Archive for the 'improvisation' Category



Over the last couple of years, my primary instruments have drifted to steel guitar and hand percussion, rather than straight acoustic/electric guitar. I’ve also become much more active in group performance, rather than solo.  This means that I’m often taking a supportive and decorative role, playing fills.

There’s a real art to playing good fills.  The goal is not for the fills themselves to be interesting, but rather to decorate and enhance the primary voice of the performance – the singer, other soloists, the rhythm, whatever is central to the music.  So it’s important to contrast the primary voice, rather than competing with it.  Play in the gaps.  And don’t overplay! This can be a real challenge as an improvisor… resisting the temptation to play too much. 

I find it difficult sometimes to fill the gaps rather than playing along with the melody.  That’s because when we hear the song, we hear the melody.  As improvisors, that’s where we hear ourselves.  But if that’s what you DO when playing fills, then you’re probably overplaying.

Phrasing and coloration become very important, too.  Do you want to extend the harmony and rhythm, or reinforce it?  And voicing matters… you should play in a range that is not competing tonally with more solidly rhythmic instruments.

And, uh… when I started writing this I thought I had a point.  But I guess I’m just dancing about architecture.  Sigh.


share and enjoy, aka two great tastes that taste great together

guitar'n'bass abstract

(Edwin Scherr and me onstage at the Acadia Cafe, 4 Sept 2007)

Last night, the nameless improv trio I’m in (with drummer Ryan Lovan and bassist Edwin Scherr) played a gig at the Acadia Cafe in Minneapolis, as part of the ongoing improvisation series there.  I brought my camera along and photographed the other two groups that were playing, but couldn’t photograph while WE were playing, of course.  A friend of Ryan’s who knew his way around a camera agreed to shoot the show for us.  Although the camera itself was unfamiliar to him, he understood aperture priority and manual focus from using 35mm, so I handed him the camera in aperture priority mode (Nikon D40, 50mm f/1.8 manual-only lens) and hoped for the best.

Being unfamiliar with stage photography, he soon learned the pain joys of trying to focus correctly and limit blur with low stage lighting.  But this inspired him to experiments that I wouldn’t conduct myself, using very slow shutter speeds and panning the camera.  I really liked the results, as you can see here.  I wish I could remember his name to give him proper credit!


newfound freedom in the Kingdom of Thud

I play drums in Felahi, a Middle Eastern dance music group.  Middle eastern music is largely drum-driven, so everyone in the band is a drummer, although a couple of us occasionally play melodic instruments as well.  The sound of the music is defined in part by contrasting timbres among various drums.  I mostly play “bass” drums… either a large Turkish-style doumbek, or a large frame drum played with bare hands in the Glen Velez style.  The strong doum sounds and soft, muted teks on those drums put me in the timekeeper role, playing simple parts that are then decorated by sharper-sounding, higher pitched instruments.

Charlie, the bandleader, just got a “dhola”, which is basically an oversized Egyptian-style doumbek.  Although it has the sharp sound and bright teks of a regular Egyptian doumbek, it is louder and has a much more powerful doum.  This drum has liberated me!  Rather than being stuck playing all the doum sounds that define the rhythm, I can play higher, faster “lead” parts on my Turkish doumbek, while Charlie plays the bassline on the dhola.  And we can alternate, so he plays lead while I hold down the rhythm.  The soft, round tone of the Turkish drum contrasts nicely with the sharp sound of the dhola.  The combination gives us much more flexibility to improvise and decorate the rhythms.

And my inner electric guitarist is happy to play “lead” some more, too.