~ improv ~

~ golden rules ~ jazz mantras ~

'... performance, respect of and etiquette ...'

In a nutshell. The following ideas are simply a few of the guidelines used in creating our various Americana styles that have come to be common practice among the players. Mixing in some general ideas about creating improvised musical dialogue, i.e., performance, hopefully the following ideas will be of some benefit.

The 'mantra' part of the title is concerned with ways of approaching the resources from the perspective of the emerging jazz and even the blues artist, who have a long row to hoe in learning the language (especially in jazz), But in exchange for extra efforts comes perhaps the broadest sense of our musical resources. So with this in mind, here are a few 'golden' rules.

Play the melody. Self explanatory? When improvising, if all else fails, play the melody of the song being performed. When we run out of ideas when soloing, our artistic interpretation of the melody will always work.

Always? Well, some advanced players might view this as being overly simplistic, but they probably got to where they are by using this exact trick at some point in their development and now as advanced cats, probably never run out of ideas :)

For the majority of us, especially emerging soloists, it's nice to have something solid to fall back on when 'the well' goes dry, and the melody of the tune we are playing is almost always a sure bet.

One idea per chorus. Simply try to develop one melodic idea per chorus, using that motiv for the basis of improvised lines through the chosen song. Then finding a new idea for each additional chorus.

This is a bit more difficult that it sounds really. There's a lot of concentration involved and depending on the tune, it often gets tricky trying to modulate the same idea through the song. Songs with a couple of key centers, thus even formal cadential motions, especially so. A whole lot of concentration required in this, a very cool thought process of composing our ideas in real time.

That one idea per chorus leans to the jazz and blues leaning artist, working the motif through the form and harmony. And when blues chords start to go jazzy through substitution, developing just one idea becomes a nice challenge. Slowing things down is often the key in strengthening this thought process.

For the burnin' 8 bar players, those artists that get 8 bars between the vocals, or split 16 with the fiddle player, this developing of one idea is a sort of nonstarter really. For cats usually go for all the coolness they can muster, to keep the thing driving along.

For those that play 'standards' and get plenty of measures of ride time, this one idea per chorus goes a long way, especially if your on a longer gig, say 4 / 45 minutes shows. Making the most of each of our ideas often creates a nice interactive format for players and listeners alike. I'm playing a weekly trio gig lately of mostly standards and originals and man, this 'one idea per' makes a lot of sense. Thank goodness for the bass player and drummer ! Always nice to have these motors along for the ride :)

One idea per chorus and the dancers ...? Yea, always got to keep an eye on the dance floor if you're working these sorts of rooms, hands down club owners love a full dance floor. So one good idea lasting a chorus helps glue it all together. Or too many choruses wears it thin. So when the dance floor is full play around the melody? Probably. Dancers are cool. For as they're often just too busy havin' fun, when they hear the melody line, they just keep track better and can visualize and bring to life their ideas in their steps and body motions. One idea per chorus can help to keep it all fresh, interesting, a challenge and maintain the integrity of the song. The ultimate solo here just might be one that's worked out.

And surely this one idea per chorus can be a rhythm idea. Here we can also borrow a bit of the written melody, hook whatever and 'theme and variate' the heck out of it. Sky's the limit here as we can simplify down to one or two notes and drive the rhythm to a frenzy, or not as the case may be :) Drummers are a huge help in this approach and often totally dig having these interactions with the soloist. In the old days such parts were written out, and in big band settings just roared the house. Rule here? 'If the house is rockin', don't bother knockin'.

blues chord substitution
slow it down


Stevie Ray Vaughan

"The House Is Rockin"


Sequencing ideas. There's some history to this idea of three, that when creating sequences and permutations of an idea, phrase the idea three times then perhaps look to evolve the idea into something different. This idea of repeating an idea three times has been around for a while, we hear it in all of the Americana styles and from the Euro cats as well. With so much cool music in four and eight bar phrases, such as the 3 / 4 bar phrases of a 12 bar blues, or the song form A A B A, we get some solid opportunities to do a thing three times, all built right into our silent architectures.

