When I think about my favorite piano and keyboard players, they have two qualities that I admire: they always sound like themselves, and they always play what’s right for the music at hand. When soloing in a band, you need to have the tools to be as musically adventurous as possible, but also the discipline to know when to use them. When you’re writing your own music and fronting your own band, do whatever you want; when you’re playing someone else’s music, bring everything in your arsenal to the table, your ears above all else. Here are a few tips I’ve learned about soloing that I hope will help you find your own sound.
1. Transpose Your Lines
Transposition is a terrific tool. Move your solo line around until it sounds musical and interesting. Also try starting from an adventurous harmonic place, then make your way to the key of the song. Ex. 1a is a simple E pentatonic riff that I play up a half step. Bar 2 has another E riff connecting to a similar riff down a minor third, outlining a C minor chord but ending on a common tone to both scales that also rubs nicely with the major third of A7. Ex. 1b uses downwards motion in thirds.
2. Rhythmic Displacement
Another great solo technique is to take something you usually play but anticipate it by a sixteenth-note, lay it back, or superimpose a mixed-meter feel. In Ex. 2a I play off of a downbeat-heavy groove, laying backby one sixteenth-note. I then add to it by implying a triplet feel. In Ex. 2b I superimpose a 12/8 feel over a 4/4 groove, but I leave out the downbeats to make it less obvious.
3. Play the Blues
The blues work in almost every musical context. Try simplifying chord progressions into one common blues scale at the beginning of a solo to set a tone, or at the end of to “bring it all home.” Ex. 3a shows how four different dominant chords can be tied together with the blues scale of the tonic. Ex. 3b illustrates a similar idea, using the notes of the tonic blues scale to help outline the changes.
4. Make a Melody out of Chords
You canstrengthen your solo lines by making a melody, with each note the top note of a well-voiced chord. This can run the gamut from George Shearing-type block chords to modern Gospel and beyond. Ex. 4 demonstrates four different chords qualities to mix and match: fourths and sus chords in bar 1, diminished drop-2 chords in bar 2, upper-structure sharp-ninth chords in bar 3, and Shearing-esque block chords with the bottom note the same as the melody note in bar 4.
“I admire players like Herbie Hancock, Kenny Kirkland, Larry Goldings and James Poyser. Besides being formidable artists in their own right, they’ve worked as sidemen and collaborators for some of the biggest and most diverse names in music,” says New York-based keyboardist and composer David Cook. Cook is currently the Musical Director the Grammy Award winning Country/Pop artist Taylor Swift. He has also accompanied acclaimed artists like Jennifer Hudson, Natasha Bedingfield, and Lizz Wright, and is a member of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground. Cook’s debut album as a leader Pathway is available now. Visit him at davidcookmusic.com.