When musicians solo, most of the time their focus is on melodic development and playing notes that fit (or intentionally defy) the chord changes. Making rhythm the primary focus of your solos can provide a fresh perspective for jazz playing and give you some creative freedom in the harmonically restrictive situations we are often faced with in the pop world. Here are some examples of how to use rhythm to jumpstart your improvisation.
1. Single Note Improv
Improvising using just one note may sound boring or constricting, but doing so gives you the freedom to focus entirely on rhythm and dynamics, as seen in Ex. 1. I often start solos by playing just one note. This almost always draws the crowd and the other musicians in, since it’s such a departure from the norm. And when it’s done well, it builds tension and excitement. Practice this technique by taking a melody you know and playing it using just one note, but with the same phrasing you would use if you were playing the entire melody.
2. Laws of Subtraction
A teacher of mine in college changed my musical world when he told me, “Your phrasing always sounds similar. Try removing one note from every phrase you hear.” This idea opened up a whole new world of ideas without having to change the notes I was playing. The figure in Ex. 2 shows a line of eighth notes, followed by three examples of that line with an eighth note taken out from different parts of the phrase.
In pop and R&B settings, there are only a few notes in the scale that work for most solos, and simpler is usually better. One great way to approach this is to take a single phrase, then repeat it starting on different parts of the beat. Ex. 3 starts with a simple phrase, then displaces the same phrase three different ways.
4. Pentatonic Triplets
The pentatonic scale is a staple of many genres of music. Superimposing a triplet feel over a 4/4 groove using the notes from the pentatonic scale provides great rhythmic tension, spicing up a limited note selection. Ex. 4 shows two phrases utilizing this technique—one ascending and one descending.
5. Alternating Swing and Straight Feels
For advanced players, another way to do more with less is to play deliberately straight over a swing feel, or to deliberately swing over a straight feel. Use this as a tension builder, as your solo should eventually work back into the natural feel of the groove. This needs to be done with strong conviction in order to work, but is very effective when properly executed. Ex. 5 begins in a straight feel with all the notes staccato, then the same phrase is played with an exaggerated swing feel.
Sam Barsh is a keyboardist, songwriter, and producer who has appeared on recent releases by Anderson .Paak, Ty Dolla $ign, and Eminem. Barsh co-wrote Aloe Blacc’s Number One song “The Man” and worked on Kendrick Lamar’s multiple Grammy Award-winning album To Pimp a Butterfly. Find-out more at sambarsh.com.