Monday, July 4, 2011

From noodling to music - learning how to create a good solo.

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A quote that changed the way I practice guitar soloing came from Joe Pass. It was from a long time ago, so this is complete paraphrasing. Forgive me Joe! The gist was:

"Every single thing you play, you should be able to play a second time EXACTLY the way it was the first. If you can't, then it is just random finger movements that happened to work out. If you can't repeat it, it didn't come from your heart and it is not music."

This is VERY true IMO. Try practicing like that. What happens is, it FORCES you to really listen to what you are doing, because you have to play it again. Also, repetition instantly sounds like music. Listen to most great soloists and they use repetition a TON. Even if the notes aren't the same, the rhythm is. Or if the rhythm isn't, then the notes are. Repetition is one of the core building blocks you need to construct meaningful solos.

Some other approaches
  • Record EVERYTHING and listen back with a critical ear. This is the only chance you have to hear you the way others do. Make this part of your regular routine. Slowly weed out the crap-isms we all have. You know, those annoying little phrases you ALWAYS play, that you CAN'T STAND! Weed them out.
  • Try ONLY playing an idea as it comes into your head. If you don't hear anything, don't play for a minute. Wait until you hear something and THEN play. Remember this is practice and nobody is watching so take your time. At first, there will be big holes of silence. Before long as you improve there will be more and more actual music happening. The best part is it is ALL organically based - NOT pattern based.
  • Sing AS you play a line on your guitar (a la George Benson). Make the connection between your ears, your voice and the guitar. This INSTANTLY affects your phrasing.
  • Simplify for a bit. Grab a small idea and really milk it. Save the shred for flourishes that tie your ideas together. Fast stuff really doesn't say much.. it really mostly creates intensity. Would you want to hear someone speaking or singing in an intense state all the time? Likely not, plus the melodic stuff makes the flourishes SEEM faster. Not ripping on shred at all or insinuating shred is bad, just saying in general - mix it up. The best shredders do this.
  • Learn other players solos - NOTE FOR NOTE using your ears - not TAB. Don't cheat or fudge, get in there are get every note. Then get the chord changes behind. Then analyze what is going on (if you dont know some basic theory, it is very helpful. Utilize sites like this to read, ask questions and generally help you understand some basics). Do this all the time and before long you will see patterns or approaches that just work. I can't understate this. You want to become a good soloist? Become a student of solos. Many genres - even ones you don't like. Learn your favs... then learn your favs favs. Jazz, Country, Blues, Rock solo and analyze. Spend a year doing this and you will be a different player on the other side no doubt about it. 
  • Focus on hitting chord tones as you solo. Look at the progression you are soloing over and practice nailing some of the tones as they pass by. I did a detailed post on this topic. Click here to read it. When I say "analyze" this is largely what I am referring to. What notes are being used and why do they work... likely a chord tone.
Changing how you solo isn't a miraculous process. It boils down to spending the time it takes to learn the art of spontaneous composition. When I say it that way it sounds pretty serious doesn't it? Well it is exactly that. Think more like a composer and less like a blues box guitar player and you are on your way.

P.S. Read the below comment section of this post. John King raised some valid discussions on this topic.


  1. Where's anything about soloing using chord tones in this article?
    Mentioning it is oligatory in a point called "Learn other players solos".
    NOTE FOR NOTE? Check up YouTube, there are tons of beginners playing solos note for note, having no idea what's going on.
    And "what's going on" knowledge comes form analisis of solo, focusing on chord tones and how they relate to rhythm.

    I know that you have meant it, while writing your article, but you are not pointing beginners in any concrete direction by using too general statements like: "Then analyze what is going on."

  2. Hey Mamakin,

    Good point! I will make an edit to address that. Yes, the whole key to getting what you need from the solos is definitely in the analysis. The lifting isn't enough. I should have said (and will edit to say - "using your ears - not TAB") Many of the YouTubers could also be Tab addicts - which CAN be good, but can lead to dead-ear-fast-hands syndrome!

    Sincerely thanks for your input.

  3. How do you explain that most of the pros never play their solo exactly the same as on the original recording? For example Page and Blackmore. Plant and Hendrix don't even even sing true to the recording. Alice Cooper changes his lyrics. I witnessed Eddie Van Halen throw in new motifs to Jamie's Crying. I can't speak a sentence exactly the same way twice. I think certain solos merit staying true to form unless you can beat the original for example Crazy Train. I spent hours to nail that but I would not want to waste that much time on every song. I think of the spin that Eddie Van Halen did on all of their covers. Unless I was in a tribute band I would think that I would want to bring my own spin to a song but keeping the essential signature licks. I think that the important think is to have a meaningful solo that develops to a great climax. Having a beginning a middle and an end. Developing mental guidelines for this is what I see in contrast to noodling. Isn't this what improvising is all about? Your thoughts...

