Improvising Solo
Stretching Out On Your Solo Guitar Pieces

by Dan Lambert

About the Author

I was first attracted to guitar through rock and roll - the Beatles, a bunch of pop bands, whatever some kid in his early teens would be drawn to in the last half of the 1960's.  As I got to be a better player and just a hipper cat in general, rock guitar players that "jammed out" a bit more were the ones that really captured my imagination.  I was fascinated by players who could stretch out and play long, involved melodies.  This sent me down the road (which I'm still traveling), investigating all sorts of improvising musicians - sax players, pianists, ethnic musicians performing on any number of exotic instruments, you name it, and of course, guitar players.

Somewhere along the way, the sound of solo fingerstyle guitar captured me, the idea of getting it all out of one instrument being the main draw.  I think the challenge was a big attraction, keeping everything going (bass, middle voices, upper register), taxing my facilities as a player and forcing me to constantly rethink and rework my technique.  Playing set pieces was nice, but I wanted to improvise on these tunes.  That would entail wailing away over my own accompaniment.  I don't mean variations that I'd worked out beforehand (although I do enough of those), I'm talking about winging it.

I searched for guitar players to model ideas after - some country blues players, flamenco guitarists, the jazzers who play solo, old time and country cats, Hawaiian slack key masters, classical guitarists, any and everyone who played unaccompanied.  Not that all these musicians improvised, but I could pick up on solo performing techniques by watching and listening to them.  While some of the variations/improvisations were stunning, most didn't have the free - flowing looseness that I was looking for.  I wanted to be Duane Allman, Pat Martino, John Coltrane, or some Oud player, but providing my own accompaniment.  It has taken an incredible amount of listening, studying, growing, and maturing to even get headed in the right direction (I guess that's what I meant when I said "challenge").  I started simple.

A steady rhythm with your thumb while playing a melody with your fingers is FINGERSTYLE GUITAR - BOOK ONE.   A traditional rock solid thumb beat while playing over the top of it with your fingers is really the basis for all this - ground zero for fingerstyle guitar.  Your thumb can pump away at a drone note (monotonic bass), alternate some notes on the lower strings, or do a nice quarter or eighth note walk.

I've been intrigued by melodies played against drones ever since I heard music from India back thirty years ago.  Since then I've studied music from the mid east and eastern Europe that uses this same structure, along with bagpipe tunes from the UK.  In the case of bagpipes, the drone is constant, whereas on guitar you will be picking it at intervals to keep it sounding.  On all of this, you'll have to use your imagination.  Let's face it, you'll never quite sound like Davey Spillane (a great Irish piper), but you can try to get as close as you can.  At times I'm using my thumbpick for the melody, simultaneously keeping a drone.  I can play the melody with my pick while regularly dropping down to keep the pedal going.  If I want to keep the bass more rhythmic, I'll use a more traditional approach of playing it with my thumb and using my fingers for the upper and middle voices.  You are trying to pick up on the feel here.  Is it the liquid sound of the notes that's important, or is it the little trills placed throughout the melody, or is it the rhythm?  You'll have to decide.

The alternating bass approach is similar to the drone except now you have more going on in the bass, your thumb bouncing back and forth between a couple of strings.  I first picked up on this style by listening to ragtime players (Eric Schoenberg, Stefan Grossman) early country guitarists (Merle Travis, Chet Atkins) and members of the "American Primitive School" (Leo Kottke, John Fahey).

The third, and most sophisticated, method is to put together walking bass lines.  I listen a lot to jazz bassists (Mingus, Ron Carter, Jaco) to get ideas.  I also find some good ideas in the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, the list goes on and on.  Once the bass starts moving this much, it becomes a melody in itself, providing a counterpoint to what is going on above it.

No matter what I'm doing with the bass, I divide the fretboard into three sections, low notes, middle voices, and upper register.  Any position on the neck can be thought of in this way; let's say third position, key of G minor.  You have an octave of that scale on the low three strings for the bass.  If you stick your pinky out to the sixth fret on the high string (Bb), you'll be starting on the third of the scale and can work your way back all the way to the fifth fret, fourth string (G) for more than an octave of melody notes.  The middle voices consist of the upper bass notes and the lower treble notes, overlapping both registers.  In this position you can flop a bar down at the third fret and catch all this stuff.  There are also a ton of chords and harmonies "right under your fingers" using variations of that same bar.  The I, IV, and V are there (with all their variations, here I'll add the 7th of each chord to make the voicings a bit slicker - Gm7, Cm7, D7). That funky little II - V - I  progression is there - Am7b5, Dm7b9, Gm6.   You can play the whole chord, or you can imply it with two or three notes.

Every position on your guitar can be divided up and organized in this way, major mode, minor mode, whatever.  You can also look for open strings (no matter what position you're in) to insert into the mix. The key is to get used to thinking of a couple (or three) voices at once. Remember, you're not trying to memorize little variations here, your goal is to learn these positions (and the fingerboard as a whole) so well that when you hear an idea, you can play it.  It involves some advanced right hand finger independence, and the playing of a lot of music to get to that point.

