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Frustrated on how to apply improv knowledge!!!!

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Johnny StingRay, Dec 4, 2015.

  1. Johnny StingRay

    Johnny StingRay

    Nov 24, 2006
    I have studied jazz standard improvisation techniques from everyone of note from Carol Kaye to Scott Devine. I know all about what arpeggios, scales, modes and chord substitutions to use. My problem is this: How the hell do I keep all this knowledge organized in my head and be able to efficiently pick and choose what I need so I can improvise through a jazz standard. It is like input overload and the output is confused, jumbled, and totally dysfunctional.
    How do you approach a jazz standard improvisation solo? Do you just play because you've practiced so much that it is natural and has become habit? Do you think about what you will do ahead of time? Do you work things through with the band in practice so you know what to do at a real show? How do you think so fast, especially on the uptempo songs? What are your thought processes for picking and choosing from your repertoire to play through a solo? How do you decide what you are going to do? How do you keep it all organized in your head? I think I have some kind of mental block or something that keeps me from being comfortable with soloing. I don't know. It is so frustrating, (but awe inspiring at the same time) to hear and see a bassist play a solo to a jazz standard and appear to do it efficiently and effortlessly. I've been playing almost 40 years, but when it comes to soloing.......aaarrrgghhhh!!! I just don't get it.
    In other words, how do you simplify all of your bass playing knowledge to create a solid solo improvisation? For me it is like this...........seeing separate videos one at a time of each of the steps to build a house including the carpentry, plumbing, electrical, etc and thinking, "Yeah, that makes sense. I can do that".....but never seeing the complete video on how to put all these skills together to make the darn house....thinking "So, how the heck do I make a house?"
    I really look forward to any advice all you wonderful bass players have to share and I thank you ahead of time. Thanks everyone!
  2. twinjet

    twinjet Moderator Staff Member Supporting Member

    Sep 23, 2008
    Part of it is familiarity with the tune, knowing what notes work with what chords, and knowing about transitions. I'm in the same boat you are, though.
    Johnny StingRay and mattj1stc like this.
  3. Speaking as a guy in very much the same boat, and who doesn't practice enough, practice is no small part of the solution.

    Good luck, and good vibes.
  4. thmsjordan


    Jan 10, 2010
    Harrisburg PA and Washington DC
    Eschew Obfuscation
    Listen, listen , listen. Listen to the masters. Find a few things -licks- you like, learn them and learn where they were applied in the tune. Then start using those in your improv. Eventually they will start to morph into a style.

    Another thing, get something like band in a box and use this to back you up. They have the entire real book for band in a box. Play the head and then play a few rounds of improv. Play anything - experiment. It's just you so cut loose, try things.

    Make mistakes, have fun. Eventually you will run across things in your style that you like and you can build on these. This is a process. Just walk the path. You will get there.

    People who have the most success with this don't seem to be the people that want to sound good right away. They tend to be the people who love to play and experiment. Be one of those.

    I got a great slice of advice from someone once. He told me to let my solo's develop out of my walking line. He had me play the melody and then play the melody again but this time embellish it and change it a little but stay close to the original. each time round go a little further away from the tune. We did the same thing with a walking line. It is an interesting exercise.

    Finally - don't over think this. Scales and arpeggio's are great but really, you are trying to convey an emotion, a feeling. Trust your instincts a little and don't try to analyze everything while you are doing it.

    A great Irish pipe player once said of the Illan pipes that he spent 8 years learning to play tunes, another 8 learning to play the chanter - the drone pipes, and another 8 to learn you never use the chanter. It's kinda like that with theory, you learn to play the bass, then you learn all the theory, and then you internalize the theory and learn you don't think theory while you improvise.
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2015
    Kico, 77stingray, BassGreaser and 9 others like this.
  5. bholder

    bholder Affable Sociopath Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2001
    Vestal, NY
    Received a gift from Sire* (see sig)
    subbed, me too, though I haven't studied as hard. I'm just getting to the point where I can start trying to improv / comp through a song (rather badly, but getting there) and play what I'm hearing in my head, rather than it sounding like glued-together exercises.

    edit: "improv" not "improve", d'oh, though I'm trying to improve my improv. :D
    Johnny StingRay likes this.
  6. bholder

    bholder Affable Sociopath Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2001
    Vestal, NY
    Received a gift from Sire* (see sig)
    well, I'd say there's still a teeny bit of theory involved, in the mapping of "that sound I want to make" to "is right on that fret there". :D (but it has to be automatic, of course)
    Johnny StingRay likes this.
  7. And always remember the ancient wisdom of that noble Roman, Victorius Wootenius: "You're never more than a half-step away from the right note."
  8. JEBassman

    JEBassman Supporting Member

    Jun 25, 2008
    That's excellent advice. Improvisation can be developed in different ways. All the music theory and technical practice time is important, but it's not the whole story by itself. Technique and knowledge are just part of the ultimate recipe for great solos. Excellent solos can be developed even without technical mastery. Add these elements to the recipe: melody, and swing.

    Now that you have played for so long, and have built up your knowledge and proficiency on the bass, you are in a much better position to carry your improv further. Follow thmsjordan's advice about working with Band In A Box (BIAB). As an exercise, play the melody to some songs, with BIAB's rhythm section. First, play the melody straight. Then start making small changes to the phrases. Start small; altering a note or two, adding a fill here and there.

