His solos were things of beauty not just for the technical facility but the way they were built. I try to convey to my students who are interested in learning to improvise how important it is to construct a solo, rather than just dive in and hope something good comes out. All the great ones do that, in every form of improvisational music. This is to say, a well-constructed solo should have a beginning, a middle that gradually leads to a climax and an end.
But for most of us, myself included, this is much easier said than done. As I mentioned in my last entry, dealing with a finite amount of time is the first step. A solo that is open-ended is extremely difficult to keep from deflating at some point.
There are extremes to the amount of structure a solo can have and you have to decide whether the music you're playing requires them. For example, guitarists who play bluegrass often stay very, very close to the melody, which is sometimes based on old Irish tunes. Hardcore 'grassers can be quite intolerant of anyone who strays too far from convention. I remember when Tony Rice burst on the scene back in the 1970s that there was a very vocal segment of the community who absolutely despised what Tony did to the supposedly sacrosanct bluegrass standards. Tony was bold enough to throw in jazz, blues and swing influences, quite the opposite of what gods of the guitar like Doc Watson would do. The whole thing seems pretty silly now, with groups playing what has become known as Americana turning a lot of those tunes into bold improvisations. But back then it was borderline blasphemy!
Constructing a solo must begin somewhere and the best place is with the melody. Jazzers know this - it's called the "head." The advantage is two fold. It gives the player a basic palette of music to begin the exploration. From the audiences' perspective it makes what follows sound more musical and logical because a good soloist makes them "hear" the melody, at least for a while, even if they are not playing it all - the phrasing and sound of the melody sticks better than diving into something random.
What follows is the real fun - or terror, depending on how your chops are on any given night. A good soloist employs small peaks and valleys, ever climbing higher in intensity. Don't confuse fast or loud playing with intensity though. On a ballad or slower tune that intensity has to take the form of depth of emotion.
Finally, a peak is reached. If it's done right the peak of a solo should be some combination of surprise and logic, the culmination of everything that went before. When it works that moment can be transcendent.
Then comes the ending. It should be relatively short, to the point, and most of all, definitive. "Sound like you mean it." That's what a guitar teacher told me many years ago, and I've always remembered that sage advice. I don't always succeed but when I do, it sure feels good!
Peace & good music,