Building the skills to play with the professionals – Part Two: Improvisation

Improvisation is a big word, but if you listen, experiment, explore, analyse and have a solid foundation of teaching or learning, it can be FUN.

When you are on stage; that solo, the improv, that’s you. That’s when you as the drummer, bassist, guitarist, vocalist or keyboardist get to show that you know how to play not just the notes, but to perform with personality and creativity. I like to think of improv with Rock & Pop as building my data bank of styles and musicianship, with an understanding of the many genres of rock and pop music, from the 50s to now!

When I’m out travelling as the Rock & Pop Czar there seems to be a lot of fog, smoke and mirrors when it comes to improvisation, so let’s clear some of that as we look at foundation level improvisation (Initial to Grade 3).

Let’s take a closer look at the Rock & Pop Session Skill – Improvisation! This is where you develop your listening skills and style bank of music knowledge (rock, pop, ballad, heavy rock, metal, blues, shuffle, reggae, country, funk, disco, Latin, jazz and R&B). I know you are saying yeah, yeah, yeah… but what do I do?

First, remember you are soloing or improvising within a band and a style. So listening to the music and understanding the structure and style is number one.

If you look at the exam criteria (which is what the examiner uses to assess your performance), you can see the three things the examiner is looking for to be able to award a distinction:
1. Fully convincing in style with extensive variation and development.
2. Assured fluency with precision in pulse and synchronisation throughout.
3. Effortless command of the instrumental or vocal resources.’

Note that style is mentioned first, so show you know how to perform the style of the improvisation, fluently, in the groove and in time with the music.

Yeah, yeah, yeah… but what do I do? Well, I think of improv and soloing as building blocks or ingredients.

The exam states you will play the loop three times and fade out. I look for at least three ingredients that would demonstrate structure; a musical story. These are style, fluency and command. By thinking about these ingredients, you will develop a multi-dimensional shape that is not flat, boring or unimaginative, but filled with interest for you and the audience.

How to approach each loop:
1. First loop – show you can play in the pocket of the style, lay the groove down, as if you are playing in the band.
2. Second loop – demonstrate you can build upon that groove and style rhythmically and/or melodically, staying in the pocket.
3. Third loop – add licks, hits or melodic soloing, remembering to play within the band and the track.
4. As the loop fades out, after adding these three ingredients, go back and lay the original groove to show you know where you are in the music and you understand the style.

Remember, why are you doing improvisation? You want to build listening skills and a data bank of styles so you can be a musician who can cut heads and take command on stage with any style of music and let your musical personality shine through. Knowing what to do when you get to your solos on stage makes you a better musician.

Most of us are looking for our star time on stage, so now you know where to start. Your style data bank and ingredients list must be developed not ignored.

When you achieve that Grade 8 Rock & Pop you will have listened to, analysed, experimented with and performed over 15 styles of rock and pop music. I know my teachers back in the day didn’t know all these styles or have the support and materials to teach them, but you do.

In the exam, you choose one Session Skill to be assessed: Playback or Improvisation. In your life, you need both skills to become a great musician.

Check out Guitar World’s top 10 guitar solos

And how about these all time great drums solos

Start listening, analysing and building your personal list of ingredients.

Tyler Smith, Trinity Rock & Pop Czar

Building the skills to play with the professionals – Part One: Playback

All of us who are working daily with the Trinity Rock & Pop syllabus talk about instrumental performance – being and performing on stage. Because when we first start learning our instrument, usually the first validation of our learning is to actually perform for somebody – it’s a show, a performance that confirms to the world that we have been successfully taught. Yes, this is one of the steps in learning to play your instrument. You must know what it’s like to be in front of people – how  it feels, the nerves or the excitement, the buzz, the adrenalin, seeing the faces looking just at you, listening to your music, then hearing and feeling the applause – the roar of the crowd.

There is another side of playing music… all of the artists and bands you listen to actually had to record their music. Musicians that you may never see on stage laid down many of the tracks you hear.  These are musicians and players who are technically proficient in their instrument and articulation, who read music, who know and can perform many styles of music, and who understand the context of what the artist or producer wants. These are session musicians, proficient in session skills.

