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The Woodshed: Think before you play

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JJ Rocks Article # 60:
From St. Croix Music Magazine, Issue # 11, August, 2007
This article is dedicated to a simple concept. And that is to simply think before you play any improvisational line. Im writing about this because I feel that being able to hear a line in your head before you play it is one of the greatest accomplishments that a musician can strive for. This is not something that is easy to do and it is an approach that many of us find to be a goal worth accomplishing. Its the ultimate escape from being trapped into geometric patterns on your instrument and something that I find myself struggling with every time I take a solo. But believe me it is well worth the journey even if it seems to be an endless one.

So many players become dependent on certain licks that they have learned without trying to adventure into areas that depend on what you hear and not instrumental road maps that they have become accustomed to playing. I feel that there is so much to loose by taking that easy way out of improvisation. We can remember words and make totally different sentences every time we speak without batting an eyelash, but when many of us solo we depend on phrases that are equal to the most elementary musical speech patterns because we feel safe with playing them. And the shame is that even with those types of lines we still tend to not hear what they sound like, but only what they look like on our instrument.

This way of thinking is most overused with blues players. Sometimes I think that there hasnt been a new blues riff in 30 years, only a rearrangement of old ideas. And the only way that most blues players attempt something new is to try a phrase and take a chance and then finding out if it works or not. But the solution is as easy as someone who learns new melodies to a song. You have to listen before you retain what you are trying to play. And the more melodies that you collect in your head, the more melodic you become.

Now lets say that you just wanted to play blues licks but you wanted to be able to change them on the fly and know what the outcome will be before you play them. All you have to do is start to sing every lick that you know one at a time and then add a few notes to the lick. If you dont know what they are going to sound like at first thats ok because if what you added sounds good to you then just sing the added notes. Its kind off like moving to a new place and then orientating yourself with your new surroundings until you know where you are. Once you have it down you can safely learn more of the area that you put yourself in. Its much easier to mix and match sections of licks when you know what they sound like and not just what they look like.

So the next time that you play your favorite lick, just sing it about 20 times. Then change one or two notes and sing it again and learn what the difference in the sound is, not just the shape. If you ever want to play whats in your head you have to stop thinking about what your fingers are doing

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