“How do you just come up with stuff?”
People often ask me how I “just play stuff” or how I come up with new lines and licks on the spot. How do you practice doing that?
THE LICKS BASED APPROACH
For some people the answer is licks: They have been learning one lick after another for years and have been playing around with combining and changing them in different ways and then they gradually built the ability to “just play stuff”
But these are the same people who often run out of licks when they jam and improvise with others. I remember that feeling so well. Like having only so much stuff to play and when I had used up all my stuff I didn’t know what else to play.
I absolutely hated that feeling because it made me feel like an amateur. Mostly because I was stuck with the idea that a professional would be able to keep playing great lines indefinitely.
LEARN EVEN MORE LICKS!
I once thought that the solution to that problem was to learn even more licks and then to “stretch” those licks by playing them multiple times and changing them so I wouldn’t use them up too quickly in a solo.
But it didn’t really seem like improvising and that was definitely the skill I wanted. Everyone told me that improvising was like composing music in real-time, but what I heard most people do was using the same pre-composed little entities (licks) over and over again. Changing them a little and playing them in different ways, but it was still the same basic ideas being used over and over again.
Depending on how you treat the ingredients of your favorite curry dish, you will get different results when you cook but it’s all going to taste like curry!
RE-ARRANGING VERSUS COMPOSING
Another problem I had with this approach was that licks are really bits and pieces of someone else’s solo. And since most people base their solo work on this approach, most of what we hear is the same old stuff processed in new ways. It’s the same curry we’re feeding ourselves over and over again.
It does develop from generation to generation because each player adds a little of his own to the mix, wich then again enters other people’s playing style through learning his licks and on it goes.
I couldn’t let go of the idea that there was a way of learning how to truly improvise. To truly be able to compose on the spot instead of merely rearranging pre-learned bits and pieces.
It turned out that the answer wasn’t in the re-arranging but in the bits and pieces. Your brain simply cannot “just come up with stuff on the spot”, it has to re-arrange learned entities. The only reason we are able to “improvise” our way to making sense when we speak, is that we have words.
Words that we have learned so we can form sentences that then eventually creates meaning. But the brain needs these basic building blocks before it can build something meaningful. No bricks, no building.
“Creativity is a continual surprise.”
FIND THE SMALLEST BUILDING BLOCK
Imagine an author basing his or her stories on bits and pieces of other people’s stories. Even though most authors do this to some extend, their stories are not made up of tiny stories but words. Words are the smallest component. Those are our building blocks.
If we use the same insight in our world of improvising great solos, you could say that, as long as we base the majority of our musical vocabulary on licks, we are really trying to write stories by putting little bits and pieces of other stories together. To truly improvise, we need to focus on learning the equivalent of words in speaking and that is sequences.
THEY ARE COLD, PREDICTABLE AND BELONG TO NO ONE
Sequences belong to no one. They are neutral, predictable and the tiniest building blocks of melody. By practicing them we train our fingers to move in all directions and we teach our ear different pathways through scales and arpeggios.
When we then start combining these sequences and add rhythm to them, they disappear into thin air and become melodies based on your unique preferences in the moment, in real-time, as you play. Now.
The lines I play in this video are all created as I play. I don’t know what I am going to play before I play it, just as we most often don’t know what we are going to say before we say it. It’s not anymore special than the ability to form sentences and anyone can learn to do it:
STRUCTURE MIXED WITH CREATIVITY
The human ear likes predictability but is bored if it is not mixed with the unpredictable. Sequences are predictable systems and like the spices of your favorite curry they are of little value by themselves.
But when you mix them and stir them using your personal preferences you create something that is not only an original expression but your original expression. And this expression is not chaotic since it is created from a base of systematic little sequences. That’s why it sounds like music and not just random notes.
Then you go from having access to only 10 spices to having every flavor there is on the planet at your disposal. Now you can move outside having to cook different variations of the same curry and really create some magic.
