My new buddy in Australia, Tony Obermeit sent another interesting and thought provoking email after my last post. Thanks Tony! He commented on the rigid structure of playing with a metronome and he’ll get no argument from me about that! I know I’ve endorsed using them to practice but there is no question they put a damper on creativity. Still, for some players they should be required equipment when practicing, particularly if it’s someone who has hopes of playing in a band. There are few things as frustrating as playing with someone who can’t keep a beat.
Tony suggested playing with prerecorded drum tracks or perhaps a rhythm machine. I like that idea better than a metronome although my last experience with one of those things (admittedly, many years ago) inspired by bass player friend Andy Groag and I to call the thing Korg the Relentless (!). Still, good practice for most of us I think.
He also commented on some online teaching sites that he likes because they concentrate on learning songs. I’m not in the business of endorsing my competition – ha! – but there’s no question there are some wonderful online resources out there. Tony recalled the drudgery of private instructors who force students to spend long hours learning and practicing scales. The relative merits of scale-practice is a highly subjective topic, for sure. Do I practice them? Yes, but not as much as I used to. There is a tradition in learning any melodic instrument that assumes scale work is of great benefit. I think this is true for someone playing classical music much more so than any of the varieties of pop music, due to the simple fact that scale-wise motion is present in hundreds of years of the classical repertoire; not so much in pop music.
Good for your fingers? For sure. But I also feel very strongly that imbedding scales on your tonal consciousness can be a bad thing from an improvisational perspective. If you’ve spent hours and hours learning scales they are very hard to avoid when you try to improvise. The more scale-wise motion intrudes on your improvising, the more your solo sounds like scales! I’m embarrassed to admit that I am still guilty of this from time to time but in the last decade or so I’ve been making strong efforts to avoid that. Ever hear a player who gives you a feeling he’s doing some sort of math problem on his fretboard? No matter how pyrotechnic his solo may, before long…. Boring! I guarantee that guy plays a mean three-octave major diatonic scale though.
If you’re stuck in that rut the best advice I can offer is quite simple. Learn melodies! All the great jazzers know this. The first thing they learn is the “head.” A great melody, no matter how simple stands on its own. Listen to Miles Davis doing “Bye, Bye Blackbird.” Miles was never a flashy player but every note was planned and RIGHT, and as with all great improvisers you never forget the melody no matter how far he strays from it.
I guess all I’m saying is: learn your scales but don’t allow them to dominate your practice time or your playing. “Play what you hear,” a jazz guitar teacher once told me. What you should hear, at least in the beginning, is the melody. Not do,re,mi,fa,sol,la,ti,do.
Peace & good music,