Playing solo is perhaps the most difficult and challenging situations a
musician can face (actually, getting between the girl singer and her
ex-boyfriend bass player can be a bit dicey, and some club owners become
pretty surly when it's time to pay up - if you can find them). Doing a gig
solo, the responsibility is all yours - rhythm, melody, harmony. The
audience has nothing else to grab onto...it's just you out there. I can't
think of a better way to test your mettle as a musician, and to find out
about yourself as a person. It brings out the best and worst in you, and it
challenges you to your limits.
In my early years struggling to learn guitar, the players who amazed me were
the ones who could sit down and make it interesting with one instrument.
At that time, I needed the support of a rhythm section. I was learning how
to play in time and how to listen. But these cats could get a great sound
on their own. Here is an interview quote from an article that Jim Sallis
wrote about me in the November 1980 Texas Jazz, "I was at a party late at
night in Champaign, Illinois. The campus radio station was on and this
amazing music was on. Mostly one guy playing and singing and sounding so
full but still intricate. For a white boy who had been playing guitar for
less than a year and thought all there was in the world was Lead and Rhythm,
this music was a religious experience."
These were country blues players I was hearing (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Will
McTell, Big Bill Broonzy, Mance Lipscomb), and it was the solo guitar that
intrigued me. The technique alone was enough to occupy me for a while -
keeping the bass and rhythm chugging along with my thumb while wailing away
over the top of that with my other fingers. Also, this wasn't classical
guitar (although a similar, fingerstyle type approach was necessary). These
guys were jamming away - more like rock and jazz and blues players -
improvising to various degrees. This music completely turned my head
around. Getting all this out of one guitar - that is what I wanted to do.
Growing, maturing, learning as a player, I was listening to everything. The
horns, piano stuff, fiddle and bagpipe music, the sounds of instruments from
other countries and cultures, on and on - I wanted to incorporate all of it
into my playing. Enter the drone. Bagpipe and fiddle tunes work great with
a pedal tone behind them. Coltrane jams are custom made for droning
backgrounds. Mid Eastern, Eastern European and Moorish music all sound good
with a constant note keeping the rhythm together and giving the melodies a
tonal center. The sitar playing of Ravi Shankar and the sarod playing of
Ali Akbar Khan are both rooted to the ground by the droning sound of the
Solo guitar lends itself nicely to drones, keeping that constant note going
with your thumb while your other fingers attend to the melodies and
harmonies. You can use the bass to keep the pulse in a medium or "up" tempo
tune, or use it as a more intermittent background in an airy, rubato rhythm.
Contrasting a static drone or pedal accompaniment with sections of more
involved harmonic movement will then make for a nice variation. Contrast is
the key word here. It is one of the soloist's major tools. Special care
paid to changes in time, tempo, harmony, tone, and volume gives texture to
Obviously, a distinctive "voice" is your sound, your soul. It's what
attracts people to your music. Framing this unique voice against a variety
of different settings is the challenge for any musician, the solo player in
There is a live recording of the band Mountain doing "Waiting To Take You
Away". Leslie West manages to keep his guitar under control for most of the
tune. He croons (it's a ballad), he screams, he bangs out some chords, but
he waits until almost the end of the song to unleash one of his signature
snappy, banshee runs. By that time you feel the guitar is bustin' a gut,
impatiently holding in what it needs to say. When Leslie does unleash it,
the notes spit out across the room and splatter against the wall, but just a
fistful of them, then they disappear. Out of that whole album, that's the
part I wait for. The beauty of all this is how that one lick stands out,
like a piece of Rachelle Thiewes jewelery hanging at the other end of a
long, empty gallery. What I'm getting at is how important the presentation
is, dealing not only with the notes but the space around those notes...the
melody and its surroundings.
A couple of pianist Phil Coulter's albums, "Celtic Horizons" and "Scottish
Tranquility", have arrangements of elegant, folksy melodies. The tunes
themselves are simple, and could easily become lost in a misty highland
haze. But the attention given to the settings of these melodies wins the
day. Even within a straightforward 3/4 or 4/4 framework, changing from
quarter notes to eighth notes or triplets while the verses progress propels
the music along and keeps things interesting. Different patterns of accents
emerge and retreat as the pieces develop. Instruments in various registers
trade the melody and take over the background. Subtle counterpoint appears
ocassionally, as do harmony lines, but mostly the instruments are in a
traditional lead and accompaniment role. The clever changes, still keeping
to the simple structure, makes each one of these cuts a shining jewel.
These recordings illustrate just how much the setting effects the melody.
For me, hearing these albums brought that point home.
Transferring it all to one guitar calls for a special effort. The basic
method is; the thumb plays the bass while the other fingers take over the
melodies and chords - with several variations. I play with a thumbpick and
sometimes use it to play melody lines with a smooth, legato, jazzy,
horn-like approach. I've always admired the flowing, chromatic flurries of
John Coltrane where one note seems to melt into the next - a liquid cascade
of sound. I also practice old time/country/bluegrass style runs and tunes
with their steady, staccato cadence. Learning from the playing of Norman
Blake, I found I could put together long phrases or even whole choruses
unaccompanied using straight eighth notes or triplets. The beat and pattern
of these melodies become their own structure and background.
Sometimes I imagine myself playing two separate instruments, getting a call
and response, question and answer thing going by pretending I'm Jaco down at
the bass end, then zipping up to some higher notes. The rhythm of these low
and high sections alternating back and forth takes on a life all its own and
overlaps the basic pulse of the song. The contrast could also be between a
chord (or a set of chords) and single note lines, or between some bluesy
runs and some Turkish oud melodies, or between contrasting keys..you name
The solo gig could easily overwhelm you. There is no one else to lean on,
nowhere else to hang your hat. You are an arranger now as well as a player
(and composer). Having to keep everything together could turn into a
straight jacket - all responsibility, little freedom. Or you can let it
open up new avenues of creativity to explore. The only confine then is the
limit of your imagination.
Dan Lambert is a guitarist, performer, recording artist and teacher out of El Paso, Texas with five CDs under his belt and another on the way.
His latest instrumental CD is entitled "The Double Drum Trio".
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