Singing solos is the key to improvising. Really?

TwangTwang New
in Gypsy Jazz 101 Posts: 415

Somebody in a previous thread talked about how he would spend a considerable amount of his practice time just singing solos before even thinking about picking up his guitar. This really got me thinking (and singing).

I attended a workshop last year where the instructor told a story. He interviewed George Benson for a jazz magazine and asked him: do you try to sing what you play or play what you sing.

Maybe this is old news to most of you but have a guess and then I’ll tell you his response.

One of my biggest stumbling blocks when improvising is that I have nothing to say. I know where I am on the neck, in the piece, got the arp, got the scale etc. Nothing musical comes out. I am the Salieri to Django’s Mozart.

I tried singing some of my favourite lines. It’s actually really difficult to hit all those pitches an a relatively simple lick. Then, if it’s a new lick, you then have to find it on the guitar.



  • ChrisMartinChrisMartin Shellharbour NSW Australia✭✭ Di Mauro x2, Petrarca, Genovesi, Burns, Kremona Zornitsa & Paul Beuscher resonator.
    edited July 2020 Posts: 959

    It sounds like you have answered your own question;

    "One of my biggest stumbling blocks when improvising is that I have nothing to say" which would in fact apply whether it is fingers on frets or vocalising something in your head. I know as I have much the same problem and while I may know the chorus and the chords I could spend hours going round the related scales and arps waiting for inspiration. I do find though that sometimes while trying to improvise with the guitar in hand is usually restricted by my fingers thinking they have to follow set patterns, if I put the guitar down my imagination is immediately freer to come up with something that fits and also sounds good; then it is just a case of picking the guitar up before I forget it and finding the notes on the neck. That is hardly a literal interpretation of the word 'improvise' but it is the only way I can break free of reluctant fingers, maybe if I was not so lazy and practiced more I might get it all up to speed.

    As for GB, I always thought he was just telling his fingers what he was thinking, but now you mention it, yes he could be just FOLLOWING his fingers......I know B B King said he would sing in his head what he wanted his fingers to say.

  • Lango-DjangoLango-Django Niagara-On-The-Lake, ONModerator
    Posts: 1,857

    I don’t know if this is a sign of dementia, or normal crazy musician shit... but here goes....

    Have you ever had a guy living in your head who is noodling around on his guitar basically 24/7...?

    And occasionally you pull out your real guitar to see if you can cop a phrase from him...

    ... and you find out yes, you can, no problem!

    ...because “the guy” is actually “you”....?

    Paul Cezanne: "I could paint for a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing."

    Edgar Degas: "Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.... To draw, you must close your eyes and sing."

    Georges Braque: "In art there is only one thing that counts: the bit that can’t be explained."
  • Russell LetsonRussell Letson Prodigy
    Posts: 357

    I wonder if we don't expect too much of ourselves in the improvising department--perhaps because our models are really, really inventive, as well as in good command of their instruments. I've come to see improvisation as something more modest, stretching along a continuum from small changes in phrasing (a matter of stretching or otherwise messing with time) or how a line resolves (moving to a V via a #V chord) to what amounts to composing a melody variant on the fly. I don't take solos--I'm just not fluent enough on the guitar--but when I sing I find myself making all kinds of mischief, especially to phrasing. (My vocal control could be stronger.) So singing improv lines seems like a natural path to producing them on an instrument--look at John Pizzarelli. (Then there's Monk's grumbling along.)

    (Oddly enough, when asked to show somebody the chords to a tune, I will often sing the root or the moving inner voices as I play the chords. No idea where I picked that up, but if I can do it, anybody can.)

  • ChristopheCaringtonChristopheCarington San Francisco, CA USANew Dupont MD50, Stringphonic Favino, Altamira Chorus
    Posts: 187

    Absolutely! It even recently saved my butt during a gig.

    I had a cocktail gig for an engagement party. 10 minutes before we're about to end, the groom-to-be came up and requested "Can't help Falling In Love" by Elvis so he could slow dance with his Fiancé. I do not know the tune, but I can hum the melody from hearing it so much.

    Pull up the chart on irealpro, spend 30 seconds figuring out the loose melody before calling them up for the last dance. Didn't 100% nail it, but was most of the way there. All because I could hum the melody.

  • Posts: 75

    More than anything for me it helps with thinking of phrasing rather than the specific notes choices. I find when I sing over the changes I’m more inclined to look for motifs. Tcha limberger seems to really swear by it and I'm not one to argue with Tcha. On the other hand, Christiaan Van Hemert has talked about it and seems to think it’s not particularly useful.

  • TwangTwang New
    Posts: 415

    @Russell Letson that’s a good point you make regarding more modest impro. I try to look for players, recordings and teaching material that is less virtuosic than the top flight. I actually spend a lot of time listening to my small collection of amateur/semi professional players. It’s just to say, they’re gigging, sounding great, having fun, that’s where I need to get to next.

    I still generally enjoy listening to the less virtuosic players more anyway but this, of course, is highly subjective and makes for a really dull and tired argument anyway. Who’s to say my taste wouldn’t develop with my technical ability. Wafflewaffleblahblah

  • ScoredogScoredog Santa Barbara, Ca✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 874

    I believe it can go either way, it depends on where you put your focus. Of course hearing things in your head and being able to play them is a great tool to have but it does not need to be everything or anything. There are many ways to approach soloing and if one applies themselves to a certain focus whether getting comfortable playing pre-thought out lines, melodies in your heads, fretboard patterns etc it all can work. If it sounds good it is good.

  • mandocatmandocat Santa Rosa, CA✭✭✭ AJL XO, Eastman 905CE, PRS SE
    edited July 2020 Posts: 82

    At a workshop I asked Gonzalo Bergara if he thought it was useful to sing lines while playing. He said no and “we make fun of people who do that”. I would guess Django didn’t and Oscar Aleman did. More than one way to skin a cat.

  • TwangTwang New
    Posts: 415

    George Benson said he did both btw. He said that often he is singing what his fingers were doing but other times his fingers were playing what he was singing. He added that he was always striving to do the latter.

  • misterdanielbmisterdanielb Paris/NoviSad✭✭ Florian Jegu
    Posts: 44

    well I would say it's important to know by heart some great solos you like and sing them(for instance Charlie's Parker chorus) , then when you are on some same chords progression you will hear more easily those line, and you'll want to try to repeat them with your finger..

    What I want to say is that the vocabulary you learn(and if you learn it good you can sing it) is what is the more important.. you can't improvise or sing melody if you don't have a lot of jazz vocabulary in mind I think..

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