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How to mix melody, chord tones, arpeggios and scale notes in solos?

Discussion in 'Jazz Technique [DB]' started by MichelD, Dec 28, 2020.

  1. MichelD


    May 19, 2014
    So here's the deal.

    I am not a studied musician. Self-taught, came to it by way of electric rock and roll and have been playing upright for 32 years now, mostly with folk, country or western swing groups. I don't claim to be a jazz musician by any means, but I've been kind of inadvertently dropped into it.

    I've been jamming with a group of guys for the past two years now, playing everything from Dylan and Neil Young tunes through to old blues and a lot of jazz standards.

    The others play mandolin, guitar, guitar/dobro and guitar/harmonica.

    They are very much into playing the song through once, then going around in a circle giving everyone a solo.

    I'm not big on soloing, but to humour them I make my best effort. I am terrible with melody so I work through the chords and use chord tones, mixed with scale notes and passing notes, mostly in a walking bass style, and try to make something passable.

    They don't complain, nobody has ever said : "Forget it, let's skip the bass solo on that one."

    I've been working hard during this Covid time to learn how to read treble clef better and have been able to get somewhere, working through things like "Autumn leaves," "Summertime," "I'll see you in my dreams," "Smile," etc.

    But when it comes to soloing now, I find I either play the melody straight up as written, or jam on the chord notes as described earlier. I can't seem to mix the two, which is to improvise on the melody.
    mattj1stc likes this.
  2. Seanto


    Dec 29, 2005
    I would try to first improvise melodic material over longer chord changes like in modal material, ie All Blues. This is just to get used to improvising melodic lines at all on the fly, in a less hectic harmonic environment. In reality, the chord tones are useful but should not be all you use/need. In fact, on the bass it is helpful to come up with more stepwise/scalar lines that do not have as many large interval jumps. Think of the chord tones as connection points rather than a strict note set. They are great for beginning and ending lines on.

    Don't neglect just practicing a simply jazz(or not) blues as well. If you can become proficient in improving over a blues progression, it is easy to bring that sort of pentatonic approach to most 32 bar jazz tunes.

    Not sure what you are listening to, but make sure you are spending alot of time listening to the great bassists of our time and getting a feel for what they tend to do. Find out what you really like. Most things i do on the bass are from listening to what another player did and trying to emulate it because i thought it sounded cool. No joke!
    AGCurry, Carl Hillman and longfinger like this.
  3. Fat bob

    Fat bob

    Jan 14, 2013
    A great bassist and teacher advised me that the key to soloing was to think of differed to rhythms and put notes to them. Interesting rhythm was the most important aspect of soloing. He said this idea came from a Dizzy quote passed down to him, and he felt it was a revelation.
    • The basic thing about jazz music is putting the notes to rhythm, not the other way around.... You can take just one note and put all kinds of different rhythms to the note and with just that one note everybody is clapping their hands and dancing and shouting.
    Reiska, kwd, AGCurry and 3 others like this.
  4. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Augusta GA
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    I have to say, after hearing all the "all you have to do is just..." sort of advice in various versions of this question over the years here at Talkbass, I am surprised at the paucity of musical bass soloists.

    AGCurry, msw, MrSidecar and 1 other person like this.
  5. oren


    Aug 7, 2007
    Salem, OR
    One way to start might be to alternately mix the melody and the chord tones you can already play. So, for example, start each four bar phrase with the first notes of the melody and then finish it with chord tones. Then hit the melody notes again at the beginning of the next phrase, etc.

    Then another time through, start with the chord tones, but work at resolving the end of each phrase with the melody. That kind of exercise can help increase your comfort with improvising around the melody. Have fun with it!
  6. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    My experience agrees with all of the constructive suggestions posted above.

    IME, you don't solo well on a jazz tunes because you haven't focused on it previously. You're not alone. Many bassists never aspire to solo well, and, well, we hear their half-hearted attempts more often than we would like.

    To improve, just like you did with your basslines, you'll need to practice, and with practice, you'll improve. Obvious, I know. But what to practice? A skilled teacher can significantly reduce your effort so that really should be your first move.

