Over the years of teaching and playing, I have learned that soloing is difficult. It is the perfect combination of music theory, scales and artistry. I always tell my students understanding the theory and learning the scales is the easy part. Making something musical and inspired is the difficult part. So, how do we make this happen? Do we need more scales? Do we need speed? Bending? Sweep picking? These ideas may help, but it could make the problem worse. I have noticed most guitarists like to practice scales and technique but never practices anything that helps their creativity. The goal should be to have a musical solo. Technique is only a tool that makes this happen, but for most students, that doesn’t usually happen. For the beginning student, creatively, they don’t know where to start and for the developing guitarist their technique can make a solo incomprehensively unmusical.
The answer for me came from a discussion in a theory class. I don’t remember the professor’s name; he was there temporarily. He mentioned that he had a professor who made his students compose music with one note as a melody. He could use any octave, rhythm and dynamic texture, but don’t use another note. At first, I thought this was a little crazy, but he explained that by putting students in a small musical box, so to speak, they would be forced to be creative. They will use less notes and focus on all the other musical concepts that their disposal.
When I heard this idea, I found it interesting. I started using this idea in my practice routine. When I started, I would take a part of a scale, say the first two notes. I would set up a jam track, say a 12-bar blues. I would start to solo with those two notes. At first it was difficult. I felt like I was always playing the same thing over and over. I was tempted to add more notes, but the exercise is designed to explore musicality. I did discover that I relied a lot on notes, so as a developing player, this helped a lot. Soon I was comfortable enough to freely create some nice musical ideas with only a few notes.
This is a basic a minor Pentomic scale. This is usually what guitarists start with when they start soloing. Hopefully you are familiar. From a theoretical stand point this will work over a 12-bar blues. Once you memorize this scale the next step would be to do a solo. As a student new to these ideas this can be intimidating. As a developing guitarist, this can help you continue to develop.
Above is example 1. I have reduced the number of notes into a partial scale of four notes. We can call them “partials.” With these four notes, the assignment is to be as melodic as possible without adding more notes to the scale. Here is an example of what you can do with a partial scale.
We start on an E with an eighth note rhythm. Next is a rest for a single beat and continue with an A and work our way back down the partial back to several E’s. We then return to the two E’s, as eight notes, before we climb back up the partial. The e’s give this example some repetition in measure two. The idea is developed by slowing down the rhythm. The repetition makes this into something musical without adding more notes.
Example 2 is based on one note. We start off with the same ides of 2 E’s and a rest. We use the same developmental idea in measure two as the previous example. Using only one note we can get more creative and I encourage it. For example, we can add accents to notes on beat 1 and 3 or beat 2 and 4. We can also crescendo through measure two where there are 4 E’s. We can also add an accent on the end of the second eight note in measure three. This example seems simplistic on its surface but can give us an avenue for musical exploration.
This exercise also can be used for introspection. When I start working with these ideas, I started asking myself, what do I want to be as a soloist? How do I want to do it? Should I create a solo on the spot or can I pre plan something? I do understand there are philosophical questions but they do to be answered at some level. Why? When most people first start playing, they just want to play something. As we continue, we will change. We will always evolve as a musician, so we need an exercise that helps us realize this. Help us focus. Help us make what we want turn into a reality. I find that when I practice the second example, it helps me get in touch with the musician I am and not who I was.
With these two examples hopefully, it can be the beginning of something new to add to your practice routine. I know this made me consider some held beliefs about being a guitarist and how to mature as a player. I started to play more musically. I thought more of other players playing. I had a better sense of what I liked and what I wanted. I also started to listen to different players including other players such as Miles Davis or composers like Bach. This exercise made me think more musically and less focus on technique. This is not to say that we shouldn’t practice technique, but we shouldn’t rely on it solely to create our musical goals