How do you learn to play good blues solos?
Some people think blues solos are easy: just learn a couple of minor blues scales and play them over the chords. Well, this approach can work when you are starting out. It will sound OK and at least give you the confidence to stand up and solo in front of other musicians or an audience. But it’s far from the whole picture. Most of the great blues players knew their theory and practised hard to learn scales, arpeggios, patterns and licks (plenty of those on the saxophone lessons page) and how they fit around chord changes.
But with blues improvisation, technique on its own won’t cut it, you need that extra magic that can make even an apparently simple solo sound somehow more relevant and memorable. This means learning to play melodically or lyrically. Instead of stringing notes together you might think of them like a conversation (originally blues was a “call and response” vocal form). This can mean either repeating a phrase, or repeating it at a different pitch or with a few notes altered.
Transcribe and Analyse
Also see Why You Shouldn’t Transcribe
Jazz and blues improvisation teaching is placing more & more emphasis on learning specific scales to fit a chord type. While this approach has some merits (you can gain confidence in soloing over a chord sequence quite quickly), the danger is that you miss the wider picture. It can become easy to get into the habit of running up and down scales rather than finding interesting melodic phrases that can hold the listener’s interest by building up tension and releasing it, or by giving a solo a real musical shape.
To get this kind of skill, probably the best thing you can do is to listen, learn and transcribe some solos. Then try to analyse what the player is doing or the way they are thinking. I have done simple analyses of some of the solos on these pages to show you how to approach understanding what makes a well structured solos.
You can learn some good jazz licks, but best of all, you must learn how to put them together in order to create interest, e.g. tension & release leading to a satisfactory conclusion of the solo – exactly as if you are composing. Of course, it’s useful to learn lots of licks and phrases, but best of all try to invent your own. The transcriptions and analyses will give you some ideas about what to look for and how to analyse saxophone solos:
Transcribing Blues Solos
At first this is quite a daunting task, but well worth doing your own transcriptions rather than buying them if you have the time (and cheaper). By doing them yourself you will be training your ears and probably get a much better understanding of the solo. There are several ways to make your transcribing life easier.
- Initially pick some easy solos, the hardest part can be working out complex rhythms so choose something quite basic, e.g. solos where the player is sticking mostly to quavers (8th notes).
- Before starting the transcription, listen over and over again, learn to sing along with the solo.
- Learn some basic keyboard technique. This will also help with understanding the harmony.
- Understand the shape of the solo, the form of the harmony (AABA etc), the number of choruses.
- Above all, listen for any striking melodic motifs, however insignificant they may seem, that are built on and developed.
Use all the resources at your fingertips, I recommend some transcription software such as Transcribe. If you don’t have the time to do your own, there are thousands of jazz and saxophone transcriptions available to buy – but make sure you analyse and understand them as well as learn to play them. I shall be gradually adding more transcribed solos to these pages so please keep coming back!
Lester Young: Boogie Woogie
Things to Note In Particular
- Contrast of major 3rd and minor 3rd
- Neighbour notes
- Pentatonic phrases that don’t necessarily exactly fit the chord shape. This is common and OK in the blues
View the Video score and analysis:
|1||A1||Opening motif – major pentatonic|
|2||A2||Repeated but with minor 3rd|
|3||A3||Repeated with major 3rd.|
|The juxtaposition of maj/min 3rd is very typical in blues. Often, as in this case, with chords I and IV: The major 3rd of chord I drops a semitone to the b7 of chord IV. Riffs are repeated through these changes with just that one note altered to fit the chords. (NB: the root note is common to both: the root of I is the 5th of IV.|
|7-8||Also here: Minor 3rd of key (= b7 of chord IV again) to major 3rd of chord I|
|10||(Tonic) Pentatonic pattern over chord V7. This is acceptable in blues, but not so much in music where the changes should be followed more precisely. It works here because the repetitive nature of blues riffs.|
|1 -2||B1||Motif using G as diatonic lower neighbour note|
|3||C||Motif using same notes with G as passing note into:|
|3 – 4||B2||Repeat of B|
|4 – 5||D||Motif starting on two notes with G as unprepared suspension|
|8||Phrase using two neighbour notes as “fake” leading notes. These are very common in blues solos.|
|10 – 12||Major pentatonic|
Lee Allen: Walking With Mr. Lee
View the Video score and analysis:
- Use of “on beat” phrases to allow syncopation to contrast