    But, I think I can give you an idea of what your teacher will help you with. They'll start with the fact that in many ways, a good bassline is already a good solo, but with significant constraints. And, as you remove those constraints, you get closer to how a saxophonist, or trumpeter, or pianist, or guitarist would solo. If you walk a bassline in 2 on a swing tune, you should already be thinking in 12/8 rather than 4/4, and adding those triplet fills. You'll usually play on beats 1 and 3, but you don't have to, and it can be musically effective to skip 1 & 3 and emphasize 2 and/or 4 instead. And when we do those triplet fills, we frequently play our arpeggios or broken scales or chromatic runs in a musical way, similar, but not quite like a typical solo. If you take your playing in 2 to an even less restricted place, more like a counter melody, then you have many of the components of a interesting solo. And you can practice that counter melody to help you break free from playing quarter note lines. A common way to develop a solo is to play both parts of a blues call and response. Without thinking about it, your calls and responses will make musical sense. Another thing to practice is playing a string of 8ths or triplet 8ths for multiple measures. Many solos do that but as bassists, we don't tend to and so we haven't developed the licks, language, and facility to be able to do so well, but I found it comes quickly with a bit of practice.

    Some other things that helped me quite a bit was composing a solo away from the bass, which I found gave me ideas to develop when I solo. Another is singing solo's, which I think helped me hear a line without the restriction of my lack of facility on the bass. Last, learning melodies in as many registers on the bass as practical, which improved both my facility and my comprehension of good melodies.

    Finally, most spontaneous jazz solos aren't melodies in the same way that most composed melodies are. Usually, they're not as sophisticated harmonically or rhythmically, but tend to include more dynamics to reach the audience emotionally - the ol' "play a really fast flourish near the end of the solo" trick.

    One last suggestion, one of my teacher's is putting out a video on learning to solo for jazz DB players. I'll let you know when it goes live, but I can already tell you that it's a bargain, great content, very thoughtfully assembled, like a good essay, and I'm sure it would be helpful for you.

    HTHs! Best of luck!
    Who da Ville, kwd, Seanto and 4 others like this.
  7. CaseyVancouver


    Nov 4, 2012
    For solo’s you might try not thinking like a bassist but like a sax or trumpet.

    For myself that sax guy is Paul Desmond and the trumpet guy could be Chet Baker. They played together on tunes such as Autumn Leaves and it's on YouTube. If you have the lead sheet for it (or any other tune they are doing) you can play along and steal what they are doing. Copy the phrases, stop and go as needed, and discover how they think. Take what they do and you will develop your own ideas from it.

    Stay away from root based phrases.
    Michael Moore’s book ‘melodic playing in thumb position’ is useful.
    mtto, Andy Mopley, Seanto and 4 others like this.
  8. statsc

    statsc Supporting Member

    Apr 23, 2010
    Burlington, VT
    Bass players often have trouble learning to play melodic solos, especially after playing the root-oriented patterns required in many styles of popular music for so many years, as you probably have! It’s really hard to develop the ability to improvise melodic solos that also “tell a story,” as we’ve been told jazz solos are supposed to do. It really is a lifelong journey; the more you learn how to do it, the more you learn how much more you need to learn!

