Don’t forget to play the song

The theme of this blog is to illustrate the importance of the song. What I mean by this, is often times players learn a song and then proceed to play the hell out of it, in the process forgetting or neglecting what the song is about. I thought of this recently when I heard another guitar teacher working on the Sonny Rollins song “St.Thomas” with a student. The student was using a youtube video of Barney Kessel in concert as a source of ideas. In the video, the song was played at light speed, and many musical gymnastics ensued. It inspired me to work on that song again- I hadn’t played it in about 6 years. When I listened to the original Sonny Rollins recording, I was reawakened to how happy and fun this song is. I realized that the Barney Kessel version left out the most important part- the overall feeling of the tune. There is a mood, an emotional element, that is present, and that is way more important than displaying how well you can navigate through the song’s changes. This happens a lot in jazz- the feeling of the song is forgotten, and the melody is played simply as a way of letting the audience know what the song is, getting through it as quickly as possible so that you can show off your musical brilliance during your solo.


Another example of a song in which the meaning is commonly left behind is the Miles Davis tune “So What”. This song is incredibly simple in its harmonic progression: 16 bars of Dm, 8 bars of Ebm, and 8 bars of Dm again. When you listen to the original on the album Kind Of Blue, there is a very unique mood to this tune that is as important as the chords and melody. But what usually happens is that musicians say “Hell yeah! This is easy- I can play the hell outta this!” -it gets played really fast and everyone tries to outdo each other. Virtually any resemblance to the Kind Of Blue version is completely gone. Interestingly enough, it is very common for musicians to be fooled by the long, desolate durations of the chord changes, and they tend to get lost in this song more than any other.


I’m sure to ruffle some feathers with this next example, but understand that both guitarists I site here are two of my all-time favorites and this is just an opinion. “Voodoo Chile” is a song that Jimi Hendrix wrote, and then years later Stevie Ray Vaughn came and beat the hell out of it. Stevie basically made it his own song, and it is awesome; but, as much as I like it, I like Hendrix’s more because it sounds like voodoo. It sounds scary. Hendix’s purpose (if I may be so bold to guess his purpose!) was to create this soundscape, to bring you to a different place. Stevie’s purpose, to me, seemed to be about jamming on a cool song. Again, they are both great, but I feel that the Hendrix version has an extra meaning that gives it a bit more depth that SRV lacked in his cover of the tune. The next time you get a chance, listen to the two versions with an ear towards the meaning.


A few years ago, I attended a bluegrass guitar clinic given by Josh Williams, and in it he emphasized the importance in bluegrass to base your solo on the melody of the song, not to draw attention to you and display your musical acrobatics and cleverness. It should be more like a theme and variations than a total departure. I left thinking about how this should be applicable to all styles of music.


If you are a blues player, on a gig you might have 10 songs that are shuffles in A. By making your solo relate to the actual song, instead of just a key and a groove, you will then allow each song to retain its unique characteristics and stand out from all those other tunes in the same key and groove. And, thinking beyond the solo, the rhythm parts played should also have a unique flavor, setting it apart from the other similar songs. To accomplish this selfless devotion to the song, your ego must be tied up and put in the corner, allowing the song to always have center stage.


I also read an interview with Les Paul in which he was expressing his frustration with musicians soloing without any relevance to the song. He related a story in which he was in a club watching some well-known and respected jazz artists, who would do the standard jazz equation: head, ripping solos, head again, ending. The solos tended to be so far away from the songs that he decided to conduct a little experiment. During the solos, he would go around the club asking the people what song was being played. The answer, more often than not, was “I don’t remember.” Even the pros are guilty of this.


And another thing to consider is that if you are having trouble coming up with an idea for a solo, you can never go wrong with the melody. Even if the melody has some very strange things going on, they work because they are the melody. A good example is the 3rd and 4th bar of “Take the A Train”, in which the melody consists of the b5 of the dominant II chord- a weird sound. When the listener has heard the melody, they remember that oddness and hear it as the song; it doesn’t sound weird anymore. It is one of the unique quirks that make the song different. And since it’s in the melody, it always makes sense when you use it to improvise. If anything, using bits and pieces of the melody will inspire other ideas, which, due to their connection to the melody, will always help the solo expand upon the song’s true meaning.