    John King

  4. I think maybe you are misinterpreting what i meant... or more likely I failed to articulate it properly.

    I am NOT saying that things need to be played the same way every time. Not at all. What I am saying, is to be engaged in your improv... Don't just blindly throw out finger patterns and call them music. LISTEN as you play. Make actual musical statements.

    The ability to repeat a line, is because you know what you said. Maybe you won't get every single note (or word) the second time... like your speaking example... but the core messaging would and should be in tact.

    All those players you mentioned are taking liberties and feeling it on the spot. In the passion of the moment. Asked right then - in that instant or seconds after - to repeat them, they likely could. But certainly not an hour later, or the next night.

    My point is be IN IT. Hear it. Be engaged. Focus and LISTEN closely... at ALL times. If you are always striving to play this way - even during mundane exercises, it becomes habitual.

    I guess I could put it like this: When you look at a car do you see all the nuts and bolts? Or do you see a car. Sure, sometimes it is good and important, to look at how it is made... But mostly, you should just enjoy the car. I think too often, on the quest for mastery, we can easily get caught up in focusing too much on the nuts and bolts (scales, chords etc). Sure learn them... but start making MUSIC with it ASAP.

    Make sense?

  5. I guess I assumed that most players by the time they learned their major and minor pentatonics would quickly start grooving along with an vamp or a blues progression. It seemed so natural to me.

    In my opinion the challenge is developing a broad vocabulary of phrasing to make a powerful statement. Keep people interested as opposed to cliche licks. In regards to noodling I believe it is good because you can develop phrases but you also have practice staring and finishing meaningful solos.

    I think a good practice is to spend time practicing a solo with a time limit like 30 seconds. They do this in public speaking groups like Toastmasters. This help you to focus on constructing a solo with direction instead of trying to beat the Freebird solo time..

    I am sorry but from Joe Pass's quote I was envisioning guitar players with total recall or sheet music stands. I have been anal in the past nailing solos note for note just to forget them a year later.

    I was just the opposite of many of these "YouTubers" who may be no more than great parrots. As a kid I was a great improviser with my own bag of tricks but not so great with the ear in copying someone else's licks.

    I agree with you. Soloing should be like talking. Don't babble like a baby. Give me a message and finish with a point.

    I have always been a feel it player. In my opinion much of today's rock music is more of a noise and speed exercise with smaller emphasis on feeling. They should quit the guitar and pick up the skateboard....

    Hit me in the gut Joe Walsh!

    John King

  6. John King, I think you are way too advanced and accomplished as a guitarist to learn much from a blog like this which appears geared toward the novice. I remember watching you on TV at college in like 1982 and you tore it up. I am sure by now you are even better.

    After college I jammed with a buddy that used to always talk about guitar playing. After thirty minutes I was bored out of my mind and concluded that my friend was simply a terrible guitarist. I excused myself to get away for a few minutes and all of a sudden I heard a Jimmy Page lick of his signature solos. I rushed back into the room and asked, "where the hell did that come from?" Charlie then told me that he learned it from reading tabulature in a guitar magazine. I changed my tune (no pun intended) and decided that Charlie simply does not play well with others. He has no real musical talent and certainly doesn't have an ear for tone, but he can play certain things like a player piano, more or less; or a great parrot, as you say.

    It is crazy how much we learn as we mature (and grow old) especially in music; for those of us that have real music in us. I remember learning the church modes to add to my wicked mastery of the pentatonic scales. I used to think I was the man. Now it is hilarious that we even think of scales when soloing or write about them when discussing solos since the mastery of the neck facilitates playing what sounds good and the scales become secondary only because we can identify them or recognize bits and pieces of many scales in a well played solo.

    I agree with what you say JK. We come up with great ideas that sound good and keep the hooks while improvising in and around the solo or guitar parts. To Jeremy's credit we have to have to ability to repeat what we hear in our head time and time again. I understand what advice he tries to disseminate though it may confuse a novice. I too, spent many hours emulating guitar parts and solos by others especially when I played in a cover band. I was never comfortable copying guitar solos for fear I would miss one or two notes and as a self-fulfilling prophecy, that happened often. When we played originals, I was comfortable and I knew and OWNED the song and guitar parts.

