Growing up, I listened to a lot of contemporary keyboard
players . What I eventually learned was that everyone had a distinctive
style that made their playing instantly recognizable. I realized that
this was one of the secrets to becoming a successful solo artist. Your
own sound will be informed by everyone that you listen to and try to
emulate. One of the hallmarks of my own playing is my use of melodic phrasing
in my solo development. In these examples, I try to break down some of
the ideas I often use to help add new ideas to your own solo adventures.
1. Setting the Tone
Ex. 1 sets the tone for the solos that follow,
stating the song’s chord changes. Note that my playing starts simply at
first and grows more complex rhythmically as the song develops.
2. Rhythmic and Harmonic Development
In Ex. 2 I use the same chords as above, but I
experiment with rhythms, adding in triplets and short notes. I also
change the altered notes on the dominant chord to add extra flavor as
the passage develops. On the major and minor chords, I sometimes add in
many of the notes in the corresponding scale to create “clusters” which
further add harmonic interest to the solo. On the dominant chord near
the beginning of this example, I play triads in the right hand
descending down the scale. It’s a simple technique that adds a great
deal of variety to the mix. I use this technique at the end of my solo
on my song “Horizon” from my new album Another Long Night Out.
3. Arpeggios and Syncopations
Ex. 3 is a great way to start a solo when you just want to start off blazing! Here, I’m starting on the 11th of the D
minor chord and arpeggiating down the chord in a syncopated rhythm.
(It’s simpler than it sounds.) On my latest album, I play something
similar in the beginning of my solo on the song “Heroes of the Dawn.”
4. Repeated Motifs
Ex. 4 examines repeating motifs, which are a great
way to make a section of a solo stand out. Try playing one lick over a
particular chord, and then playing it again outlining the next chord.
The great improvisers have all used this technique from time to time.
5. Common Tones
Playing a common tone throughout a set of chord changes is
a great tool to have in your soloing arsenal. The late, great George
Duke was a master at playing a single note in a solo and still making it
captivating. In Ex. 5, I simply change the top note to coincide with the chord changes, keeping the bottom tone common.
“What makes an artist recognizable has to do with things like phrasing,
harmonic complexity, the way they groove (funky, “on top,” or “laid
back”), their solo licks, and how much space they leave in their
playing,” says acclaimed contemporary jazz keyboardist, producer, and
songwriter Brian Culbertson. His latest album Another Long Night Out is his sixth to debut at Number One on the Billboard charts. Visit him at brianculbertson.com.