What’s the sound of one hand clapping? Probably not unlike the sound of one musician trying to improvise without accompaniment. But no one ever said there was room for friends out there in the old woodshed. Follow these steps to fight practice-room loneliness…
You’ve been working hard. You know your scales, arpeggios, some licks to get you going. So you’re ready to hit the stage and rock (or swing) with the big guys, right? Think again! The biggest leap you’ll make in your musical development is the one from the practice room to the stage. Maybe we should think of this transition more in terms of a series of smaller steps. And, Grasshopper, the first stop on your way to becoming a legend is to become humble… And humble you will be after coming face to face with your limitations, whether they be in the form of technology, secondary instruments, or that scourge of all wannabe’s, the metronome! All these will be necessary to complete your trial by fire.
Any soloist needs an accompaniment, unless you want to be that guy who plays all wrong notes and says he’s just “way outside, man, didn’t you ever hear Coltrane?” For the slightly less-hip cats the right notes will do just fine, so you’re going to need to practice playing along with an accompaniment. All you really need is a recording medium, a chord instrument, and knowledge of chord spelling.
Back in the good old days everyone had a dual-cassette boom box and making your own tapes was no problem. With the advent of digital audio this step got a bit tricky but now with the later generations of phones the recording quality and ease of use is manageable again. Your computer can handle this task but the learning curve is steeper and you’ll need an external microphone and a piece of simple software to record from your soundcard. If that sounds like too much to deal with then you can probably get by with a phone or ipod. When it comes to playback, though, you’ll need to have an 1/8″ audio cable (headphone tip on both ends) to plug into some kind of sound system. Headphones aren’t the best choice because you need to be able to hear your instrument as well as the accompaniment playback.
Then you’ll need a chord instrument and the typical choices are piano or guitar, but hey maybe it’s time to finally get the hang of that accordion. You’ll also need to know about chord spellings. This could range from power chords to extended jazz harmony (also out of the scope of this article).
Pick your tune. For rock you might want to start with twelve-bar blues or a typical power chord progression. Jazz players should start with II-V-I’s or a standard tune from the Real Book. You’ll need to be able to play the changes on your chord instrument. Guitar players who need a challenge should try to learn the changes on piano! Wow! You’ll learn so much right there about notes that you can get away with overlooking when you’re used to dealing with visual chord diagrams.
Practice the changes with a metronome. This is the tough part for lots of people. If your timing isn’t steady when you record your accompaniment it will be nearly impossible to follow on playback. If you have the means you could practice to a drum machine but it’s actually better to get the hang of the metronome first because it leaves all aspects of the groove up to you.
Now you’re ready to test your recording setup. Get the chord instrument (or its amp) and the metronome and the microphone all in the same spot and hit record. If the recorder has a setting for input level then just set it somewhere that looks good. Hit record. Play a bit and listen back. If it’s blaring and distorted then you can turn the input level down or move the microphone back. If it’s distant and quiet you do the opposite, or turn your instrument up.
Finally you’re ready for the real thing. One last tip: record a lot of repeats. A lot. More than you think you need. What seems like forever in recording will fly by when you’re ripping solos over it and it’s a pain to stop and rewind. One thing you’ll notice in playback, especially if you’ve never heard yourself recorded before, is how much you don’t sound as great as you thought you would. This is the moment of truth and beauty when you can be honest about your sound and be in a position to gain the most from practice.
Now you can blow solos to your heart’s content. Take my word for it, you will not be a good improviser without playing to accompaniment. If you want to take it to the next level, now we’re talking about multi-tracking and the ability to record what you played for your solo. Listening back to your licks the first time will bring self-deprecation to a whole new level. But better to have that experience on your own than in a crowded room…
There’s an amazing array of gear available at dazzling prices to people who want to get into this multi-track stuff at the entry level. It’s also essential these days for anyone who’s thinking about songwriting and composing. But sometimes the simple route is the most effective, so break out the karaoke machine and the good old metronome and learn that Dm7flat5 chord!