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.






5 thoughts on “Don’t forget to play the song

  1. Pingback: Getting inside a tune | skotsguitarblog

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