Improvising in a Latin style

In this context, the term ‘Latin’ refers to a large group of musical styles mostly originating from Spanish and Portuguese speaking communities in South America. These styles also sometimes incorporate elements of African music, introduced by the slaves transported to and through the area. Some common examples of Latin styles are bossa nova, tango, samba and merengue. Some of these styles have roots as far back as the 16th Century, when European settlers arrived in South America. Salsa, although developed by the Latin-American population more recently in the 1960s/70s in New York City, is another popular style of Latin music.

The vast majority of Latin styles are intended as music for dancing, often featuring stylistically-specific rhythmic trends and ostinatos, such as ‘claves’ (a set rhythmic pattern or phrase around which the whole rhythmic structure of a piece is formed) or pre-determined call and response parts.

Improvising in the style

It‘s important to remember that whichever Latin style you are improvising in, it’s likely that the purpose of the music is to make people dance, so your playing should reflect this. This might mean that you choose to prioritise rhythmic content, making simpler melodies and rhythms feel great, rather than performing complex lines or polyrhythms.

On this note, it’s worth trying to get at least a basic grip on what some of the key trends are in different types of Latin music, how to identify these quickly and how to play within these traits. A lot of these trends are common to several styles of Latin music, sometimes with minor changes, so even if you can’t identify the exact style immediately, you should be able to identify some of the features and improvise within these. Here are a few examples.

Clave: This is known as the ‘keystone that holds the music together’ within Afro-Cuban styles and is usually either a ‘son’ clave or ‘rumba’ clave. Amazingly, the only difference between the two is a shift in just one of the notes of the rhythm, by a quaver (in simple time) or triplet (in compound time).

Sonclave

Son clave

Rumbaclave

Rumba clave

These patterns might appear either in 3-2 form (as above, the ‘3’ side meaning the first bar, as it has 3 notes in the bar, the 2 being the second bar with 2 notes) or 2-3 form, which simply switches the order of the two bars around. Knowing how the pattern is structured and keeping an ear out for this whilst either soloing or accompanying is incredibly important, as it can help you resolve phrases or rhythmic patterns in the correct place. You could even (at a basic level) copy this rhythm and try soloing or accompanying using it as a repeated ostinato.

Partido alto rhythm: This is common to samba styles and denotes the ‘push’ or tension (off beat quavers) and ‘pull’ or release (on-beat) parts of the basic rhythmic structure.

Partidoalto

Partido alto

In this graphic I have added a ‘+’ sign above the off-beat quavers which create tension. The rhythmic tension is resolved and ‘released’ by the on-beats, indicated by a ‘-‘ sign. Good improvisers of all instruments should understand this way of creating rhythmic tension and release, with an ability to end phrases in the same places as the + or – beats. This shows you understand the underlying patterns. Notice that the change-over happens in the middle of the bars, rather than the start or end.

If you want to take the concept of rhythmic tension and release further, you could explore playing against the clave or partido alto rhythm to create ultimate rhythmic tension. Then you can resolve this by ending a phrase within the clave or partido alto.

For pianists and guitarists, whether accompanying or soloing, it is quite common to utilise block chords or simple triadic harmony. Think about taking the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of a chord scale and using these together or in arpeggiated movements for melodies. Again, we can show advanced improvisational skills easily here by shifting these triads up a semi-tone from the correct chord (creating harmonic tension) and back down again to resolve within the correct harmony.

All instrumentalists, but especially bassists, should note the 2/2 feel for many Brazilian and simple-time variants of Latin music, particularly samba music. This means that, even if the music is written in 4/4 (four quarter-notes per bar), it is better to feel the music in 2/2 (two half-notes per bar). A typical Latin bass-line in this style will emphasise the two half notes, with an ‘upbeat’ added. This creates a heart-beat style rhythm, uplifting and easy to dance to. Often these simply utilise the root and 5th of the chord.

Sambabass

Samba bass

Watch videos with session musicians and Rock & Pop examiners JJ Wheeler and Tom Fleming:

Influential artists

One of the greatest exponents of purer forms of Latin music, particularly bossa nova songs, was the Brazilian songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim. Born in Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s, his songbook includes hundreds of titles, most famously ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, which is one of the most recorded songs of all time. Many of his songs have also been adopted into jazz and pop standard repertoire.

The Buena Vista Social Club was formed in Cuba, in the 1930s. This became a hotbed for Cuban musicians to play, develop and perform their craft. So much so that its luminaries include a vast array of the most influential and important Cuban-style Latin musicians, such as Cachao Lopez and Ruben Gonzalez.  They shot to world-fame when Ry Cooder recorded the seminal album ‘Buena Vista Social Club’, alongside several of the club’s regular patrons and musicians in 1997.

