, BB King and Eric Clapton are so known for their phrasing that just a couple of notes identifies them. The term for what these guys have is ‘Time Feel’ – great musicians know that it’s the key to really making great music, and it should be your goal to develop it.
For an improvised solo, your thoughts should be focused on the band (or track, or whatever you’re playing over) first, LISTENING to what is happening, then reacting to it. Think like a drummer – really lock onto whatever the rhythm section is doing…you don’t want to just jump in and start wanking away like an over-caffeinated grinder monkey! Let your phrases breathe…build some tension in your solo by starting out at one dynamic level and building to a crescendo. If you just come out of the gate blazing, you leave yourself no room to go anywhere. You’re taking the listener on a journey, not throwing a bucket of cold water on them.
Look for part 2 of this article for some more playing examples and phrasing ideas!