This is why we have a section of the Rock & Pop exam called Session Skills. Let’s take a look at one of these: Playback.

This Session Skill, Playback, helps you develop your reading and listening skills. Unless you are playing only your own music in a recording session, someone will normally give you a chart to read and will be playing a track in the headphones saying ‘we need you to play this music’. You need to be able to read and hear the music, follow the chart and produce the music and articulation that you see or hear. I can tell you that guys like Quincy Jones, Dr Dre, Brian Eno and George Martin give you the ingredients – the chart, the music, the style – and then you bake the cake: create the music. So the Playback Session Skill is all about  reading the chart, the tab, the dynamics, the key, listing to the track, sorting tempo, getting the groove in the pocket… to learn and develop playback skills for the studio gig.

The exam process: Rock & Pop Playback

You will perform some previously unseen or heard music. You will be given the chart to study or review for 30 seconds, then the practice track is played for the ‘first time take’, and you listen, read and play back what you have read and heard. Depending upon the level of the exam, the phrases are 2 bars, 4 bars or more.  Let me be clear here – this is a continuous backing track so listen, read and play back to the repeat sign, then listen, read and play back to the repeat sign etc. The track does not stop until the double bars ‘ending’ the Playback session, so the music should be practiced during the first take. Everything before the second take is rehearsal and practice. NOW you are ready for the second take, the assessment begins, and this take should be copied as accurately as possible, no variations or improvisation here, play as written and heard.

Remember, why are you doing the Playback Session Skill? This is to build listening and reading skills so you can play in the studio one day and know what’s going on, what’s happening musically, be it with a local artist/producer or even with the heavy hitters like Brian Eno or Quincy Jones. If you know what to do when you do get the studio, man, when the day comes YOU may be the producer. All because you developed and perfected your Session Skills. This music business is great.

Read about the top 10 music producers of all time

Tyler Smith, Trinity Rock & Pop Czar

Next blog: Building the skills to play with the professionals – Part Two: Improvising.

Question or comment for the Czar? Email me at:

Big Rock Stars

We all just want to be Big Rock Stars and live in hilltop houses driving fifteen cars… you know the deal. It’s a dream that many aspire to. There is a road, a process to achieving the dream; it does not have to be just a dream – it can be, and is, a reality for many.

Look at Green Day from California – lead guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong took lessons and bought one of his first guitars from his teacher, the Fernandes Stratocaster he named ‘Blue’ which he still plays in some concerts. The band all came from the same place, the same town, learning and playing in school bands and building their style and stage presence doing local gigs.

Matthew Bellamy, Christopher Wolstenholme and Dominic Howard, of Muse, all began their music journey in school bands in South West England, learning and playing together and breaking the rules. Hey, another great reason for learning the musical process is that you have to know the rules before you can break them…  Muse for sure breaks the rules.

At the age of 12, John Petrucci from Dream Theater, said he would practice 6 hours a day. He and his classmate John Myung finished high school in New York together and studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, playing and building their unique shredding stage performance and hooking up with Mike Portnoy. It is really important to be where the musicians are if you want to make it in this business. Be it at school, in the music shop, at the club, or just jamming and playing, you’ve got to find the players…

All of these musicians went through a learning process that prepared them for the big time. From learning with a private teacher or teaching yourself in the garage, to training at college, you can find your dream anywhere, especially when you are hooked up with other musicians and have a plan to follow, a process to learn your craft.

You are luckier than most of the musicians I have listed that have come before you. This learning process is designed into the Rock & Pop syllabus; it takes you through the styles, genres, the rigor of playing your instrument and the steps to follow to build performance skills.  Yes, you get a qualification and UCAS points for Grades 6 to 8. This is all great! BUT most importantly, you have a steady process to build your stage presence, to develop and hone your performance skills – not just learning about how to play the notes, but how to perform; learning about the bands, the players, the musicians and the styles they developed. All of the bands I’ve mentioned are included in our syllabus.

