Most bass players that have at least a basic ability to improvise typically have a ‘comfort zone’ that they play from. These comfort zones evolve from familiarity; familiarity evolves from repetition. Repetition corresponds to what you play over and over again, whether it’s in the practice shed or on the gig. Unfortunately, what we find ourselves practicing over and over again isn’t necessarily what we need in order to get to the next level as a player. One of the most common issues that I deal with as a teacher is trying to get students to break out of these pattern-inspired, almost subconscious movements of their fingers that have them playing the same ideas over and over again. These symptoms almost always crop up when we begin to work on improvising on the bass. Players that suffer from these limitations are rarely able to play with any inspiration or freedom; this is because they are stuck ‘playing the math.’ In other words, they rely almost exclusively on VISUAL CUES (i.e. patterns, fret markers, shapes, etc.) instead of WHAT THEY HEAR. For many of us, our concepts for improvisation have evolved from a pattern-based approach combined with applied harmony and theory. Unfortunately, this is a dead end street.
You may be a player that has mostly been a ‘theory based’ approach to soloing. In other words, you have mostly relied on the fundamentals of harmonization and chordal improvisation in making your choices of what notes to play or avoid in soloing over changes. The chords, themselves have dictated your note choices so far, and you have to this point become familiar with a basic set of harmonic principles that have equipped you with several default ideas that can be used over many common progressions.
Although I feel strongly that this is an effective way to be introduced to the art of improvisation, it is my opinion that improvising only by what I call ‘playing the math’ ultimately leads to a dead end in your development. If you want to be a great improviser, you are going to need to learn how to ‘play what you hear’, and this level of development doesn’t naturally evolve from thinking about matching scales to chords. This is why I constantly harp on the need for players to use every learned pattern as an ear training exercise, and not just a visual cue that assists in keeping your fingers on the correct notes. Your goal as you work through these lessons should be acquiring the ability to hear and subsequently play (in real time) improvised melodic phrases that are inspired by what is happening harmonically. This is just a fancy way of describing what it means to hear and play unique melodies on the fly.
Melody Based Improvisation
Melody can be defined partially as the part of the tune that we can sing or hum along to. Let’s imagine for a moment an improvisational approach in which we would only base our ideas on modified versions of a memorized written melody, instead of focusing only on the chord changes in the tune and what notes ‘fit’ the changes. Think about how this would completely change your perspective of where your ideas would be coming from. You would be relating your improvised ideas to the melody that you would already be hearing in your mind, and this melody would become your reference in place of chord types. It is this approach that I want you to start thinking about in addition to the methods we have covered so far. Practicing this way frees you up from depending on the patterned visual cues on the fingerboard and forces you to be creative and assertive.
Now let’s take a look at an example of how this approach might evolve. Example 1 demonstrate a simple written melody played over 4 measures.
Play example 1 repeatedly until you have the melody memorized. Now play and listen to the following variation, example 2. Notice that the melody played is still based on the written melody in example 1, but now the rhythm of the notes has changed. All of the included notes are there, but the way the melody is phrased has been varied somewhat from the original.
Now here is another variation that not only incorporates rhythmic variation, but some melodic variation, as well.
Finally, here is a third variation that interprets the written melody even more loosely. Elements of the melody are still implied, but it is a much more subtle delivery.
After playing and listening to these three variations, I hope you are able to hear the progression in ideas that are that gradually pulling farther away from the original written melody. This is the process that I want you to start thinking about. I each of the previous variation examples, no thought was necessarily given to the particular modes or patterns that were to be used. All point of reference was derived from the shape and sound of the melody, itself.
The interesting thing about all this is that, in order to develop this approach effectively, you really don't have to depend on any theory knowledge at all. You are essentially just 'learning by ear' in the same manner in which you have have learned how to play rock, r&b, or blues tunes in the past.
The reason so many players get intimidated by the idea of playing jazz is simply that typical jazz harmony sounds unfamiliar and a little awkward to them. The truth is, if you had been brought up from the time you were a young child listening to mostly jazz and improvisational music, your ears would have already been conditioned to what is traditionally played in those settings; making the connection between what you had been accustomed to hearing and how to make those sounds on your instrument would be that much more natural. However, because the majority of us have cut our teeth mostly on such styles as rock, funk, pop, country, etc., our ears are not as equipped for helping direct our fingers to the most appropriate phrases when it comes to playing jazz.
So you see, new musical styles aren't difficult to understand or play... They're just UNFAMILIAR.
Until next time, practice hard and have fun.