How many blues licks do you have under your belt so far…
Well if you have any more than about 5 blues licks under your fingers, why don’t your solos sound as good as those licks do?
There could be a number of reasons for that… and we’ll come back to that in a minute, but first we need to talk about the single biggest myth when it comes to blues soloing – and specifically to improvisation…
And that single biggest myth is that you’ll be able to learn a half a dozen licks and magically be able to get up on stage with a band and make up something that sounds like a blues solo right there on the spot…
I’m sorry, it ain’t gonna happen… at least not for a little while (and that amount of time actually depends on you more than anyone else…)
Oh sure, we all know that one guy who learns a few licks and then seems to magically play a great solo out of thin air – but it didn’t work that way for him either, any more than it’s going to work out for you.
You see, the truth about improvising is that – it’s not improvising… certainly not at first.
In fact, Miles Davis (one of the most famous jazz improvisers of all time who played 250 nights a year and demanded his musicians make mistakes in their quest to improvise) used to say that maybe 1 night per year he would come up with something new – something that he had never played before…
The rest of the nights this seasoned jazz and blues veteran, with dozens of years of performances and countless hours in practice halls and late night jam sessions, played the same stuff he played in the practice room over and over again.
Because your fingers and your brain work in patterns, and those patterns will always come out when it’s time to improvise. You will always naturally gravitate towards ideas and licks that you’ve played and used before in those same situations.
For example, if you’re playing over a slow blues, you won’t try to play a lick from “The Thrill Is Gone” because it’s in a straight feel and it wouldn’t make sense immediately.
BUT… that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, you just have to take a little time and figure it out first.
If you have six different licks that you know, and you practice them all together as a solo, when it’s time for you to take a solo you’re going to play those same six licks, in that same order that you practiced them.
Does that mean it’s the only option? Heck no! But you can’t come up with new options “on the fly” until you’ve already done it enough to be able to mentally take a step back – to be able to play the licks without thinking so that you can use your brain to rearrange them.
Which then leads us to the questions about how to make the licks work in places other than where you learned them – how do you change the key? What if the chords are different, will they still work? Will you need to change a note at the end or in the middle to make them work?
And what if one lick is just a little too long for the space you want to put it in, can you shorten it? Or can you shorten the one that comes after it? Can you start a lick on a different beat than you learned it?
All of these little “gotcha” questions come up, and the answer to all of them is, “Yes,” “Maybe,” or, “With a little tweak.”
And it’s all those little “gotcha” questions that clog up your brain and bring your “improvising” to a grinding halt – unless you work it out ahead of time…
Now imagine if you take that same solo you know with the six licks, and you sat down and figured out a way to swap out the 2nd lick for another option that you know…
Well now you have 2 possible solos you can play when it’s your turn, but what happens if you get an option for both the 2nd lick and the 5th lick?
Things start to get more interesting because you know have 4 options, not just 2. And if you have 1 option for 3 of the licks, you have 8 total different solos you could play.
And if you had 3 licks that you could start your solo with, and then just 1 option for each of the other 5 licks – you’d have 24 different possible solo combinations…
Do you think that with 24 combinations you would repeat yourself? Probably not very often… and that’s the illusion of improvisation.
If your buddy comes to see you play your solo, you’re going to play one of those 24 combinations you know… and the next time he sees you play you’ll play a different one – to him you’re improvising now.
So what we need to do is work through a step-by-step way for you to take the licks you already know, and apply them to solos that you may also already know (and don’t worry if you don’t know any licks or solos yet, I gotcha covered on that too.)
And because of that I came up with this system – How To Improvise… or more specifically, Using and manipulating blues licks to create solos on the fly that you will be proud to call your own.