One would think that simple songs would be more often abused (such as the  St. Thomas example, which in the jazz world is fairly simple), but complex songs also get forgotten. This may well be due to the challenge of just making it through the song, and any emotional content is shoved aside. Many bebop songs, which rank as some of the most complicated music created, have these really great melodies, but when people solo, it has nothing to do with the song. Those melodies should be thought of as a goldmine for ideas.


Obviously, the original version of a song played by the composer(s) is the most pure source of the true meaning of a song. But, it is also interesting to hear others people’s interpretation when their version is an attempt to express the essence of the song. As a matter of fact, that is what you are doing when playing a song. Anytime you are improvising, it should be a musical conversation in which the topic is the song, with each soloist getting an opportunity to express what that topic means to them, while the others are providing a backdrop for them that is supportive. The topic I am referring to may well be a literal one, such as the lyrical content, but may also be a more abstract emotion, such as with instrumentals, that may have a different meaning for each performer and listener. Also, when the lyrics are not all that expressive or important to the song, there still exists and overall feeling that you can express.

A good example of playing the song is this one by Junior Brown. It is a western-swing style song. The lyrics are funny, and though they tell a story of sorts, listen to how Junior uses the melody in his solo- the lyric meaning isn’t the meaning, the melody is the meaning.

No matter what the song is, whether AC/DC or John Coltrane, your purpose should be to express the meaning of that song. If not what the composer intended, then what it means to you. This is a much deeper approach to music, sometimes more challenging, and always more fulfilling, than just playing scales and licks.






The Secret To a Great Solo

The idea for this blog entry comes from a video I saw of Wynton Marsalis (probably my favorite musician of all time) giving a speech. In it, Wynton related a story in which he asked the great jazz baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan: “What is the secret to a great solo?”

After some thought, Gerry responded, : “I don’t know the secret to a great solo; but I do know the secret to a bad solo: right before you play a solo, tell yourself ‘I’m going to play a great solo’ ”.

I find that hilarious and yet totally true. Instead of just applying to solos, this could be said of a song, a whole gig, an audition, or a recording session. It could also apply to many non-musical activities, such as sports, or even dating.

The idea is to approach any situation, as Taoists say, like an uncarved block: no expectations, staying simple, and not trying to impress anyone. You should approach a solo with an open mind, and only intending to play the music. Any attempt to kick-ass or impress usually results in the opposite. Whenever I fall victim to trying too hard, it feels like I am trying to shove 1000 lbs. of awesomeness through a pin-hole; it all gets squashed into an unattractive amorphous blob.

It seems like the most magical things happen spontaneously. I notice this most often when it comes to humor: the funniest things I’ve said have not been planned- they just come out. Because what I said was so effective, I remember it so I can say it again some other time. But, usually what happens is I try to force it, and it is always falls flat. I may get some laughs, but it feels artificial compared to the time it happened spontaneously.

The best musical moments are also totally unplanned and almost feel like a gift. You’re not expecting it, but all of a sudden something happens, the perfect lick comes out of your fingers, and it’s incredible- where it came from, nobody knows. And, trying to do it again is a total disaster. When an awesome musical moment happens, let it go. If it is supposed to happen again it will, but it is not for you to decide. I don’t mean to avoid playing that lick, just let it come out on its own.

To allow things like this to occur, it is best to get out of the way. Trying is interference- an open, clear mind is the most unobstructed conduit for good things to travel on. This isn’t always easy, especially when the event is perceived as important.

