The same theme crops up again and again in music. Beginner musicians are often in a hurry to tackle flashy techniques. But advanced musicians understand the importance of nailing the fundamentals. Their total command of the basics is what makes them sound so impressive. As Leonardo da Vinci put it, ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’.
Most great jazz solos are built with surprisingly simple vocabulary. Listen to John Coltrane’s solo in ‘Giant Steps’ and you’ll hear that much of this famously complex solo consists of repeating a very simple 1-2-3-5 pattern. Analyse the note choices in other famous solos and you’ll find that most of the content is based around guide tones (thirds and sevenths) and common chord tones (1, 3, 5, 7, 9).
What will make most difference to your playing? Beginners may spend hours trying to shoehorn advanced concepts into their solos. More experienced players will focus on the fundamentals. They work on guide tones, chord tones, and a small portion of simple vocabulary. They focus on assimilating and owning this material. Once you’ve achieved this you are well placed to expand and embellish it.
10 tactics for keeping it simple
For practice to work you need to keep it fun and rewarding. Please, don’t punish yourself, and avoid injury! Set the bar at a sensible level so you can enjoy the satisfaction of clearing your goal in the foreseeable future. Learning to solo 12 choruses circular breathing at 320bpm is not a smart goal for beginner or intermediate players. So start where you are now. Break any complex or longterm goals down into smaller, manageable chunks that you can tackle right now, within your current range of ability.
1. Long Tones
Playing long tones is simple enough. The hard part is trying to stay awake. Keep boredom at bay by playing guide tones (3rds and 7ths) around the cycle of fourths. Jamey Aebersold play alongs vol. 24 Major and Minor and vol. 84 Dominant Seventh Workout contain useful play along tracks to help you practise this. Next try the same exercise over standard chord progressions (eg Autumn Leaves, All The Things You Are) starting on different chord tones (1, 3, 5, 7, 9). Finally, try gradually interrupting the long tones with very simple jazz rhythms such as the Charleston.
2. One Step At A Time
Compulsive multi tasking is on the increase. Don’t let it take over your practice. If you feel overwhelmed by the impossibility of learning a gazillion things at the same time, try a ‘one step at a time’ approach as Hal Crook recommends in How To Improvise. For the next year, think small and choose just one focus each month for in depth study. This could be a chord tone (the 9th), an interval (eg 3 to b9), a jazz rhythm (the Charleston), a pattern or lick (Cry Me A River lick), triads, a chord type (min7b5), a mode or scale (locrian), or eventually an entire song.
3. Love Your Sound
It’s easy to forget that sound is the first thing to impress an audience: not technique, speed, or note choice. A great sound turns heads every time. So focus on this as you practise. If you don’t identify and love your sound, how will your audience? Get your sound clear inside your head first. Start by imagining who you would like to sound like. Choose 5 recordings as reference tracks for your ideal sound, isolate the easy bits then copy the sounds in your practice. Record yourself and compare results to your reference tracks.
4. Get good time with simple jazz rhythms
After sound, developing ‘good time’ is the next big thing to practice. We instinctively respond to rhythm before harmony or note choice. Everybody loves performers who swing hard with total rhythmic confidence. Mastering a strong swing feel, together with two or three basic jazz rhythms such as the Charleston will pay immediate dividends.
5. Resist the Cult of Speed
Practise slow. Speed comes from accuracy. Never underestimate how slow you need to practise something new in order to get it right. Once you play it perfect at slow tempos, speed can follow all by itself. Do not reinforce errors by playing faster than you are able. Start by practising the elements of a difficult phrase out of tempo, with no set pulse. When you are ready, practice the phrase with a slow metronome beat and focus on perfecting the sound, rhythm, phrasing and articulation. Finally, keep the tempo slow and work on technique and economy of movement – reduce tension, apply minimum pressure, move fingers minimal distance.
6. Learn a small amount of vocabulary
Mastering a handful of jazz vocabulary is one of the simplest ways to get soloing. This is the way most players get started. You only need a few phrases, but you have to be in complete command of your material. You need to totally own it, independent of key, and know its context in relation to the background harmony, so that it just bursts out of you whenever you hear that harmonic situation. Owning 10 phrases completely is much more useful than reading through 100 licks. Jerry Coker's Elements of the Jazz Language is a great place to start.
7. Embellish triads with basic jazz soloing techniques
Once you own a small amount of vocabulary, it's time to work on assimilating it, embellishing it and using it to develop your own lines. Start by analysing where the triads and chord tones are in relation to your favourite phrases, then experiment with basic jazz soloing techniques to create pick ups, chromatic approach tones, enclosure, targeting etc. Use these techniques to embellish chord tones for a few bars to introduce and anticipate your lick. Leave plenty of space, use sequence and repetition, or question and answer to set up your lick. Guitarists should check out Corey Christiansen's Jazz Soloing Basics DVD.
8. Master the Blues Scales
Thousands of great musicians have made successful careers out of playing the blues scale. It is simple to pick up, extremely versatile and fun to play. In addition to learning the minor blues scale, also work on the relative major blues scale (C, D, Eb, E, G, A). Dan Greenblatt's The Blues Scales shows you how to use both major and minor blues scales to create meaningful solos with transcribed examples from famous recordings.
9. Learn One Octave Scales
We often practice two or three octave scales for music grade exams. But you rarely need a two octave scale to improvise. So work with smaller units, and focus on locating the chord tones. Instead of two octave scales, try playing a one octave scale round the circle of fourths, or a 1-2-3-5 pattern. Then try a short pattern from that scale that doesn’t start on the root.
10. Bebop Scales
Once you know your major, minor and blues scales, the bebop scales are the magic ingredient that will transform your solos into really convincing, good sounding jazz solos. David Baker first identified the bebop scales in response to the chromatic notes and passing tones played in bebop solos. Although not beginner material, bebop scales are relatively simple to grasp (no advanced theory required) as each scale is built by adding an extra chromatic passing tone to the major, dominant and dorian scales. The classic text to get on bebop scales is David Baker's How To Play Bebop 1.
Become a complete musician by working on ALL aspects of making music! For user reviews and demonstration videos see this article on our blog: How to be a complete musician.
Jamey Aebersold volume 24: Major & Minor
Jamey Aebersold volume 84: Dominant Seventh Workout
Hal Crook: How To Improvise: An Approach To Practicing Improvisation
David Liebman: Developing a Personal Saxophone Sound
Dan Fox: The Rhythm Bible
Jerry Coker: Elements of the Jazz Language
Dan Greenblatt: The Blues Scales: Essential Tools For Jazz Improvisation (Bb)
David Baker: How to Play Bebop Volume 1 - The Bebop Scales