One of the BEST things you can do is transcribe solos. One of the WORST things you can do is transcribe solos.
While both of these can be true, no one can tell me that transcribing solos is a poor way of learning to improvise. We are imitators at heart and the best advice I could find was to find a musical mentor, available in the flesh or not, then listen to, transcribe, and learn as much as I could about the music and the man that I could. The second statement is a warning though, and an important one.
Little Jennie arrives home from school. She is very, very late. We are flies on the wall listening to the exchange with her mother as she walks through the front door. Our timing is right because we get to hear a concoction strung together at the last minute by one of the best storytellers of all time – a kid knowing she is in trouble.
“I was coming home from school with Willy, and we were walking past the corner store, when a guy on a bike came round the corner really fast and knocked Willy over, and he hurt his leg, Willy did. So I took him into the store and the shop guy said he would help him, then he went in the back, but he didn’t come out for a long time, so I thought he might be dead. Anyway, Willy started feeling better, so I helped him walk home, but it took a long time because he had to hop. Then it started getting dark, and I forgot how to get from Willy’s house to my house, so I got lost, and I remember what you said about not asking strangers, so it took me a long time to get home, and I dropped my pack somewhere, and I can’t remember where I dropped it, so I can’t do my homework.”
“Well, I can’t say I did much yesterday. I had a few tasks to do around the house, then I went down to the grocery store and picked up a few things. The weather wasn’t very good, so I didn’t bother to take a walk or anything, I just watched T.V. for a while and eventually, waddled off to bed.”
Nobody wants to hear a story like that. Its only redeeming feature is the image of the writer ‘waddling’. This story needs way more features, way more waddling, if it is to fly as any sort of tale at all. The fact is, it is reasonably well put together. The problem is, it doesn’t have any Zowie.
The guitar is a strange and wonderful instrument. It comes in all shapes, sizes and configurations, and is played with a variety of techniques in many different styles. More often than not, guitarists learn the instrument with the requirements of one of these styles as their guide. In fact, I would be willing to bet that most guitar players have gathered their entire understanding of music, and how the guitar is organized, through the lens of the style they play.
This often causes problems when we attempt to annex another style or get to the next level in our playing. It’s at this point that most guitarists realize that they don’t know the guitar neck well enough.
I didn’t really ‘learn’ to play swing, I more or less ‘grokked’ it. For most of my early youth, my father was a working stride piano player. He played every swing standard known to man and he swung his butt off. Our house (and my head) was filled with the sound of that piano every day of my life. Needless to say, I had an advantage when I got calls to do traditional swing or dixieland gigs, as I felt I already knew a lot of the tunes, whether I had played them before or not. All I had to do was ‘remember’ the changes.
Calling Blues a “style” is like calling yeast an “ingredient” in bread. It is so seminal to modern music that, without it, much of the music we listen to simply wouldn’t exist. It is the “local” musical result of the influence of the slave trade on the New World.
There are a couple of guitarists who I would have dearly loved to meet. Unfortunately, they are both long gone, Wes in 1968 and Baden Powell in 2000. Both of these guys stopped me in my tracks and had me muttering “I’ve GOT to figure out what this guy is doing”.