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Putting Some Poetry Into Your Soloing

 

Poetry

Music is poetry, poetry is music. The two go hand in hand in my view. They really are one in the same. Take limericks for example. How about this one:

 

Hickory dickory dock,
the mouse ran up the clock;
the clock struck one
and down he run;
hickory dickory dock

 

Or this one which spawned many dirty versions (lol). However, here is the original that was really quite tame (and clean):

 

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket

 

Say them out loud. It does have that natural, sing-song, feel to it, right? There are a number of poems of various styles that do that very thing. So it should be no surprise that music follows the same type of patterns. And more specifically for the purposes of this discussion, soloing on guitar.

All of you songwriters get this. I’m sure there is much you can educate me on! Tying together the rhythm and meaning of the lyric to song is a work of art. I do wonder, however, how many lead guitar players really get it?

 

Every Solo Tells a Story Don’t It?

 

The greatest guitar solos can tell magnificent “stories”. What’s interesting about them is that they most often can be subject to interpretation by the listener. Why? Well, there are literally no words to limit your interpretation of the song. Regarding songs that you sing to, that’s a different story. There are plenty of popular songs from my past that carry specific meaning to me that have nothing to do with the lyrical content. For me, it was the music itself that conveyed a certain meaning. For example, there are some songs that remind me of the time I was dating my wife. They were of a very happy time. Literally, the words to some of the songs have nothing to do with what was going on at the time. But, the music did! Neon Tree’s Sleeping With a Friend is one such song. Now, the lyrical content really didn’t have much to do with the relationship at the time (no, really, it didn’t!) but the mood of the song felt happy and “up” to me. At the time, I was just coming out of dealing with the down times of a separation and divorce. This song was popular when my life was changing for the better. And yeah, part of the song was true: the relationship with a friend was growing into something much bigger. 

For instrumental, and more specifically for this post, guitar solos, the responses and feelings are much the same as I described above. Think of some the great solos, especially pieces that are literally played as an instrumental for entire song. My goodness, there are so many! Some of my favorites are songs like Santana’s Europa, Joe Satriani’s Always With Me, Always With You, The Allman Brothers’ Jessica, and George Benson’s Breezin‘. No words, but can you hear and feel what is being played? I sure do. If you don’t like these, find your own and really listen to those songs. There is a communication that goes beyond words. I also believe, that each person can listen to the same song and each have their own interpretation of what that song means to them – oftentimes different from what the original artist intended!

Then there are the solos that are only part of songs. My goodness, there are also so many! What is interesting about these is how well they work within the song. They feel a part of it and not separate. Some will simply replay the melody that is sung. Most others will feel like they continue what is being sung. There are many, many, many like that. I have no space here to list them all. Go ahead and google greatest guitar solos of all time and you will get lists galore! 

In Gibson.com‘s introduction to their Top 50 list they said this: “What makes for a great guitar solo? Is it mind-melting precision or bone-chilling soul? Is it the way it can leave you slack-jawed, wondering, “How did he do that?” Or is it something that you can sing from memory, a melodic passage that weaves itself into the DNA of the song? Or are the greatest solos ever played the ones that somehow manage to do all of the above?” 

To me, it is “all of the above”.

 

Phrasing

 

I often tell my students who are interested in soloing (and are of course familiar with scales!) that when they create their own compositions, they should consider the “story” they want to tell. The results can be endless! The simplest, and most basic, way to talk about this is to go back to the poetry example and break a solo down into phrases, similar to stanzas in a poem. While I could give endless examples from all styles, let me use the beginning of Santana’s Europa to demonstrate what I mean. The opening verse can be broken down into 4, distinct phrases in much the same way that vocalist would sing a popular verse: find a melody and repeat it and try put in variations to it each time you go through a line. In Europa, each of the 4 lines starts with basically the same first 6-8 notes, then follows up with something different. In the next verse, it is done pretty much the same way but embellished even further. And then it goes from there. 

