What is the difference between a good solo and a great solo? And what are some of the skills you want to develop to go from playing the right notes to really playing a great solo?
There is a set of 3 skills that especially a beginner won’t notice because you are too busy finding the chord tones and playing chromatic notes, and you want to start working on this from early on if you want to play solos that make sense and are not just random phrases.
The Problem With The Right Notes
When I was getting started playing Jazz then I practice scales and arpeggios since I had learned that I needed those to play Jazz. The problem I had with my solos was that even if I could play the right notes then it still sounded very fragmented and messy because I played everything per chord. Let me show you how that is the opposite of how George Benson plays. My playing at the time was like this:
These are all the right notes. but as you can clearly hear then it doesn’t make any sense at all because I am:
#1 Starting a new idea every bar
#2 Always Starting on Beat 1
#3 Stop playing so I Can Think Of The next chord
George Benson Gets It!
So what is the difference? He is playing from one chord to the next, so his melodies are ending on a note that clearly tells your ear that the chord is changing. In this case. it is super clear by hitting the 3rd every time:
Getting stuck with just playing something more or less random on each is a natural part of learning to play changes, but you can quite easily get started fixing it, and that is a really important skill to get in there so let’s look at that, and then dive into two other approaches that you hear a lot in the playing of Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall.
When it comes to Bop-inspired Jazz, then a core principle in the solos is that often the melodies are dense with a lot of notes and are really pushing forward to the chord changes, similar to what you heard in the George Benson example. This is not that different from how Bach wrote music even if Jazz uses different harmony and also some “extra” notes here and there.
Hal Galper wrote a good book about this calling it Forward Motion
which is a good way to describe it. The simple version of the concept is that you practice playing lines that end somewhere, so target notes. The notes in a solo line are not just random pitches against a chord,
they should fit together as a melody that moves to the next chord. Which is what you heard in the Benson example.
But there are some things that you can get wrong when you are working on target notes, so here’s a suggestion for getting started, and actually you should consider buying that book.
Choosing Target Notes and Practicing
For finding the right target notes then you sort of have to forget what you learned when you started checking out Jazz chords.
I am sure you have had lessons telling you that when you play chords then you just need the 3rd and the 7th to get the sound of the chord across. That would also suggest that you can use those two as target notes, but that is actually not really true.
Let’s look a II V I in C major:
The 3rd of the chord is still a really good option, as you heard in the George Benson example,
but the 7th is often a bit vague, and in the beginning, you want to train your ear by having very clear notes that tell you that the chord has changed.
On Dm7 then the C doesn’t really sound like a Dm7 on it’s own, it sounds much more like a C major chord, so having that as a target is going to be much more difficult.
The 5th, A, is however a very good target note instead, which is sort of the first note you would throw out of a chord. This is true for Cmaj7 as well where the 7th, B will really just sound like you are not resolving the V chord in a II V I. Of course, you can play melodies that make these notes possible, but as I said, you want to keep it easy to hear in the beginning.
Let’s say that we keep it easy and play the 3rd as a target note on all the chords, just like George.
You want to practice coming up with Dm7 lines that play towards and end on a B, a simple version could be something like this:
Or like this:
These are of course super simple, and I don’t actually have to start with the F on the Dm7, but I think you can hear how the melodies are naturally moving towards the chord change. Before we get to the Wes and Jim Hall examples then let me just show you how you can easily make it a lot more embellished with trills, leading notes etc:
So here it is a little less clear and the target note is often moved to the 4& which also makes it a bit lighter, but that is really just the next step to work on and it is the same concept.
How To Practice Forward Motion
If you practice soloing like this then you will get a lot better at creating lines that have a flow and that don’t sound like random things copy-pasted on top of the progression. I would suggest starting with keeping it simple composing lines and then gradually going from improvising over a basic turnaround rubato into playing in time and then taking it to some songs.
This skill is essential for anything Bop inspired, but the next two are maybe even more powerful and less Jazz specific. The first one is in everyone’s playing, but Jim Hall is truly a master at this!
Make People Remember Your Phrases
What Jim Hall does in this solo is probably the strongest melodic principle that we have, it is at the core of so many great solos and great compositions.
You first have a motif being repeated and developed over the Dm section of the song. He then rounds this off with a very chromatic line on the Aø D7 before starting to work with a short intervallic motif that is moved around in triplets.
Check it out:
So this is all over Jim Hall’s playing, but Wes uses this as well:
Here are a few very clear examples from Four on Six.
Clear, but still changing the rhythm on a simple 4-note motif. Notice that he plays it 3 times and then sort of finishes the sentence with something else. That is very common.
Both Wes and Jim Hall uses forward motion and motivic development, it is not one or the other, some of Jim Hall’s motifs have forward motion. Beethoven and Mozart knew how motivic development worked as well. The effect of this as a listener is that you hear something that you recognize but it is not just a loop, it changes and stays interesting in that way.
How To Practice Developing Motifs
The first important step is that you want to recognize these things when you listen to music,so try to listen to solos that you know and that you like and recognize the motifs in there. Again the way to practice this is to solo and try to stick with motifs when you improvise, so start rubato and play a short phrase then imagine how this phrase should move through the changes. Later you can start just sticking with a motif over a song and see what you can do with it.
I sometimes see comments on YouTube that want to attribute Wes’ playing to magic or some other vague term. I think that is surprising when his genius is, to me anyway, the clarity of his strong melodic ideas. Can you be tone-deaf for melodies like melody-deaf?
Wes Montgomery uses another melodic technique quite often, and that is also a great strategy for making your solos a longer story.
Have A Conversation With Yourself
I often talk about how music is a language, and music is a form of communication, a place where conversations happen.
And this can also be in your solo where you are having a conversation between phrases, what is often referred to as Call-response.
Check out how Wes does this:
He actually also has a great example of this with octaves from the earlier recorded version:
So this is about hearing different phrases as a back and forth between two sides.
Bebop 101 for Guitar!
Another guitar player that is really great at this and has some amazing lines to learn from both in terms of solid bebop and motivic development is Grant Green, and if you check out this video then you can learn something about how he creates melodic, playable, and beautiful bebop lines. Especially since it is bebop but not too difficult for guitar!
Get the PDF!
You can also download the PDF of my examples here:
Get the PDF and GuitarPro on Patreon:
You can get the PDF and GuitarPro files on Patreon here:
Get a free E-book
If you want to download a Free E-book of 15 II Valt I licks then subscribe to my newsletter:
Jazz Guitar Insiders Facebook Group
Join 14000+ Other Jazz Guitarists 🎸Join us in the Facebook Jazz Guitar Group Community: http://bit.ly/InsidersFBGroup
If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for topics then, please let me know. Leave a comment on the video or send me an e-mail. That is the best way for me to improve my lessons and make them fit what you are searching for.