For the longest time I had been unhappy with my jazz playing, and most small jazz group approaches in general. My own playing consisted of what I call defensive playing: trying my best to not do anything wrong. I would see all the “right” notes on the guitar, and I aimed for those. If I stayed away from the wrong notes, I was successful, and if it sounded good, then it was a bonus! And, I tired of hearing jazz groups doing the same old generic formula on gigs (including the groups I was playing in): play the head in a sterile sort of way, accompany in a sterile sort of way, attempt to tear it up on the solos, and then play the head again to finish the song.
I mentioned my defensive approach to playing. This is opposite of an offensive approach, which is basically you thinking “I can’t wait for people to hear this- it’s gonna blow them away!” That is what people want to hear- that excitement and enthusiasm. And that is what you should want to express- your own excitement and passion for what you are playing. I hear that in all the greats, from Eddie Van Halen and Jaco Pastorius to Mozart. I can’t imagine a young Eddie Van Halen sitting in his room playing guitar, and asking himself if what he plays is right. Instead, he had that Eddie smile, and just knew it was awesome- if it wasn’t, he was going to make it awesome.
To get out of that sterile approach to jazz, I changed my approach to learning tunes. What it consists of is simply spending more time learning each tune you are playing. It might even be s stretch to consider it a method. I think that most players learn the melody and chords to a tune as quick as possible, and then devote the majority of their practicing to soloing, but in a very generic sort of way that doesn’t necessarily relate to the actual song. Instead, work on making the tune your own- strive towards putting your own stamp on it.
Play-a-long CDs are incredibly valuable resources if you, like most people, don’t have a band available at you every beck and call. Jamey Aebersold is probably the most famous source of these (jazzbooks.com), but you can find many on youtube as well.
Another tool that I use in conjunction with play-a-longs is a “slow down” program that allows you to change the tempo of a song without altering the pitch. My favorite is called Transcribe! (seventhstring.com), but there are many to choose from. Most of these will also allow you to change the key along with tuning. Also, they make panning to either side very easy, which is valuable in eliminating the piano or bass on these recordings.
The main idea is, once you have the melody memorized, to really dig into it, trying any method you can think of to make it interesting. You might use open strings, harmonics, various articulations, or even effects and volume/tone controls. Or, none of these, and just internalize the melody as much as possible. The idea is to get control of the melody- don’t be limited to one way of playing it. Be able to manipulate it as you feel and have freedom in changing it when you feel like it. This will then translate into your soloing.
The same thing can be said about the chords- make them your unique interpretation of the song. Don’t just do the same generic comping- find your way of playing the groove for that song.
Inevitably, after playing the same melody straight for about 10 minutes, it will get very boring and feel like you are doing the same thing over and over, not really getting anywhere. You need to break through that boredom wall. Dig deeper into all of your tools that you have in your collection. Often times, I tread the waters of boredom until a happy accident occurs that opens up new ways of playing the melody. Play it in a different octave, try open strings, bends, tapping, volume swells- anything. Don’t be afraid to change the song to a different key, but be aware of the others in your band; certain keys might not be practical for different instruments. That said, comfort in all keys is a valuable skill.
I used to feel that working with play-a-longs was a very un-inspirational way of practicing, but after spending time using them this way, I find it gets more fun the longer I do it. I think the bland feeling I had earlier was a result of not really being aware of what the other instruments were doing. You can focus on the drums or the piano and get many rhythmic and melodic ideas. If you are only thinking of your own playing, often times weird syncopations and un-grooving things are happening that you don’t notice.
I have been talking about this in a jazz context, but of course this applies to any type of music of an improvisatory nature. If you are playing in a cover band, it might depend upon how much freedom your band allows with the songs. Some bands are impressively accurate with their reproduction of the recorded versions, but many have a more interpretive approach.
Once again, the methods I am talking about are very simple- in this case, basically spend more time on the melody and chords. The better you know these, the more it will translate into your soloing. Sometimes we make things way too difficult, and the results are lacking. Our response is to try harder and make them yet more difficult. For a long time I was looking for magic ways of getting better, assuming they hid inside of difficult methods. Instead, there isn’t a magic way to improve, except by putting in the time. I have learned much more from simple concepts than I ever did from complex ones.
This blog is directly related to my blog about playing the song. A song should be considered a topic of musical conversation. It is an opportunity for you to express what it means to you, your thoughts about it, and who you are. But, to do that, you need to really know the song. After doing this with a couple of tunes, you will start to see it getting easier to learn new ones.