    I think all the approaches mentioned so far can bring results; it’s just a matter of whether the approaches fits with you and brings about the results you desire. Certainly trying several approaches at various times can be very useful, and can provide you with more tools to use when improvising. Also, the suggestion about getting a teacher and following his or her approach is a good one; many options available online these days. In the spirit of providing a variety of choices and approaches, here are some possibilities that haven’t been mentioned yet.
    • Learning the melody to some simple jazz standards like the ones you mentioned is a good idea; however, also study how these melodies fit and reflect the chord changes of the tune. Since melodic improvisation can be thought of as improvising alternate melodies to a tune, you’ll get some important insights that you can use when creating alternate melodies to these and other jazz standards.
    • Consider an approach that includes patterns which reflect common jazz chord changes. A good source for this is Creative Jazz Improvisation by Scott Reeves. Many of the patterns there are taken from actual solos by jazz musicians and as such reflect the language and syntax of bebop. As Christian McBride says, “Bebop IS the language of modern jazz!” The goal here of course is to learn these patterns well enough so that you can then vary them in your own way while still staying true to the language of jazz.
    • In order to improvise alternate melodies that reflect the chords of a tune, it’s crucial to be able to hear the sounds of the chords in your head. One way to to this obviously is to learn some piano, but another approach is to practice with a backing track. There are several inexpensive smartphone apps (like iReal Pro) that provide charts and play-along tracks for 1200 jazz standards, and allow you to vary the tempo, key, and the mix. It’s not the same as playing with real humans, but it allows you to hear how what you play fits the chord changes and helps get the sound of those chords and chord progressions into your head.
    • Finally, navigate to these YouTube videos: Red Garland’s Piano This a great textbook example of tasty swinging jazz with the incomparable Paul Chambers on bass. Listen to this A LOT! When listening to Paul Chambers’ solos, focus especially on his rhythm and phrasing, maybe even more than the actual pitches. This might be the hardest thing, but maybe the most valuable! If you want to learn some of his solos, here’s a good source: The Music of Paul Chambers by Jim Stinnett.

    • Don’t expect instant or even quick results with any of this, but enjoy the ride!
    mattj1stc likes this.
  9. Andy Mopley

    Andy Mopley

    Sep 24, 2011
    Interestingly, what hasn't been mentioned is that typically when it comes to soloing, as a DB or EB player, you are suddenly on your own - that is, apart from the occasional chord changes the piano player may give you, and assuming you hear them correctly, you are suddenly asked to make something musical by yourself and navigate through the chord changes without hearing a "base" so to speak. Not just make something musical, but also exciting enough to avoid people saying "Bass solo..?.Time to get a drink at the bar.." :)

    I suggest that along with the many excellent contributions by players far more experienced than I, you also consider this as part of your approach to soloing.

    Best of luck, it is an art form that may take a life time to comprehend, and still leave something to discover after that.
    mattj1stc likes this.
  10. Jim Dombrowski

    Jim Dombrowski Supporting Member

    Jan 16, 2002
    Colorado Springs, CO
    There is a course on soloing at Discover Double Bass.com
  11. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    Hi @MichelD I mentioned that one of my teachers would be coming out with a new video on soloing. The new course will go live on Monday but you can read more about it here.
    Guide Tones for Creating Jazz Bass Solos — Discover Double Bass

    I was fortunate enough to be able to go through the course quickly once and I think you would find a lot of value in it for your goal of improving your jazz soloing. John is an unusually gifted player and teacher and he lays out what you need to do in a very logical and easy to understand way, and Geoff's site and production work are first-rate. I hope you'll give it a try. Next to working one-on-one with an experienced teacher, I can't think of a better way to make progress on soloing.
    afroblue and Chris Fitzgerald like this.
  12. mooseonbass

    mooseonbass Supporting Member

    Jun 24, 2011

    People I play with have voted for "do not"
    Who da Ville likes this.
  13. mattj1stc

    mattj1stc Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 13, 2009
    Dallas, TX USA
    I have been enjoying this thread. It's funny, but I was having a similar conversation with the guitarist I play with the most. He's a great soloist in all sorts of genres - he has a sort of style that seems to show up regardless of genre, which allows him to sound lie himself as well as fit the music. Still, at times he does want to try to comp and let me take the lead. I agree that this is very nerve racking. Similar to the original poster, I tend to just play the melody (or maybe a slight variation on it). I agree that hearing a guitarist play a line that is like a bass line, but not in the lower register and not always emphasizing the roots, can be hard to use as a reference as well. Everyone has provided some great suggestions that I will try. Thanks.
  14. dkziemann


    Dec 13, 2007
    Vienna, Austria
    Endorsed by D'Addario
    Lots of great conversation in here! I know direct advertising is not allowed (so mods, please feel free to remove this if it violates terms & conditions) but I'm releasing a book next week on soloing that really dives deep into OP's question.

    Either way, I'm happy that soloing is becoming more of a conversation amongst bassists! It's definitely a part of the gig, and deeply boosts our ability to listen (and therefore, support our bandmates better).
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