I went for years trying to find that onstage connection, looking for my style, my music persona, that communication link with the live audience, in real time. I would have achieved my dream much quicker if I would have had playing and performance training connected to my Big Rock Star dream when I was young – someone guiding my style and stage performance and moving me down the education road towards my dream.

So check out our Rock & Pop guitar demo video for ‘Basket Case’ by Green Day; one of 80 videos we have produced with real musicians and teachers, designed to help you achieve your dream.


Question or comment for the Czar? Email me at:

Question Mark? and the Mysterians

There have been a lot of questions coming in through the Rock & Pop blog, so here are some thoughts in response from me, Trinity’s Rock & Pop Czar.

These are valid questions that I will try to make less mysterious in this blog post.

I haven’t cried ‘96 Tears’ like Question Mark? and the Mysterians searching for answers. ‘96 Tears’ is a great keyboard piece played on a Farfisa organ – give it a listen. They were the first Latino band to hit number 1 on the US charts, in 1966.

Here are some questions that have come from the Blog.

I have a slight concern over my students’ ability and confidence in coming to terms with new amplifier settings to make the most of their performance. For example, if the first song is clean, followed by grunge, followed by metal. Amps can be bewildering, even for a pro, these days. How does an examiner address this?

Czar suggestion: Candidates can bring their own amp that they are using at home or the amp you teach with. They do not have to play the amp that is supplied at the exam centre. Next, make sure you have your foot switch set and adjusted for clean to dirty sounds. You are not just teaching students to play the guitar, but mentoring the development of a musician, so teach them and physically show them each week how to set up their amp.

Lastly, up to Grade 5, you can come into the exam room, set the amp and help with initial set up (cable, proximity of amp, back-up pick, etc). Remember, this is the candidate’s stage performance; your candidate should understand his/her instrument which includes the amp. The examiner manages the backing tracks only and a sound check is offered at the beginning of the performance for balance. Backline drums, amps, instruments etc. are the responsibility of the candidate.

If a guitar student chooses to do a non-syllabus song for Song 2 (self-chosen or own composition), what is the maximum length of song they can do, and if they need to edit the sheet music and backing (from 8 minutes to 4 minutes, for example) is this legally permissible?

Czar Suggestion: Yes, you may edit the piece for the exam room performance only.

You can check out the information on guidance for choosing your own song on the Rock & Pop website. The parameters for each guitar grade, as well as the other instruments (length of music in timing and measures, and examples of the techniques required) are available the website.

Plus, if you are performing a self-chosen song for Song 2, you must bring the original score and one copy for the examiner (which can be edited if needed) and the backing track in a digital format, if appropriate.

Can I create my own backing tracks to use in Rock & Pop exams?

Czar Suggestion: Candidates may create their own backing track for Song 2 (self-chosen or own composition) only. They must use the backing tracks in the Trinity books and downloads for Song 1 and Song 3. If candidates are using their own backing track for Song 2, they must bring this along on the day of the exam in a digital format (USB) along with the original score and one copy for the examiner (which can be edited if needed).

I hope things don’t seem so mysterious now. ‘96 Tears’ could be a self-chosen piece – any song can!

Later, Czar

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The chicken or the egg?

So let’s get to it… the Rock & Pop introductions are over and now it’s time to play the music and become a musician. This post is slanted towards teachers, but the content is for all to read.

So what came first, the guitarist or musician? No, it’s not a joke… I don’t know for sure about the chicken and egg thing, but guitarist, drummer, keyboard player etc, I’m pretty sure you have to know your instrument before you become a musician. Before you become any of the above, you have to learn your instrument, and practice your craft. Whether you are taught by another player, musician or teacher or are teaching yourself, I’m telling you, for all of us players or musicians there is a learning process.

A few weeks ago in Lebanon, a group of teacher/musicians or musician/teachers (all are teachers and all play professionally) participated in Lebanon’s first Rock & Pop workshop. During the meetings, the discussion turned to teaching in the classroom, and one teacher said, ‘I teach rudiments like this’, another said, ‘I always have my singers warm-up’, and yet another: ‘Teaching chords and positions with tab works for me.’ Then others added, ‘You have to know your scales’, ‘What about dynamics’, and another: ‘You have to read music, man!’

