Improv for Pop Songwriters

December 4, 2013
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The intersection of pop songwriting and improvisation is a powerful place to explore—one is quite necessarily structured, the other seeks to break out of structures or at least push their limits. Combining these two disciplines allows my pop and jazz personalities to coexist in a sort of schizophrenic balance. It can be challenging to bring songwriting and improvisation together, so here are a few ideas to get you going in the right direction.

 Click sheet music for larger images. Scroll down for audio examples.

1. Planting Seeds

 

Every song needs a starting point. Once you establish a solid foundation, you have unlimited potential for development. Ex. 1 is a four-bar chord progression and melody in the key of B minor. This would be the verse section of a song, intended for singing with lyrics. You can use this same chord progression as a vamp to improvise over in a solo or a group jam.

 

2. Leaving Space

 

Sometimes as players we forget one of the most important concepts in music: leaving space. (Otherwise known as “When not to throw everything we’ve learned into the first two bars of a solo!”) Allowing your improvisations to develop slowly will leave you more room to build them towards excitement and craziness later on. Ex. 2 illustrates two-handed “open” voicings that will set the pace for what’s yet to come.


 3. Melodic References

 

Don’t be shy about referencing a song’s melody in your solo. An effective way to tie it in to your improvisation is to play the melody’s original rhythms but change the notes, as seen in Ex. 3. This example also employs closed voicings in the left hand for variety.


 4. Left-Hand Variations

 

How you accompany yourself with your left hand can really change the feel of a solo. Alternating octaves on the root of each chord like those in Ex. 4 create a solid undercurrent beneath the right hand melodic explorations based on the B blues scale. 

 

5. Bringing It Home

 

The repetitive, right hand ostinato pattern in Ex. 5 creates energy and tension while the chords change with syncopated accents beneath it. The arc of your improvisation should lead to this conclusive point in the journey, where the final crushing punch of your solo is the climactic moment everyone is waiting for!

 

Practice Tip

“Years of studying jazz and as well as pop songwriters helped me develop these concepts. Remember that the more music you listen to, the more influences you can draw from,” says Scott Chasolen, acclaimed for his work in instrumental group Ulu, Pink Floyd tribute band the Machine, and jazz-pop of his solo project SC3. Chasolen’s album Portrait blends songwriting and improvisational elements. For more info visit scottchasolen.com.

 
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