At times, playing an extended melody with a pick (I use a thumbpick) has more of the feel that I want than playing the same line with my fingers.  You can really rip into a lead line with a pick, using fingers is stiffer, even for the great flamenco players.  It has to do with being able to alternate the direction of your pick, while your finger action all comes from the same direction, giving a much more staccato sound.  Sabicas' rapid-fire runs sound fantastic, but they do have that machine gun chop to them.  Mostly I'm looking for a legato sound that I can add some "quack" to when I need it.

But if you're using your pick or thumbpick for the melody, what's taking care of the accompaniment?  You have several choices here.  First you can alternate some measures of a lead line with measures of thicker, chordal figures.  It helps when switching back and forth to keep the number of measures regular and consistent, say 4 measures of melody with 2 or 4 measures of background.  After a couple of series, the pulse set up between these sections gets the tune rolling along nicely, the anticipation of one section following the next sets up a pulse at times implied, at other times very much stated.  This "implied" rhythm is an important tool in solo playing.  I hear it in the work of Brazilian (and Brazilian influenced) players especially.  A rhythm gets stated, then toyed with, all the while the echo of the original rhythm leaving it's mark on the phrases that come after.  Just when you may be forgetting the original rhythm, it shows up again.  This idea has been an integral part of jazz since the late 1940's, the drummers getting away from a steady "thump, thump, thump" and getting more into accents and layered sounds (polyrhythms).  The thinking was (and is) that you don't have to beat someone over the head with the pulse, that an alternate approach can add to the interest and effectiveness of the music - that you can get a lot of mileage out of a little subtlety and restraint.

Another way I use my pick for the melody is when I play a stream of notes without any backup, allowing the steady flow to become it's own accompaniment.  After several measures of straight eighth notes, the tune moves along under it's own power, your ear has to tell you when it's time for some more backup.  Or you can keep the steady steam going, moving down to the lower register when you feel the need for a fuller sound.  You can organize the scales in all sorts of patterns to add structure to your melodies.  Moving up or down in three note groups that span a third or four note groups that span a fourth both have a nice natural feel.  I hear this in the guitar of Norman Blake to the tenor sax of Sonny Rollins.  Music from the baroque and classical eras also tend to utilize this type of melodic structure.  It's good scale practice too.  You can even stress certain chord tones while moving through a set of changes, that way youšll be able to hear the chords pass by as you string melodies together.  It doesn't have to be straight eighth notes either, you can break it up with some triplets, or accent some measures every now and then with chords or harmonies.

With all of these techniques (even working in a little two-handed tapping; the idea of which I got from hearing John Coltrane insert a pedal tone between notes of an ascending or descending scale passage on his soprano sax), the bottom line is to get onto my guitar all of the sounds that I hear.  It adds to my vocabulary and enriches the music.

Pick up on all sorts of music.  You need to get some sounds in your head, or all these techniques for getting them out of your guitar won't do much good.  Listen to cd's, but you'll learn a whole lot more hearing music live.  Find a good local teacher, and maybe take some music/composition classes at the local college. 

I'm constantly listening to new or old players, studying another theory book, working on a technical exercise, writing a new piece, or jamming on a new riff or tune or idea - jamming, I'm always jamming.  It's how I turn all the homework I've done into music.  I think of it as "organic writing", working a thought until it sounds just the way I imagined.

About the Author

Dan Lambert is an instrumental acoustic fingerstyle guitar player from Texas.  He got his start in suburban Chicago and later at the University of Illinois, playing in rock bands, folk groups, and jazz ensembles.  Upon moving to Kent, Ohio, he started playing solo at every college, folk club, and vegetarian restaurant in Northeast Ohio.  He has lived in El Paso, Texas for the last 25 years, performing, recording, and teaching guitar.   Dan's music is an eclectic blend of everything he has listened to and studied - folk, jazz, blues , rock, music from other cultures and countries - you'll find it all in his playing.  He has 3 acoustic instrumental cd's out on the COORDINATE RECORDS label, "The Clearing", "Plaids", and "Melodies/Improvisations".   James Sallis, in the book "The Guitar In Jazz" writes, "Dan Lambert's playing is highly individualistic - sometimes relaxed and in a groove, often full of stabbing odd turns - and immediately recognizable."


Dan Lambert "The Clearing"

Hi Fi Play: Into The Mist     The Opening     For Those Left Behind    
Lo Fi Play: Into The Mist     The Opening     For Those Left Behind    

Dan Lambert "Melodies/Improvisations"

Hi Fi Play: October Rhythm     Song Within A Song    
Lo Fi Play: October Rhythm     Song Within A Song    

Dan Lambert "Plaids"

Hi Fi Play: Sandstorm     An Alpine Meadow     60's Love Theme    
Lo Fi Play: Sandstorm     An Alpine Meadow     60's Love Theme