Idiot’s Guide to Solos & Improv

I was interviewed for The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Solos & Improv by Michael Miller. I gotta tell you – it’s a first-rate educational read. And huge kudos for de-mystifying improvisation! Check out my ‘bit’ below.

MM: Many of this book’s readers are no doubt moving from rhythm guitar to playing lead. How is playing lead guitar different from playing rhythm?

ER: Rhythm and lead are very different headsets, in terms of approach to the part you will play. I see rhythm as finding the groove and staying there – sometimes it’s just playing 2 and 4 along with the snare drum. Other times it can be strict quarter notes, eighth notes or long held-out balloon-type chords. But it must be a non-egoistic contribution to the overall weave of the ensemble. Lead, on the other hand is a sparser set of statements, either answering the vocalist in certain parts of the song structure, and/or sometimes soloing on top of the whole shebang. But in any event it’s crucial to learn not to overplay – not to step on anyone else’s part!

MM: How much of a solo do you prepare ahead of time, and how much is created on the spot? Do you go into a solo with any preconceived ideas or licks?

ER: A ‘solo’ can mean several things – in classical music a solo has already been written out, note for note for the soloist. In our more modern times, one generally thinks of a solo as being improvised. While this is not strictly the case, the vast majority of the solo playing I’m called on to do is improvised. Now for the second part of the question – I like to approach each solo as a blank canvass – no preconceived notions at all. I like to hear the music and then spontaneously react/respond.

MM: When you’re playing with a band, do repeat solos (or certain themes within a solo) from night to night?

ER: The only solo I repeat is the one I did on Reelin’ In The Years – I figure that when people come out to hear me play, a good portion of them want to hear it played faithfully, so I stay with the original until the end solo, where I always let the spirit take me.

MM: Have you ever gone blank when playing a solo? What do you do to get out of a jam?

ER: What was the question? (Just kidding!) If I go blank, I just find one note that fits harmonically, attack it with the appropriate dynamics, hold onto it, then see where I can weave it as the music plays on.

MM: Can you describe how playing a solo live differs from playing a solo in the studio?

ER: Gee, I could probably write a whole book on the differences and the different approaches to each. But to be concise: In the studio, your one and only task is to service the record – the music, the song, the production concept. Once you hit the stage, the main point of being out there is to entertain your audience (as well as servicing the music to your best ability). Another very important factor that should at all costs be realized is this: Leave your troubles and your personal problems at the entrance to the studio and at the entrance to the venue! This is a service industry. Hey artistes – please don’t be offended by this unromantic description of the task at hand. Our prime objective should be to make great music and to entertain the people who pay their hard-earned bucks to see or hear us to the very best of our ability.

Also, when you’re in the studio, you have much more control over your ‘end product’ – you can take many passes at the same solo. On stage, there’s no such thing as ‘take two’, so try make it tasteful and memorable. (No pressure here!)

MM: When you’re called on to play a solo for a record, what kind of preparation do you generally get? Do you get a lead sheet or a demo tape?

ER: From time to time I am offered charts and or demo or ‘master-in-progress’ audio reference of the tune, but as I said earlier, I prefer to come in ‘cold’ and react and respond to what I’m hearing in the most fresh manner.

MM: Can you describe a typical studio date?

ER: I don’t see any as typical – each has its own set of characters, personalities, interactions, psychological dynamics… then there’s the music – how you respond to it, how the producer and artist respond to your musical response – it’s always a new experience, no matter how well you know the people involved. That’s one of the things that make this so much fun.

MM: One of your most famous solos was on Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years.” What do you remember about that date and that solo?

ER: That was the first take, all the way through. We laughed a lot. Actually, it was my second performance, because the run-through wasn’t recorded, and at the time we all thought that the ‘unrecorded’ performance might have been better. Oh, well.

MM: You’ve played with hundreds of different artists. What other solos of yours are you particularly proud of?

ER: I’m proud of lots of them – many different styles, too. It’s difficult to start digging for names – there are just so many! A lot of my favorites never saw the light of day, of course – that’s the law of averages.

MM: What do you feel is more important — a good ear or a thorough understanding of harmony and music theory?

ER: The more you know, the better off you are – simple as that. The most brilliant players are the ones that know enough to use only what is necessary. Of course, the most important thing to have is passion.

MM: How much pure guitar technique is necessary to be a good soloist?

ER: One can be a great soloist without lots of technique – witness many of the great blues legends, who had very little ‘technique’, strictly speaking, but there was so much ‘truth’ to the notes they played, so much conviction! On the other hand, learning good technique is seldom a handicap. The more you know, and the more technically proficient you are, the more musical ‘vocabulary’ you have to choose from.

MM: How did you get started playing lead guitar?

ER: I was nine years old, and totally enthralled by the sounds of guitar that were coming from the radio and from the TV set. This was the fifties; rock was really happening on radio. TV westerns featured deep twangy guitars and with shows like ‘Lawman’, ‘Maverick’, ‘Bonanza’ – how could one avoid falling in love with those sounds?

MM: Can you remember the first solo you took on a live gig?

ER: No.

MM: Who do you listen to for inspiration?

ER: I listen (and have listened) to hundreds of wonderful musicians – there’s so much you can learn from inventive players. I suggest going to the page on my website that lists many of my musical influences. That URL is:

MM: How would you recommend someone develop their soloing and improvisational skills?

ER: Practice, listen, practice listen, practice, etc. The more you put into developing your skills, the more you’ll benefit. I strongly suggest playing into a recording device (tape, hard disk, etc.) in order to hear what you are doing after the fact. It’s a much more objective way of hearing your ideas – do they work well? What could be improved? Sometimes while playing, I think I’m an absolute genius, and on playback realize that it wasn’t so great after all. And the reverse holds true too – at times I think I’ve played an absolutely mediocre part, then on playback realize that it’s just what the doctor ordered.

One final note on what I like to call ‘appropriateness’: I just finished producing an artist whose new CD will have the grand total of ONE guitar solo in 13 songs. There are many, many guitars featured on it, but they play the supporting roles. It’s about the music. As far as lead/solo guitar is concerned, there’s a time and a place!

MM: What advice do you have for beginning lead guitarists?

ER: Enjoy the trip, be humble… and generous!




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