Virtuoso guitarist Carlos Santana is an example of someone who successfully fuses Latin styles with rock music. He first came to fame in the late 1960s/70s with his band ‘Santana’, performing hits such as a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Black Magic Woman’ and ‘Oye Como Va’. He later experienced a huge resurgence in popularity in the early 1990s, and continues to tour stadiums and arenas around the world.

A more recent artist whose music is heavily influenced and based on Latin styles is the singer Shakira. This Colombian-born star started her recording career in the early 1990s, eventually rising to fame in the English-speaking markets (and worldwide) in 2002 with the release of the hit single ‘Whenever, Wherever’. Her style fuses Latin style rhythms and grooves with pop sensibilities, to create an easily recognisable sound of her own, as featured on further hits such as ‘Hips Don’t Lie’.

We often see lots of influences from Latin music throughout many other genres, as well as fusions of styles such as Latin-jazz and Latin-pop.

Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a pop style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a metal style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a country style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a reggae style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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Meet the musicians from our demo videos

We’ve produced over 120 videos looking at songs included in our Rock & Pop syllabus, fronted by a range of professional session musicians. The videos are designed to help teachers and students with specific techniques and can be seen on our website and YouTube channel. Meet the musicians who have lent their expertise to talk about and demonstrate these techniques in the videos.

Andee_PriceAndee Price – Bass. Andee Price graduated from Canterbury Christchurch University in 2004 and has worked as a freelance bassist ever since. She’s played for a number of theatre shows and with a range of jazz artists. Andee has also played with 80’s punk icon Toyah Wilcox as well as Keith James. She is currently working on a second album with her own trio Scarlett Rae & The Cherry Reds and is Musical Director for Venus Nightsa collective of female blues artists raising money for women’s charities.

Andee’s advice:  “Listen to as many great players as you can and try to emulate their style. Go and see people play live and watch what they do to achieve the sound you aspire to. Play music with others and in as many different styles as possible, as this will give you the best experience and make you a well-rounded musician. You never stop learning in music – always aspire to be better than you are, but try to enjoy the process and be proud of where you already are on the journey.”

Andrew_TolmanAndrew Tolman – Bass. Andrew started playing bass at school when he was 13 years old. He attended Leeds College of Music, before studying jazz and contemporary music at the Royal Academy of Music. Andrew works as a session musician, playing with numerous diverse artists. He has recorded a classical album with singer Alfie Boe and has played live with artists such as The Emotions, Leon Ware, Ben E King and Jo Harman.

Andrew’s advice: “Listen to as much music as possible, in a wide variety of genres. Also, think of the positive aspects when listening to the music; even music you don’t like can have important and interesting characteristics to learn from. Try and copy what you hear and never forget that its hard work and practice that make a great player, not talent.”

Brendan_RileyBrendan Reilly  Vocals. Brendan Reilly is a singer-songwriter of jazz, soul, pop and dance music. After studying at the L.A. High School for the Arts and the Manhattan School of Music, he relocated to London. Brendan has toured the world working with artists such as Basement Jaxx, Rita Ora, and Laura Mvula. He’s also sung on many radio and TV adverts, and has released his own music which has been heard on Jazz FM, BBC Radio 2, film soundtracks, and even monthly at London’s finest jazz clubs.

Brendan’s advice: “The key to success in the music business is to know your strengths, stay true to what you love about music, and always strive to learn and grow!”

Danielle_McGinleyDanielle McGinley – Keyboards. Danielle started learning the piano at the age of four. She attended Tech Music School where she gained her BMuS in contemporary performance, specialising in keyboards. Danielle now works full time in the pop/rock scene, mainly on live gigs, tours and studio sessions. She has worked with various artists including Duke Dumont, Cher Lloyd, Tinchy Stryder, A*M*E, MNEK, Lucy Spraggan, Cheryl Baker and Shane Richie.

Danielle’s advice: “Follow your passion and delve as deep as you can into it. People can see passion from a mile off – it’s infectious and they want to be around it.”

George_DoubleGeorge Double
 – Drums. George is a Rock & Pop examiner and worked on our Rock & Pop books. He began playing drums aged 11, and reached the national finals of the Daily Telegraph’s Young Jazz ’89 competition. George read music at the University of Nottingham and has played and recorded with Marc Almond, Jack Jones, Ruthie Henshall and Kym Mazelle, among others. He has performed in the West End and toured with a number of shows. He is also active as a freelancer on the British jazz circuit.

George’s advice: “Try to develop wide listening habits, and be as versatile as possible when it comes to your familiarity with different styles.”