Blues licks are awesome at this kind of thing. It is primarily why I start off my solo players with the blues. The licks can be technically simple, yet allow for so much feeling that is unique to the style of music. It’s a great way to develop into a competent player: especially in the rock world. There are countless examples from some outstanding players. Here is a song from one of my favorite blues players: check out B.B. King’s opening, and subsequent guitar solo, to The Thrill is Gone. Not only does he put his heart and soul into it, but hear how he creates a theme on the guitar throughout the song. So simple, yet so awesome!

 

Jamming

 

One quick word on jamming: DO IT! Jamming is fun. The spontaneity is a blast. There might be no need to find a melody but simply express yourself where you are at in the moment. There is tremendous freedom in all of that. It is poetic art all it’s own. Not to mention, some of the best ideas for songs, melodies, solos, have come from simply jamming. Want some examples? Find live recordings from some of the great jam bands to start. I personally like the Allman Brothers as my favorite jam band but others like the Grateful Dead and Phish were/are known for that at all their live shows, it really was/is their identity. How about the Dead and Allmans in a 26 minute jam at Fillmore East in 1970? lol Or this 15 minute jam of Jessica by the Allman Brothers.

I once recall being at a party years ago that was almost entirely attended by musicians of all abilities and genres. They had a drum kit, bass amp, a couple guitar amps, and a keyboard set up for anyone who wanted to play. At one point I joined in a jam that literally lasted about an hour as I recall – I kid you not! We mostly rambled around G (major, minor, various modes, etc.), and hit all kinds of styles from rock to blues to jazz. During the jam, some would pass the baton to another person as it was going. Some brass guys even joined in then left. We literally never missed a beat! I think it was the bassist and I that sat in the whole time. Seriously, it was so much fun. And yeah, I was wiped out afterwards!

 

Find Your Voice

 

This is by no means a complete discussion! Entire books are written about this very thing. And I am by no means an expert. It is simply what I have learned over the years. You might have better insights into this topic. I would love to hear from you! As a musician, I am always learning and wanting to grow. What I simply want to encourage all you artists out there is to continually seek and develop your own voice. Make your mark in the world no matter how big or small it might be.

If you want to learn more or are in my neighborhood, you can book some lessons here or just contact me via email: tonysrockguitar@gmail.com

 

That Fearful Request: “Play something…”

It’s a beautiful fall night. You are with a group of friends and/or family sitting around the bonfire. Life is good. Then someone grabs some guitar from somewhere and puts it in your hand and says “play a song!”. I must know a thousand songs, maybe more. But for some reason, when someone just hands me a guitar and says “play something”, I sometimes go blank. And then in the span of a few seconds, my mind has this kind of “conversation”:

 

“Play something? What do I play? What do they like? Let’s see, blues, yeah, blues that’s it. Play anything in 1-4-5 and you are good. But wait, that’s boring, right? They want something they know. But what? Beatles, yeah, Beatles is always a crowd pleaser. But what Beatles song? Wait, they have songs? What song do I play? The mind goes blank. For crying out loud, this is ridiculous.” And the beat goes on… 

 

I know there are many of you musicians reading this asking me what the big deal is. You could call out something instantly by just accessing that card catalog in the library of your brain, withdrawing that information, and then BAM, it’s instant entertainment! I would like to tell you that I so admire what you can do. Don’t ever take it for granted. However, there are those like me that really do know countless songs but for some reason can easily draw a blank for a moment and not know ONE song to play. Can anyone relate? So I have learned and developed some habits to help with that.

 

Practice and Repetition

 

“Wherever you hope to travel on your musical journey, practice is the only route to getting there.”
The Musician’s Way, p. 3

 

This one should be the most obvious to any musician out there. If you don’t practice, you can’t be good. If you don’t practice, learning songs can be quite difficult. If this is something that you don’t regularly do, especially as a beginner, work on it now! 

After you have gone through the basics (stuff like learning scales, chords, strumming patterns, etc.), one of the most fun ways of practicing is by learning and playing songs you like. And then play them over and over. Repetition is the best thing for memorizing anything, and that goes for songs too.