Also there's the way way common practice among players of repeating the last line of a song three times to take it out etc., So no wonder eh? Three's a charm right? Exceptions? Always, this is Americana music. One is when climaxing a solo, where the repetition of one idea gets the energy up and over the top. That keeping things simple and steady, don't stop, at this crucial point in the ride makes it easier for all to join in the fun and share the positive energy.

Musical dynamics of loud and soft. Easiest way to make your music play as if you are listing to your listeners as much as we want them to listen to us. Phrasing and building through musical forms with varying loud and soft passages is the coolest and shows a deep focus as the dialogue of any story being told unfolds. Pausing, waiting, the rushing in, a whispered phrase, and of course a SHOUT chorus, all help to keep things lively :) Also ...

1) Strive to get underneath (in volume) a soloist in the mix, when playing a supporting role in the group, try and stay supportive to what the soloist is doing.

Hear a bit of whole tone color in the line? Perhaps slip in an appropriate colortone to enhance the phrase etc.

When playing with a group of varying abilities, be super supportive any way you can.

So, perhaps the ancient golden rule of 'do unto others' is the idea here in regards to playing dynamically with loud and soft musical passages in groups of like minded artists and musicians. For folks who can negotiate these golden rules, there is a ton of satisfying work out there, for even many many of the best of the best were sidemen at some point in their careers and played the supportive role. Read the biographies of our Americana musical heros to learn their story.

Accurate arpeggios. Accurately arpeggiating the changes clearly outlines the harmony. Bebop artists are masters of the arpeggio. In the Charlie Parker "Omnibook", we find Parker's lines chock full of arpeggios, which Mr. Parker used as a launching pad to get into the upper parts of the chords, releasing the degree, weight and direction of tonal gravity. Once free of the gravity, the improvisational hang time increases exponentially. So, if your heading towards anywhere near Bopville, consider the arpeggios.

Meet a Franz. If possible, practice with a metronome. In the scheme of things, it seems as if it is really all just about time anyway :)

When learning a new song. Play just the roots of the chords in exploring a new song. This can give a startlingly clear picture as to the emotional character of the composition. Hearing the bass lines somehow 'reveals' the heart and soul of the piece. Try it. I first heard this idea from jazz legend Clark Terry.

As you learn a new song, learn the words too. Play just the roots of the chords in exploring a new song. This can give a startlingly clear picture as to the emotional character of the composition. Hearing the bass lines somehow 'reveals' the heart and soul of the piece. Try it. I first heard this idea from jazz legend Clark Terry.

Sing the line, play the line. Perhaps the single most important aspect of internalizing the vocabulary and projecting one's ideas. Also a fun way to rehearse the band; count off the tune and have each player sing their parts together with one another. Very fun.

Teach it. As we as players develop over the years, so many times do we come into contact with players of different abilities than our own. These meetings become opportunities for growth and enrichment in the sharing of ideas. For one of the ways in which a person may solidly internalize a concept is when trying to explain these ideas to another artist. So, although not a golden rule of improvisation, the idea here is perhaps more of a golden rule of learning. That if we really want to learn something, a good way to internalize our own knowledge is to try and teach it to another. And lest we ever forget all of the times when older, more experienced folks helped us along on our way ... our turn now yes ?

Have a good idea? And if you come up with a good idea, one you like, run it through the other 11 keys.

Have a great idea? And if you come up with a great idea, one you really like, try to write it into a song.

Review. Lucky common sense, some gumption to be prepared and an honest heart lay the groundwork for golden rules to become part of our DNA. Most folks want to do the right thing to begin with, so its easy. Music is something that we create, that folks of all walks of life can enjoy together. We create community upon these golden rules :)

"I have generally found that a person who is good at excuses, is usually good at nothing else."

wiki ~ Benjamin Franklin