    No I am not in a band so I don't have to please the band. Nor do I have to play what any crowd wants to hear. I play what I love and make my guitars sing.

    Thanks for pointing to this blog.


  7. John - I think you may be taking some stuff for granted there. I have heard a TON of players who clearly practice MOSTLY scale patterns. Many get caught up in the pursuit of speed and being "impressive" that they get off track. This is the audience this article is directed at.

    I think if you are constantly working at making music, even during "noodling", it no longer is noodling. To me the "noodling" part is the mindless wank out you can hear in any guitar center. The key word being mindless. Non engaged, non musical, finger movements. I think playing like this a lot also teaches a person the habit of playing in this state. I think we are in agreement... just may not seem that way : )

    Dave - I don't know that this blog is aimed at the beginner? Really? Ya think? Most of the topics are more the mindset of the instrument as opposed to actual nuts and bolts - which a million sites cover quite well. Sure i touch on beginner stuff to help out .. but "geared towards the novice" is not really my thoughts in creating it.

    I have been playing professionally and semi professionally for almost 30 years. Many of these topics come from things I have learned something new about, and inspiring player or performance, or come from teaching discussions where I thought my insight on it was helpful. Novice's don't really even solo yet do they?

    I think any level player can benefit from the core messaging of this article which is - "be engaged - even when noodling."

  8. Sorry - Semantics on noodling. With that I was a bit offended by the Joe Pass statement. I always considered noodling the process of endlessly riffing away (sounds great) to a chord progression like in a jam session as opposed to focusing on covering or crafting a phrase or better completing a song. I like the Derek and The Dominoes Jam sessions.

    Doing this too much has been a problem for me because I was a lead guitar player long before I could sing. I read Lindsey Buckingham's interview in GP where he said "It was always about the song with him".

    This is where I have to be disciplined.
    The many songs I know parts of but never completed and I have many. My Dad said to my when I was a kid "you make a lot of noise with that electrified banjo, but can you play me Home on the Range?"

    My heroes are guys like Hendrix and SRV who rarely play without singing. I heard that Ray Manzarek of the Doors did a whole concert (singing and keyboard) in Germany when Jim Morrison was on a bender and did not show up. I would like to see Eddie Van Halen try to do that.

    Riffing or I what I considered "noodling" is important but the better player is the one who focuses on the song in their practice even if they can't sing so good. Constructing a good solo will be part of this bigger picture.

    Every player should be practicing for open mike night and if they are mute then pick a Ventures tune.

    I agree with your points. My interpretation of the Joe Pass quote was a bit too anal. I interpreted his quote to say that much of my playing is not music. Hey I thought Jazz players were the ultimate noodlers.

    You got great points on chord tones, playing outside the box, playing like you sing etc. I think the NOTE FOR NOTE on cover solos can create parrots though. I read Eddie Van Halen learned Crossroads note for note and that was about it.

    My advice to young players is to stay away from trying to master their favorite Dream Theatre solo and learn Elvis or Beatles songs and sing. They have simple guitar solos. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page are products of Elvis. I was listening to Ray Charles this morning. Great stuff not complicated and you can perform it on open mike night without a bunch of effects or studio work.

    Here is a good forum on noodling:

    John King

  9. Jeremy, more semantics here. This particular blog (From noodling to music - learning how to create a good solo) not the website seemed to me aimed at the novice and by novice I refer to the "parrots" and guitarists that haven't hit that mark of creativity where the guitar talks or sings. I've been playing a long time myself and have come to the realization that I will never be a rock star. Now that I own a recording studio and an entertainment company I really enjoy working with those 25 year-olds with great talent whose parents listened to the same stuff we did so their influences are very similar. I think this site is great and you've obviously attracted good talent to read blogs and participate in discussion.

    Keep it going Jeremy and thanks again JK for exposing me to this stuff. Now go practice etude in C7.

    Bikers rule!


  10. No worries guys! Ahh words! Ya gotta love em.

    I think the crux of all of this is one's definition of "noodling" isn't it! I am all for exploration and raw improv... but mindless playing... or should I say thoughtless.. or geometric (shape based) -not so much. This latter is what i am referring to with this post.

    John - i think the key to the whole thing is balance isn't it? You really can get away with anything provided it doesn't make up the entirety of your routine. Many players skim over the fast parts in solos... these cats should spend some time learning things note for note. Others learn everything note for note - these cats should spend some time playing looser.

    The big one for me is hearing yourself recorded. The tape doesn't lie. Learning to use this as a tool for self correction is extremely valuable.