Improvised Soloing: Organization

Like a good story, an improvised solo should have a good beginning,
build to a high point, and have a good ending.

Beginning the Solo

If the solo begins with a break (a section in which the rest of the band stops), it is essential for the soloist's rhythm to be clear until the rest of the band comes in again. The simpler the rhythm, the easier it will be to stay together. The surprise comes from the fact that everybody else dropped out; make your solo's rhythm predictable.

If the solo doesn't begin with a break, you have the option of starting at the beginning of the first bar or waiting a few beats, to create suspense or to allow applause for the previous soloist to die down.

For solos beginning in the middle of the chorus, you will often have a lead-in by the full band, giving you the option of starting after they're done or, for a bit of an opening surprise, sustaining a note in the kickoff chord as the beginning of your solo.

Building to a High Point

After beginning the solo, build intensity (after quickly decreasing the intensity if you started on a loud high note) to the high point by gradually increasing the musical parameters—range, note speed, volume, rhythmic complexity—while continually making the tradeoff between predictability and surprise. As a general rule, the high point or most intense part of the solo should occur near the end of the solo, but not at the very end. This allows room for a musical denouement equivalent to wrapping up the loose ends in a novel. An exception to this high point guideline would be a solo that's expected to keep up the intensity to lead into a loud chorus; in this case, the high point may well be the very end of the solo.

It can help to diagram your solo against a time line divided into measures. Draw a line representing the melodic contours, and see if they follow a pattern of increasing range or tessitura. Do the same for rhythms—use fast wiggles for lots of notes, straight lines for sustained notes—and see if you have the kind of variation to keep it interesting for the audience while building to the high point of the solo. Having simple diagrams like this in mind can help as you create a solo. If you can listen to a recording of your solo, creating a diagram of what you actually played can give you a good visual reference as you evaluate the solo.

A Good Ending

The end of your solo is the last thing the audience will hear of it and often the part they'll remember most. Don't spoil your memorable high point by finishing the solo at the wrong time! If you quit too soon, the audience may think you have nothing left to communicate—or even that you forgot to tell them something important. If you keep going too long (the more common fault), your final gems will get lost in the band's next phrase, or you'll step on the beginning of the next person's solo.

Topics in Improvisation
The Big Picture
The Overall Goal of Improvised Soloing
Keeping the Listener Interested
The Buddy System

© 2001 by Glen Newton

This page was last updated
Friday, February 07, 2020.

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