- Contrast between minor blues and pentatonic phrases and melodic motifs that follow chord tones
- Use of flattened 7th in bar 4 of 12 bar as guide tone to chord IV
- Intensity built through repetition and development of simple motifs
- Climax built through double time and rhythmic displacement of beat
Also see: Interview with Lee Allen by Nick Pentelow
Lee Allen: Slipping and Sliding
View the Video score and analysis:
|Bar 1||Long note flat 3rd|
|Bar 2||Part of a major blues scale, but with a 4th at the end (the F) which is from the minor blues scale, but here it acts to give some tension as it resolves down to the flat 3rd on bar 3. (This is often called a “suspension”). Another nice thing about this is that it starts as if it will be an ascending chromatic scale (all 12 semitones), but then surprises you by coming down onto the flat 3rd.|
|Bar 3||A small riffy phrase that is either from the minor blues scale with a 6th, or from a major blues scale but with a flattened 3rd.|
|Bar 4-5||Another long note that repeats the opening, but a 3rd higher and starting earlier (it anticipates the second 4-bar phrase at bar 5 by 3 beats)|
|Bar 6||Minor blues scale without the b5th. (i.e. a simple minor pentatonic)|
|Bar 7-8||Major blues scale. Note the change from minor to major 3rd as the chord changes from IV back to I. The second half of bar 7 is a nice development of the phrase at bar 3.|
|Bar 9-10||Two phrases based in a minor blues scale (the A in bar 9 is an embellishment). The two phrases are rhythmically similar but add interest as the notes and overall shape (contour) of the phrases are different.|
|Bar 11-12||Blues scale but with the major 7 suddenly appearing after the minor 7 to add a surprise and resolve nicely onto the C at bar 12. This then leads into a minor blues scale which is similar to the opening of the first chorus but with a descending line (bar 14) into the same phrase he played at bar 3 (at bar 15)|
|Bar 13-15||Again the first phrase of the second 12 bar chorus starts with a long note, this time “kicked” in with a two-note pickup at the end of bar 12|
|16-17||A development of the pickup he did at bar 12. This is an extended version leading to another long note at the beginning of the second 4-bar phrase (bar 17)|
|Bar 18-19||Minor blues scale (pentatonic) phrase|
|Bar 20-25||Same last 4 bars as he used in the first chorus, but the pick up (bar 20) is an extended version of the pickup he used at bar 8 the first time around|
As you can see this solo is constructed very logically with repeats and developments, melodic phrases and surprises – almost as if it is composed. (This was take 7 so he may have gradually honed the improvisation from take 1 into this very articulate and interesting solo). Of course Lee would not have been thinking about it the way it is analyzed here, it would just be a natural and almost subconscious process that comes naturally to a skilled and talented rock and roll soloist. But analyzing solos like this will help you to develop this talent. If you are a “natural” it may come quicker without so much theory but for most of us learning this little bit of theory along with careful listening, transcription and analysis is the best way to end up with a great rocking feel to your solos.
This one is a bit more country than blues but is a great example of elegant simplicity. Harry Simoneaux is a Louisiana tenor player and a great exponent of Cajun and “swamp pop” styles of saxophone playing. This solo from a live Johnny Allan set is a great example of this style. The solo sits nicely on the chord tones but with plenty of chromatic passing notes and embellishments to keep it interesting. Note the very distinctive articulation, almost every note is tongued to give the whole solo a really driving swing that locks in with the rhythm section dance groove.
Not really under the category of blues solos but am including this little snippet of info here. For now I am not going to do an in-depth analysis of Sonny Rollins’s solo on St. Thomas, but I want to use this short extract to illustrate a masterful use of a very simple but highly effective jazz improvisation technique, development of a motif. This is probably the simplest motif imaginable, just two notes. The tune is a 16 bar tune in AABC form. This extract starts with the final 4 bars (C section) of the tune. After these final four bars of the tune, you can hear this two note fragment which starts the solo (A down to D in tenor pitch, or concert G to C). He “kicks” this around for 8 bars, changing the odd note or adding one here and there, then goes off into a long line for 4 bars of the first B section before playing around with the motif again for 4 bars over the C section. All of this is very well crafted, humourous and it keeps the listener wondering what he will do next, but it’s the next chorus that shows his real genius. He continues “kicking” the motif around for 4 bars, but then goes into a very long line and we think he’s finally abandoned the motif and is off into the rest of the solo in typical Rollins post bebop style. However after almost 12 bars he ends with a descending line beautifully and perfectly back on the motif: