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How “The Blues” Can Help You “Jazz Up” Your Solos



Frank Zappa has been quoted as saying, “Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.” Well, in my opinion, that can NOT be said for the blues.

Seems to me that the blues has never faltered in popularity. To this day, if I’m playing anywhere and begin playing a slow Back at the Chicken Shack ( a I-IV-V 12-bar blues by Jimmy Smith which I recorded on one of my very first albums, Live at Raffles), heads will turn, beer mugs will be put down momentarily, and inevitably I will receive applause and nods of approval at the end.

Now, I’ve met some players who look their nose down at the blues, as if a simple I-IV-V progression somehow fails to meet the level of the pantheon of “true” jazz compositions. But, I don’t agree and never quite understood that point of view. guitarist Greg chako

I think that Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane could (happily) play the blues all night if they felt like it, and I think that all developed jazz improvisers need to know how to play the blues effectively. If there’s no blues at all in your playing ever, then I think something vital is missing and your jazz playing won’t sound right until you correct the issue.

Having said that, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Wes Montgomery play different styles of blues, Stevie’s being essentially a rock style and Wes’s a jazz style. I love them both by the way! But, I’ve had some students who were well-versed in the rock style ask me how they can make their playing sound more “jazzy,” and what could they incorporate into their solos other than the pentatonic or blues scale? I love that question, and I have some ideas that may answer it, while also addressing some excellent tips for improving any and all of your solos, whether you’re playing a blues or not! 

Greg Chako

Before I share my success formula for creating a winning jazz-blues solo, let me explore 3 of my ideas for developing a fine solo in general. 

1. Start Simple

2. Use Short Melodic Motifs

The first point I wish to emphasize is to start your solo simply by playing a short 3 to 5 note melodic motif using chord tones (root, 3rd, 5th, 7th) and/or chromatic approach notes into a chord tone (for instance, if the chord is an A-, you may use the ‘leading tone’ of G# on the off-beat leading to the A on the downbeat).

When I was studying music in college, my music theory teacher showed the class how J. Brahms used a few short and simple melodic ideas in the beginning bars to flesh out and develop the entirety of his 2nd Symphony. Most people are familiar with the opening 4-note theme of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and how those 4 notes are repeated and re-worked throughout the entire piece. While studying R. Wagner’s Ring Cycle, I learned that each character of the play had a particular “leitmotif” associated with them, such that when the listener heard it played somewhere in the orchestra, it foreshadowed that particular character’s entrance onto the stage, and as that character developed through the course of the plays’ storyline, so did the musical leitmotif associated with that character. 

I mention all of this in order to underline the potential importance of utilizing short and simple melodic motifs in favor of scales or ‘riffs’. Playing a motif and then developing and embellishing it a little as your solo continues, you can essentially “compose” a new melody. If you can sing it, it’s simple enough. And just as the aforementioned classical composers utilized motifs to develop their larger works, so can the jazz improviser use them to ‘launch’ further lines, like a ’springboard’ to more complex ideas and longer, perhaps more ’notey’ lines.

As you ‘get into’ your solo and play more notes, you can also come back to your original theme. Restating your motif can give your solos more shape and logic, and it has the additional benefit of enabling your listeners to have a greater chance of recognizing and relating to the solo structure you’re developing. The goal is to become more of a composer with your solos. You want to make your improvisations sound more logical than random; more finely constructed like the actual melody of the song rather than like random noodling that may sound diametrically opposed to the songs’ melody.

Become more selective with your note choice and strive to simplify by playing fewer, but possibly more impactful notes. Save your best licks for maximum effectiveness and don’t show ‘em all at once or too early! 

3. Sequencing

Sequencing is the restatement of a melodic motif at a higher or lower pitch. It is a common compositional technique. Notice a perfect example in the first 4 bars of the standard song below, It Could Happen to You. Notice how the melody of the first two bars is restated exactly in the 2nd 4 bars (bars 3 & 4), only a whole step higher in pitch. 

As you develop your solos from very short and simple melodic motifs, you can use this technique of sequencing to enhance what you’re doing. Sometimes you can transpose the motif up or down exactly like the beginning melody of It Could Happen to You, but often you might alter one note or so in order to make it match the harmony of the next chord. You will hear a lot of sequencing in the solos of pianist/composer Horace Silver, and as far as I know, pretty much all the great soloists use this sequencing technique at times. Combining these three tips effectively will help you make more appealing and effective solos.

 Now, here’s my “formula” as it pertains to a basic 12-bar blues in the key of F:

Bars 1-3 (F7 Bb7 F7) Play a simple & short arpeggio/chord-tone motif

Bar 4 (F7) Play the B Lydian Flat 7 scale/F# Melodic Minor scale/F7 Altered scale (all 3 scales have identical enharmonic notes: B C# Eb F F# Ab A B); OR play the Ab Minor Pentatonic (same as B Major Pentatonic) scale: Ab B Db Eb Gb Ab. What you are doing here is altering the tensions of the F7 chord and resolving to the Bb7 chord by 1/2 step rather than by Perfect 5th. It sounds great!

Bar 5 (Bb7) Play an arpeggio/chord tone motif & in Bar 6 play a Bo7 arpeggio/chord tone motif – the Bo7 chord has the same notes as a Bb7b9 chord without the Bb root; in other words, if you play a Bb7 and raise the Bb up 1/2 step to B, while keeping the other 3 notes the same (D, F, Ab), then you have a Bo7 chord.

Bars 7 & 8 (F7 E7 Eb7 D7) descending bass note from F down to V7 of ii (G-7) — arpeggio/chord tone motif

Bar 9 (G-7) arpeggio/chord tone motif

Bar 10 (C7) F Blues scale: F Ab Bb B C Eb F (this is where you Stevie Ray Vaughn it!)

Bars 11 & 12 I-vi-ii-V Turnaround – use either arpeggio, some bebop lick, or stick with the blues scale and/or any combination thereof.

Required knowledge: Chord spelling so you know what 4 notes make up each chord tone of each chord; the Blues scale; the B Lydian Flat 7 scale; the Minor Pentatonic scale. Below you can find an example using the formula I’ve described (quarter note = 76). Easy-Peasy! Go forth and be better soloists!

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