In other words: There is no shortage of material, no running out of licks, you can tell the never-ending story, it’s a pleasurable flow of ideas created in the moment with no thoughts or considerations involved.
LICKS BECAME A STUDY OF STYLES
When I experienced the first results from practicing sequences, licks quickly became a way of studying someone elses playing and not a source of soloing material: “How does he get the great sound on the end note?” or “What is that cool combination of notes in the middle of that lick?” and what I gained from it were insights I could use in my own playing, but I never learned another lick ever again. Ever.
I practiced emulating someone else’s way of doing vibrato of sliding up or down to the notes, of putting emphasis on a certain note of a scale to get a certain sound, or using the pick and fingers to get a specific sound, and so on – but my motivation to learn what someone else had played note for note disappeared completely. Simply because learning sequences and rhythm and combining both over and over again was so rewarding and fun.
“The principal mark of genius is not perfection but originality, the opening of new frontiers.”
HOW TO DO IT
1. Learn rhythm
Let me give you the simple method I used to turn sequences into music: The first thing is to realize that there is no interesting melody without rhythm so you must become a master of rhythm very quickly and you can.
The skill is really this: Being able to tap your foot at a steady beat while being able to clap, strum or pick any rhythm on top of it. If you lose the ability to keep that basic beat going with your foot, you don’t know what you are doing anymore.
2. Learn sequences
Secondly you must learn and practice a ton of sequences because it trains your fingers and hands to go in all directions at any point in your solo – and it trains your mind to construct unpredictable melodies by combining predictable sequences and rhythm, giving you just the right combination of both.
Anyone can play a bunch of random notes from a scale, but that’s not really going to be interesting to listen to. That’s like throwing random words together. Practicing sequences gives you the ability to make musical sense when you play.
3. Improvise VERY slowly
The third step is to practice using your sequences. Practice playing a sequence using a certain rhythm pattern. Practice playing a few notes from a sequence and then ending it on a great sound note, adding sliding bending, vibrato or what ever technique you master to spice things up. Practice combining two or more sequences in different ways.
But all this is play. It’s improvising but doing it very slowly with a lot of time to come up with and practice each little lick you create. Because that’s what you really do. You create lick after lick after lick. You quickly forget about each lick once you have created it and practiced it ten or twenty times because you move on to something else.
There is little structure to this kind of practicing. You slouch back in your couch have fun coming up with one little line based on the sequences you know. Then you refine it until it sounds right. Play it a couple of times and then you do it again.
YOU NATURALLY BECOME FASTER
This playful discipline of creating great sounding lines and runs by combining different sequences and rhythms becomes what you do when you play with the band. Only now you master it to the point where you do it in real-time, on the spot, with no hesitation. You simply and naturally become faster at it as you do it every day until the point of mastery.
Now the notion of “running out of licks” becomes ridiculous. There is nothing to run out of. There isn’t a library of precomposed stuff but instead a library of building blocks that forms more new and original licks than you can play in a lifetime.
PRACTICING WITH JAM TRACKS
At some point you have become so fast at creating little interesting lines that you can start practicing with music. When you do, pick slow ballads for jam tracks. This gives you a reasonable amount of time to find the right notes as the music plays in the background.
Then go for tracks that are faster until you master those as well. Focus on having fun all the way. You are either stressed or you are creative. You can’t push yourself and get good results at the same time.
Those are really the steps. Enjoy the process!
WARNING. STAY OUT OF THIS TRAP:
Human beings have a distinct tendency to search for what is objectively “right” and “wrong” even when it has no relevant function and therefore, if you like the point of this article, you might get an inclination to view a lick based approach as wrong or bad. It isn’t. It gives you results far faster than the sequences approach since you will be able to play great sounding solos much sooner in your development.
Instead of looking at licks as an inferior concept, use them until you don’t have to anymore. Go from one way of having fun to another. In my experience, truly improvising is far more fun and creates a whole new world of interesting solos, but that does not make a licks based approach a bad thing to pursue as it enables you to have more fun faster. You can do both and at the same time.