Improvisation Workshop FAQs (Plus Latkes)

Dec 11, 2020

I'm pleased to say registration has been brisk for tomorrow's online workshop, "Improvisation: How To Create Great Solos From Scratch." Signup will remain open until an hour before the workshop begins, but I thought I'd take a moment right now to answer a few of the questions I've gotten about the class.

1) "Is this class for fingerstyle or single-note improvisors?"

I've illustrated all the ideas with fingerstyle examples, and will be teaching that way during the workshop. Besides being an extension of what I teach online generally, fingerstyle is also the most efficient way for me to show in class how the licks we're playing sound over the chord progression. That said, everything I'll be talking about, from the form and development of the blues progression to how to phrase your licks and what scales to use, can absolutely be applied to single-note soloing with other musicians. In fact, that's where I stole most of these ideas from in the first place.

2) "Why is the replay for (only) three months?"

The biggest reason is pedagogical: having a finite amount of time with the material will encourage you to work through everything while it's fresh, to treat it as a project, to take your own notes and really digest the material. Without a deadline, it's too easy to put the material on the shelf "for later" or spend so long work intermittently with the material that you never quite feel like you've done it justice. With a twelve-exercise PDF, three months is enough time to spend a week on each passage, and enough urgency to keep things moving. When the time's up, for better or worse, you'll feel free to move on to something new. You'll get to change gears without feeling guilty, and the material you've been studying will have a chance to sink deeper into your subconscious while you give it a rest.

3) "Will this help me learn to use the scales and licks I know to actually sound better?"

Here's the thing. Most improvisation lessons focus on melodic materials: "These are your scales, this is the progression. Take these scales and play something over these chords. Cool, right?" Only, no, not cool. Just putting notes over chords – even the right notes (a tricky proposition itself) over the right chords – doesn't take into account phrasing – the way those notes are played. Or that sometimes you want to create contrast by playing the "wrong" notes over the right chord.

On the flip side, some improvisation approaches really emphasize transcription: "Once you've learned these T-Bone Walker solos, and these Charlie Christian solos, and these Charlie Parker solos, you'll know the language." Only, again – not exactly; you'll know your lines, but not how to rearrange the words to say something new – like a Shakespearean actor who knows all the hit monologues but can't wing it onstage with a comedy improv troupe.

In my own efforts to become a better improvisor, I've found transcribing most valuable when I've taken the time to synthesize what I'm learning: "What general rules can I take away about how they're doing this?" In other words – what do great blues and jazz musicians tend to do when they're coming back from IV to I? What do they tend to do on the turnaround? How do they really use things like the diminished scale, anyway?

Clearly, I have too much time on my hands, but that's good news for you, because I've used some of it to distill what I've learned into a few basic principles for how to organize a good blues solo. Obviously, there's no one definitive way to improvise on the blues, but there are four kinds of phrasing you can hear in the playing of many, many musicians. Strung together, these phrases are like a series of little rhythmic containers to pour your ideas into – they're what you do with your scales to make them sound like solos, not exercises.

So in this workshop, we'll go over these four kinds of phrases and where to use them in the blues progression. Along the way, we'll talk about the difference between the blues, swing and bebop versions of the twelve-bar blues, and how you only really need four scales to sound good over all of those variations in the progression. And we'll do all this with a series of specific, written-out examples, illustrating line-by-line how to apply everything to the I-IV-V, swing and jazz versions of the blues, so when the workshop's done you'll understand how it all fits together, have lots of clear examples to keep studying, and know exactly how to create your own solos from scratch.

Here's the link to sign up, with more details on the workshop itself and a short video in which I play through and discuss some of these ideas as well:

Improvisation: How To Create Great Solos From Scratch

P.S. About once a year, someone asks me how to make great potato latkes from scratch. I guess that's more of an IFAQ (Infrequently Asked Question) but here are my secrets:

  • Use more oil than you think. You’re basically deep-frying, and it sucks if the oil runs low and you’re no longer cooking in surround-sound.
  • If you use a food processor, grate everything, then puree 2/3 of that, keeping 1/3 of the potato “strings” to mix back in for texture
  • Get liberal with the matzah meal; you want a texture where everything sticks together just enough that you can form the latkes by hand.
  • Don't eat more than twenty at a time or you’ll be sorry.