    Next, take a phrase or riff that you like and insert it into the song. Again, play it straight and then alter it. When you play the melody, both straight and with variations, focus on the feel of what you're playing. This is where all of that listening comes into the equation. As bassists, we're conditioned to play the support role. It's a very different mind set to switch and become the one playing the melody. Practice at home, have fun. Keep doing all of these things, and listening to recordings. Imitate what you hear. Strive to make your solos melodic, and to make them swing.
  9. lfmn16

    lfmn16 Supporting Member

    Sep 21, 2011
    charles town, wv
    I would transcribe players like Ray Brown and Ron Carter and see what they are playing in a certain situation. See how what they are playing fits with what you've already learned. Second, get a good teacher. Books, youtube, and transcribing are all great, but nothing beats one on one feedback from a good teacher.
  10. Oldschool94


    Jan 9, 2015
    Knowing a lot of theory is really cool/helpful. I'm a big proponent of learning it all. But sometimes we get good at certain skills while neglecting others. I say just play by ear some. Put on a loop of changes or something and just noodle, find what SOUNDS right. It may take a while if you haven't been doing this much recently. I'm not encouraging you to forget theory or anything. Like I said, theory is great. But just practice getting things to sound good. You can even place theoretical limitations, such as, I will play this turnaround using only these two pentatonic scales or tetrachords, but I will find a way to make it sound like what I want. Be relentless, keep pushing until it sounds good. John Coltrane on 'Softly as in the Morning Sunrise" mostly plays C minor pentatonic. It sure sounds crazy hip. I find theory works best for me if I impose some limitations on it. That way I'm forced to explore the aural material it offers thoroughly. Try applying limitations to which notes you can use, and then another limitation, like a rhythmic motif. I bet you'll sound 10000 times better to yourself.
  11. bholder

    bholder Affable Sociopath Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2001
    Vestal, NY
    Received a gift from Sire* (see sig)
    Which is a useful time to employ one's "yeah, I meant to do that" look. :)
    Johnny StingRay likes this.
  12. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    Bass players often don't learn to play the melodies they accompany.
    This gives them no context beyond theory for soloing
    read Ed Fuqua's article on really learning a tune

    listen to hal galper evangelize

    "Improvisation has always been : let the melody be your guide"

    some nice examples of "using " theory in this thread
  13. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    That sounds a lot like me, 20 or so years ago. I had gone to Berklee, to a small liberal arts college and got a BFA, had grabbed a bunch of one-off lessons with bassists of note. But when I moved to NYC in 87, I still was speaking gibberish. I had no idea how to apply all of the vocabulary I learned that everyone had insisted was the way to learn to improvise over harmony. And then someone handed me this article (which I subsequently posted here) and I started studying with the author, Joe Solomon. One of the exercises that really made a difference for me and took me AWAY from gibberish and put me on the rod to playing with meaning and intent was this.
  14. Whousedtoplay


    May 18, 2013
    Nothing more to add in addition to other respected TB members' suggestions.
    Maybe try Jerry Bergonzi's (!) books - Inside Improvisation Series, starting with his "four note groupings".

    Kind of similar situation - almost 40 years of playing the bass but I've NEVER EVER solo-improvised; therefore, as a complete "improvisation" beginner (about 2 months on the patio early morning before work), I have VERY SIMILAR "issues";
    I, as an absolute beginner, have separated those "issues" into four "folders":
    1. Changing my stubbornly-entrenched that REPETITIOUS (think of Groove/riff) concept of "strong/weak beats" bass-line mentality.
    2. Not enough technique for SOLO-improvisation!
    3. Not enough "brain-speed" to immediately apply Music theory/Harmony in order to reflect chord changes, and not enough experience to hear in anticipation of the future solo notes in regard to the comping chords.
    4. Creating/"composing" new tunes/melodies based on the chords, chord changes.

    P.S. Just don't start your solo on the tonic note.
    Johnny StingRay likes this.
  15. Wolfenstein666


    Dec 19, 2014
    That is my new sig. Perfect.
    Johnny StingRay likes this.
  16. I felt as you do after absorbing as much knowledge like you did, then...I realized you need to learn licks. That is the word missing in your post and it is an important one. Once you also assimilate knowledge and licks It will automatically come through your fingers. Your ears and your heart will do everything else. Being even a decent jazz musician is a lifelong project.
    Spin Doctor and Johnny StingRay like this.
  17. Improvise what? The melody, aka the tune. Why not learn 32 bars of the song's melody so you can improvise your rendition of that tune. Base your improvised solo around the song's melody. Take the lead playing the tune, then in the middle of the break improvise around the chord's 3rds. Then give the lead back playing the melody.

    If you let the melody be your guide good things happen. All those other short cuts lead to dead end streets. Of course IMO.
    Johnny StingRay and Liam Wald like this.
  18. Whousedtoplay


    May 18, 2013
    Johnny StingRay likes this.
  19. I pick a song, get the guitar chords, then make the bass up as I go.

    simple as that.

    sometimes i'll hear the actual bassline later and realize mine was much better, sometimes i'll cringe in the moment.
  20. Theory, scales, technique, appeggios are all a means to an end. They give us the vocabulary to articulate the lines you hear in your head... but first you need something to say.

    IMO - You should put down the bass and try and "sing" the line in your head. THEN pick up the bass and play it. All your interval training should make this easier. Don't be afraid to go slow and make mistakes. If you're doing it right is should be hard.

    I think we get a little caught up with scales, finger patterns and "knowing the fretboard". This is just a means to an end and can be a cage for our musical ideas. Sounds great if you want to be the awesome guy in the guitar shop but doesn't work in impro.

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