Have you ever listened to a great player improvise and wondered how they can make spontaneous ideas seem so organized? A great solo is like a great story, everything that happens flows perfectly from
the things that came before. Even unexpected twists make sense, because the setup led you to the surprise.
The key idea here is “organized.”
The difference between improvising and noodling is in whether there’s a method to your madness, and one of the most powerful ways of organizing musical ideas has been around for as long as people have tried to communicate.
You may have heard a great musical performance referred to as a conversation between the players. Ideas go back and forth, passed from one person to another, developing and changing as they go. Or maybe you’ve listened to B.B. King sing the blues, punctuating each line with a stinging lick from Lucille. What you’re hearing is “call and response,” and it’s as old as humanity.
The idea is simple: a statement is made or a question asked, and the response or answer follows. Sometimes the response is simply a repetition of the leader’s call, and sometimes it’s a traditional statement of affirmation. You hear this in music of all kinds, but most notably in the blues.
Roots of Call and Response
Call and response in modern music has its roots in the African traditions that were brought to the New World by captured
slaves hundreds of years ago, and it’s a fundamental element of the blues. Listen to Cab Calloway lead the audience in this famous scene from the Blues Brothers.
You’ve heard similar things in gospel, jazz, and rock and roll. But how does this relate to playing a guitar solo?
Think again of B.B. King alternating between singing and playing, filling in the space in between his vocal lines with the guitar. Muddy Waters once said that if your guitar doesn’t answer your voice, you’re not playing the blues. That’s going to be our model for exploring this technique, except that instead of the guitar answering the voice it’s going to answer itself.
Easy Call and Response Licks
Take a look at this set of four licks from an A minor pentatonic scale. If you can read the rhythms, great, but it’s ok if you can’t. Just get the notes under your fingers and play each one with whatever
rhythm feels right. Remember, you’re developing the ability to create on the spot, so you need to be able to make choices in real time. If you’re not sure what to do, just play each note evenly and sustain
the final note.
You could play these in sequence, but you could also mix them up in any order. Learn each one and then experiment with different sequences. Don’t play to a track or even worry about a steady beat just yet, just look at each lick as a statement. Play the lick, pause, and then play another to answer it.
You might notice when you look (or listen) more closely, though, that these licks are already paired. The second lick answers the first because the first resolves up while the second resolves down. The same applies to the next pair. The two licks don’t need to resolve in opposite ways for the technique to work, but it adds another element of contrast that reinforces the back-and-forth. You could even repeat the same lick twice, which you could think of as insisting rather than responding.
Alternating Call and Response Licks
Here’s another set of four blues guitar licks. This time, try one lick from the first set and one from the second. To help you visually, this example has the first four licks as well. You would alternate between a lick from row A and a lick from row B. Again, don’t even worry about keeping time, just listen to the “shape”, the rise and fall, of each lick itself.
You may already be starting to come up with your own variations on these licks, and that’s great. The idea here isn’t for you to learn these patterns specifically, but to use them as examples. So now that you’re getting the hang of it, let’s try playing them to a backing track; in this case, a simple 2 chord “vamp” between A7 and D7. If you find it challenging to keep up, you can repeat each lick over the track until it’s comfortable, or even play just the first few notes of each one. You could even play the same note repeatedly, as long as there’s some sense of organized rhythm.
Call and Response - Full 12 Bar Blues
Now let’s try this over a full 12-bar blues pattern. This time, let’s add another set of licks. Don’t worry about following the changing chords just yet, that’s a topic for another day. You might find that some licks work better in some places than others, but there’s no right or wrong to this. Here’s your next set of four patterns and our audio example.
Starting to get the hang of it? It’s really pretty simple, and the best part is that you don’t need to do much to make it work. To go back to B.B. for a moment, remember that part of his greatness as a player
was in his economy; he could say so much with just a few notes because he knew where to put them. In other words, when you choose to play is just as important as what you play.
Keeping that in mind, let’s try this one more time with the backing track. For visual convenience, here are all three sets of licks in columns A, B, and C. Don’t feel like you have to play all 12, or even that you need to play in every bar. Leave space between your statements…the only thing you want to make sure of is that your licks feel like a question and an answer, a call and a response.
This simple idea can be applied in any musical setting. We might associate call and response most strongly with the blues and its African roots, but the idea of musical symmetry is also just as important to the structure of classical music; you’ll hear call and response and musical conversation in a Mozart symphony too. If you’d like to expand on this idea with a little more freedom, check out this JamPlay lesson on improvisation from my beginners’ series:
Make It up as You Go by Dave Isaacs
Taught by Dave Isaacs
Some of you may have been waiting for this one! Now we will focus on some improvisation...Some lead playing. It's not about knowing all the scales or trying to be fancy. It is about using what you know to make a lasting impression on the listener, and you will be surprised at how little you have to play in order to do just that!
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Thanks for reading.
Thanks for reading! Have fun with the blues this weekend and be sure to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below!
Nashville Session Musician