All are necessary for the teaching and learning process and much, much more. Then the big question came. ‘So what do I teach to get a candidate prepared for Rock & Pop exams?’ asked the keyboard player/teacher sitting across from me on the round table overlooking the deep blue Mediterranean. One of the teachers asked, ‘Shouldn’t you examine the scales, rudiments, sight-reading, aural abilities?’ Once again, the answer is yes!  But how is it framed and assessed?  Does it have to be chopped up and served on different plates, regimented to play this scale now then play this chord, do this and do that?  I don’t think so!!!

I’m sure I’ve never walked up to a player or musician on stage, anywhere, and said, ‘Play me Cmaj7+5 chord and then play Gm scale.’ I’m positive that has never happened. But when I hear someone play say Santana and I don’t hear the correct chord voicing and progressions, the correct scale positions – that famous tone – I begin to assess musicianship and performance because it’s the execution of your performance that you are assessed on, in life and in your exam. Your interpretation, articulation, tone, balance within the band; in every piece you play, your musicianship is on review. You are being assessed every time you perform, not just on exam day.

So as a teacher or student, think about the all the ingredients that make up the piece, then build towards the music. Teachers, guide your student towards good habits; the sum total of their practice, or non-practice, is evident. Now that you have begun developing the player for the Rock & Pop exam, you should mentor the candidate on stage presence and communication of the music, and you are on your way to teaching a young musician to play rock and pop music, becoming just what you are – a musician. I say good news!!!


How can I get a Rock & Pop Syllabus?

The Rock & Pop Syllabus can be found online at or from the Trinity coordinator in your country Details of the exams, instruments examined and song lists for each grade are included in the syllabus. Helpful demo videos are available both on the website and our YouTube channel

Questions / Help?! Contact the Czar at

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The beginning… Rock & Pop Czar

Here we go, rockin’ all over the world… I’m Tyler Smith, the Trinity Rock & Pop Czar. This new blog is here to support you in the coming months and years. The question might be asked, who am I? I will address this question, but first, who should be reading this? Whether you are self-taught or taking lessons, whatever your age or level of ability, whether you are learning for fun or heading for a career in the music industry – if you want to perform rock and pop music you should stay tuned.

This blog is for anyone who wants to have structure, rigor and assessment and achieve a recognised qualification, but also still have fun learning how to perform and become a musician. I’m your go to guy, kind of like your stage tech, the guy who fixes problems before you hit the stage. I’m here to listen to you, tell the world what I’ve heard, and get you playing and performing.

Since this first blog is about introductions, here it is: ‘hello’. Future posts will be about you and your performance, learning how to perform, how to communicate when you perform, being ready when it’s time to hit the stage and more. I want you to have a foundation of education, assessment, performance and session skills that will give you the presence on stage to rock the house.

The blog will cover my travels around the world as Trinity’s Rock & Pop Czar; speaking about the syllabus, performing the music in workshop sessions and delivering important updates and information from Trinity’s Rock & Pop team worldwide. I’ll be engaging with your questions, digging deep into the syllabus, and helping you to realise your stage and live performance dreams in life.

There are people just like you all over the world, from young players, teens and twenty-something’s, to well, really OLD cats. I mean, rock is for everyone! We all want to play, perform, get the crowd loving us, being happy and rockin’, not just our friends and families, but everyone in the audience. Players all have this connection of performance for the masses, like in the Don McLean song, American Pie (‘I knew if I had my chance, I could make those people dance, and maybe they’d be happy for a while.’) But before we can make other people happy, we have to make ourselves happy; we must study, practice, develop our skills, be fearless and find our bliss to be the best.

I was in Beirut, Lebanon in the past week and I’m off to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok in October. In the next blog I will be highlighting the Rock & Pop talks and feedback from the session in Beirut (a very cool music scene!). Future posts will give an update on our training sessions and performances coming up in Asia.

So at least twice a month you will see a post from me. Contact me and you never know, we might be jammin’ one day on stage. For sure we can learn together.

Contact me at or via the form below.

Watch musician Robert Capewell improvise in Hey Joe, Grade 7 Guitar