How to convert theory and technique exercises to solo lines

This post comes from a conversation I had with Træben drummer Haye Jellema after a concert. We were talking how a lot of (famous) books contain only information but no or almost no guidance in how to actually internalize it. Other books will contain too many exercises that focus on the technical execution rather than actually applying it. I’d like to try to demonstrate one of the ways I study a theoretical or technical exercise to get it into my playing.

Here’s a video of me practicing improvising on a minor blues in C. If you listen you can hear that I sometimes pick an idea and work with it while soloing, so I am using what I play as a way of creating the next thing I play (try listening around 0:18 or 1:45 for two clear examples). This makes the solo more like a connected whole and not just a bunch of isolated ideas after each other. To me it is important that you learn the stuff you practice in such a way that you can apply it to what fits in that moment in your solo, and I’d like to explain how I practice towards that. Try to keep in mind that I am trying to describe an approach or a concept so for this lesson the material in the examples is less important than the way that I study it.

For now I’ll concentrate on going from an exercise to a melodic idea in a solo. Working on specific skills to manipulate melodic ideas or licks while playing is for another lesson.

Even if I demonstrate this in a jazz harmony situation it is in fact the same for all genres of music so the same concept would apply to a blues or a heavy metal solo.

Composition is improvisation slowed down.

The first step is to have choose a subject and then probably a smaller part within that subject, so if it’s a scale you might pick out an arpeggio (inversion?) or some other melody from the scale. It is of course important to pick something that  is strong enough and contains enough harmonic information for what you are trying to apply it to, f.ex it is probably not going to be easy to compose good lines using an Em7 arpeggio over Dm7 in a II V I in C.

As an example let’s try to look at using pentatonic scales in an improvisation, though I actually practice most things like this, rhythms, chords or improvising lines. Part of using pentatonics will be to be able to play the scalTheory to Solo line ex 1e, so I might have made an exercise like this:

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That’s a nice exercise which is pretty easy to play and if played in all keys you have a good overview of the neck with each pentatonic scale.

Let’s assume that we can play the exercise without too much trouble, and now the goal is to use it in a way that it will find it’s way into our improvisational vocabulary.  This process should involve:

  • Finding ways to make good sounding lines with the exercise over a chord
  • Connecting lines to the vocabulary you already have so that it becomes a natural part of it
  • Explore in which contexts it is a useful tool, which notes in the exercise fits which chord etc.
  • Getting the melodies of the exercise into your ear and fingers

The first part of that process is to compose lines. If you are composing you can go back and change a phrase or start over so it sounds good, and there is no pressure by staying in time and keeping track of a form to distract you from hearing what the line sounds like and judging if you think it sounds good. Taste is also an underrated tool in playing and practicing, but that is another story….

It is possible to compose lines and write them down to play or analyze later, but personally I almost never do that. To me the emphasis is in constructing lines that sound good and practicing that process which in this case is connecting the exercise to my other lines. Writing it down does not really serve a purpose.

I usually just spend a bit of time doing this on a II-V-I-IV or similar. I also don’t try to control how much time I spend on this, but mostly I’ll be busy with making lines and then try to play them in a song. Since I mostly play jazz and since jazz is generally an 8th note base music I tend to write lines in 8th notes with harmony changing every half or whole bar.I also often aim the melody at a target notes in the harmony on beats 1 and 3 so that the chord change is clear. If I try to make the melody go towards the target it often sounds stronger and more logical.  I might write a bit about this approach to constructing lines later but it is as far as I know an approach taught by HaL Galper called forward motion.

So for me this is not a very structured approach, but it is the best way I’ve found to get new melodic devices into my improvisation.

I guess the examples hereunder are more to give a complete picture of what I’d do with an exercise like this.

I transcribed the first line I play in the example, after that I just try to use the exercise over the turnaround. Since having the harmony there is a bit clearer I did record it in time and with a backing track. The second example is the same idea except without the background and it is rubato, which is probably closer to how I mostly practice this.

Theory to Solo line ex 2

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So this is an example of how I work and how I integrate ideas from exercises into my playing, there’s nothing magical about it but it is a process that many people use but for some reason is not that often described.

I hope you like it, and feel free to leave a comment on your own approach etc.