 

Gig Frequently

 

“Each gig should be unique.
You’re always treading that line between keeping yourself
fresh and giving people something they want to hear.”
– Brian May

 

Playing in bar bands, most of the time it is really a necessity to have songs memorized. At least in most of those bands. I play in a local Rush tribute band Animation and memorization is, for all practical purposes, required. Watch any Rush concert (most any rock/blues/country band), and you will see most musicians are playing and performing – not staring down some chart or sheet music (although Geddy now has a teleprompter). And Rush music gets complicated! Getting the songs memorized is where the practice and repetition comes into play. So, depending on the band you are in, you will have added those songs to your repertoire. For me, I can play most any Rush song on call. But if I’m at some random get-together, I’ll go with something most everyone would probably know (Tom Sawyer, Spirit of Radio, Closer to the Heart). If you are playing some kind of greatest hits band (classic rock, current top 40, etc.), that’s even better! It stands to reason that as you play those songs more and more, a few of them will be retained in the old noggin’. And as the years go by, and you expand your palette, hopefully you are adding to your personal library a wider variety of different songs and genres. So get out of your room and jam!

 

Pick at least 10 “Go To” songs

If the band isn’t your thing, or if you want to “streamline” your recall a little more, pick some “go to” songs that you can pull out of the hat right away. If you practice enough, and learn enough songs, over time you will find a few that you seem to always gravitate to. For many of us, they are probably simple: you know the song already, they have a good melody, and are instantly recognizable. For me, one of my favorites that I like to go to is The Eagles “Take It Easy“. Simple chord structure, easy strums, with catchy melodies that anyone would know. Pretty much any Beatles tune is a win. For some reason I like to go to Day Tripper. I just love the intro guitar riff. And along those lines, another favorite of mine is Over the Hills and Far Away by Led Zeppelin. I probably have another 20-30 more. I think you get the idea: find some songs that you relate to (and maybe a couple you don’t) that are relatively simple, are recognizable, and people can sing along to. Also, make sure it is something that you can play on your own, preferably on an acoustic guitar. Why acoustic? Because 8 times out of ten, that is what will be put in your hand to “play something”. Of course, if you also are an electric player, have a few of those on hand too! Honestly, you really don’t need to have a lot in your memory banks. Impressing your friends and relatives with just 4 or 5 songs can really make for a fun time!

 

Handy Smart Charts

Having charts and/or sheet music handy is also another possibility. It can be a bit cumbersome and silly carrying sheets of paper around with you all the time. But, there’s good news! We have our trusty smartphones and tablets to save the day! I have actually done this a few times where I have a number of chord charts stored as .pdfs on my iBooks or Kindle apps. There are a number of other great apps out there you can use. Just shop around iTunes or Google Play and try them out. You can use whatever resource works for you regarding getting the charts, sheet music, or tabs then convert or download into the app of your choice. Then, if you are called upon to play something, voila! you open the app and play your song! I actually have used some of these for last minute gigs or jams with musicians (as well as a few of those “campfire” scenarios).

 

I-IV-V-vi

 

“It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth 
The minor fall and the major lift.”

— Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”

 

The Axis of Awesome came out with this awesome video a number of years back called simply 4 Chords. So funny, yet so true! It is amazing how many popular songs follow the same tried and true formula of playing the same four chords, or at least the same order. If you already have acquainted yourself with the basics of music theory, you would know that there are 7 primary triad chords in each major scale (a triad is a three note chord, you would know most of them as major and minor chords). Many pop songs use the first, fourth, fifth, and sixth chords in whatever major key you are in. The sixth chord is always a minor (it often uses the small Numeral vi). The other three chords are major and are written in the larger Roman numerals. If you can get familiar with the chords, it can be easy to recall many pop songs in all sorts of genres (rock, pop, country to name a few). Heck, just play four chords like Axis of Awesome does (in the order that they play them in, the video uses D-A-Bm-G, live they use E, B, C#m, A) and see what songs people sing them to! That is entertainment in itself!

 

Teach Guitar

 

If you teach guitar, or any instrument, you will find that you will ultimately need to work on a song with a particular student. Often, it is something that will go on for some time depending on the student’s skill level and the nature of the song. That in itself is the repetition you need to learn a song. I can’t tell you how many songs I have added to my list over the years of teaching. I also end up learning about new artists and many of the songs they do. So while this shouldn’t be a reason you teach, it is definitely an awesome side benefit!