Dating is another example: you finally score a date with that person you think is so incredibly perfect, and you really want it to work, but instead you become a complete idiot and ruin the whole evening. For some unfathomable reason, you get another chance. You look to your friends for help, telling them about the crippling nerves that this person brings out in you, and their response is always “Just be yourself.” In this situation, being yourself can be the most difficult thing. Of course, being ourselves is what we should be best at, way more so than being somebody else.

In music, this most commonly happens in situations such as auditions, an important gig in which industry big-wigs are attending, or in the studio: anything in which we might feel the need to impress someone. All of these situations tend to bring out the worst in our playing due to trying too hard. Instead, just focus on playing the music, allowing for unexpected things, but not forcing them. Keep your ears open, listening not only to yourself, but the whole band. Almost hear it as an outsider, a member of the audience.

Be aware.

Just be yourself.

A Tone Activity

This very simple activity is directed at electric players and involves playing through some sort of amplification. All it is, is basically exploring the range of your tone control and its effect on a pick-up.


Choose one pick-up and start with your tone control set to “10”. While repetitively playing a lick, after about 5 or 10 times, turn down your tone control a small amount- perhaps the equivalent to a one number decrease. Continue repeating this until you have gone through the whole range of the control, and then work your way back up to “10”. By playing the lick repeatedly on each setting, you are getting that tone’s character in your ears, and when you adjust the tone pot, the change will be noticeable. If possible, use either a drum machine or backing track to have a background reference point. This sounds very simple, and it is, but many players never touch the tone control, and in turn are missing out on the many tonal possibilities of their guitar.


I became obsessed with the power of the tone knob when I got my first single pick-up Les Paul jr. I hadn’t any experience with P-90 pick-ups before, and after spending about 5 minutes with this guitar, I was hooked. Even though it played terrible, I was willing to deal with the guitar just because of the tone. That quickly became the only guitar I used, whether I was playing jazz, hard rock, Motown, or country. I was amazed at what one pick-up was capable of. Did it sound like a jazz guitar? No, but I thought it was more interesting than that muffled, traditional jazz tone. It became a challenge, a fun one at that, for me to make it work in any situation. To this day, I still prefer one pick-up guitars; I now play a tele converted into an esquire.


I think many people look at the various pick-ups on a guitar to be different flavors of the same sound, but really each pick-up has its own unique character, and each is in fact almost a different instrument altogether. To my ears, the most versatility lies in the bridge pick-up, since it is usually the brightest. Because of this, there is a wider range of tones to work with, since the tone control takes away highs and some mids. Of course, you may discover differently.


It is important to not write off a tone as good or bad, but ask “how could I use this?” Most tones are useable- some more than others- but with a little creativity and out of the box thinking, you will be able to find a place for most, if not all, of these.


If versatility is what you are looking for, I find that utilizing the full range of one pick-up provides more tones than using 3 or 5 pick-up selector positions without ever touching the tone and volume knobs. And of course if you combine pick-up choices with control manipulation, each guitar has an almost unlimited amount of variation. Realize that you can’t make the instrument be something that it isn’t- a standard tele won’t sound like Metallica. But, by digging into an instrument’s possibilities, you will be surprised at what it is capable of, and in the process, discover its true personality. This leads to a better understanding of that instrument, enhancing your connection to it and music in general.


In doing this activity, I have also learned the drastic effect that picking position has on the tone. Many players, me included, tend to pick where their picking hand habitually rests, rarely venturing far from that place. But I have lately discovered a lot of different tones by merely changing where my pick hits the strings. Most tele players are aware of the sweet spot that is located somewhere in the area of directly over the bridge pickup- this is where the stereotypical tele sound lives. But, if you start to pick closer to the neck, a more strat-like sound starts to emerge. This is really useful when the tone is rolled off, say in the range of 3-5 on the knob. This produces a “woofy” sound when picking above the bridge pick-up, but really becomes beautiful and defined when picked closer to the neck.


Another thing to take away from this is to explore the potential of, not only your guitar, but all of your equipment. Performing this activity with your amp and/or foot pedals will yield the same sort of results. Having control over the tools you use allows you to know how to get what you want out of them.