Hannah_De_KosterHannah de Koster
  Drums. Hannah was brought up in a very musical family, with band equipment always set up in her lounge, and friends and family coming over for jams. She knew the drum kit was for her from the age of 11 years old and had lessons until she was 21. Hannah obtained a degree in jazz drumming at Massey University in New Zealand, and her most memorable teacher was Frank Gibson JR. Hannah now plays in a wide variety of bands in London, including metal, punk and jazz bands.

Hannah’s advice: “If you want to learn, it’s important to listen to other drummers’ individual styles, mimic them and then create your own.”

Iain_MackenzieIain Mackenzie
 – Vocals. Iain Mackenzie is a professional singer and voice coach. He studied jazz vocals and piano at Leeds College of Music and The Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Iain performs with his own band as well as the BBC and RTE Big Band. He is the principle male vocalist for the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra, and is leader of the iTones, the Ronnie Scott’s vocal group. Iain records for TV and film soundtracks and adverts, and has performed with Sandie Shaw, Joss Stone and Susan Boyle.

Iain’s advice: “Be true to yourself; don’t try to copy other artists, embrace how their music can influence yours.”

Kelly_AppletonKelly Appleton – Guitar. Kelly was schooled at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, L.A., where she studied under some of the world’s best guitarists. Kelly first stepped onto a tour bus at a young age, to complete a summer festival tour across the UK and Europe, as guitarist for Tricky. Kelly has also worked on TV shows, playing guitar in the live house band for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Superstars as well as on The Graham Norton Show and The Voice.

Kelly’s advice: “When it comes to practicing, try and get into a daily routine, even if it’s just 20 minutes of focused practice a day, you will quickly start to see an improvement. Give yourself goals and make sure your routine is geared towards reaching them. Make sure you’re always pushing yourself to learn new things but also allow time to play songs you already know, and just enjoy your instrument.”

Matt_McDonoughMatt McDonough – Drums. Matt started drumming at school at the age of 14 and later studied jazz at Trinity College of Music. He landed a world tour aged 20 and has worked with various big bands, rock bands, pop artists and producers, both live and in the studio. He has also played in various West End and touring shows, and also records drums for artists and producers at his own recording studio in London. Matt teaches drums at City of London School.

Matt’s advice: “Always practice with a click/metronome. Never get into the habit of speeding up just because you think you know something well. Stop the metronome and increase the tempo by 2-5 BPM until you’ve mastered the exercise/fill/groove at that speed. This will ensure your internal timing is nurtured from an early stage.”

Paola_VeraPaola Vera  Vocals. Paola has been singing for as long as she can remember and it’s something she’s always loved. She started out singing in choirs and then became the singer for the school jazz band at around 15. Not long after that, she started doing her first professional gigs with different bands on the local jazz circuit. Paola studied jazz singing at Trinity College of Music and then completed a Masters in jazz performance and composition at The Royal Academy of Music.

Paola’s advice: “Just keep going. You never know where an opportunity will come from and often it’s from the most unlikely source.”

Tim_SandifordTim Sandiford – Bass and Guitar. Tim first started playing guitar after his dad showed him a few a chords when he was little. He started taking lessons when he was 11 and since then all he ever wanted to be was a musician. Tim has played with a number of artists such as Dizzee Rascal, Girls Aloud, Cody ChesnuTT, Sister Sledge and Mika. He has also played on tracks for Kanye West, Pro Green, Rizzle Kicks and Ministry Of Sound, and has played with artists on the main stages at Glastonbury and Reading.

Tim’s advice: “Work hard, always try to be nice and remember why you’re there. Not everything will be as you want it to be, but the artists who are truly great make it all worthwhile!”

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Improvising in a pop style

Although ‘pop’ is a very loose term (from the word ‘popular’), the common consensus is that pop music as we know it today derives from rock ’n’ roll music in the 1950s. Since then it has progressed through many phases and directions, often linked to a decade or period of time. Yet despite this massive variation there are many key trends adopted by the vast majority of pop tunes. These include relatively short length pieces (2-4 mins), repeated choruses and structures featuring repetition, simple drum grooves and ‘hooks’ – melodic lines or other musical features, designed to be as catchy and instantly recognisable as possible.

The basic pop song structure looks like the below, although variations (including added ‘pre-chorus’ sections) also often occur.

Trinity-R&P-Basic-Pop-Song-Structure-final

The style is often influenced by other genres, such as rock, soul, Latin or dance, and has provided some of the biggest names in recent musical history, including Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams, Michael Jackson and The Beatles.

Improvising in the style

Despite being a broad genre with many variables depending on context, there are some common trends throughout the vast majority of pop songs and styles, which we can explore to create an idiomatic pop improvisation or accompaniment.

For example, pop songs usually have simple structures with phrases or sections in groups of 4, 8 or 16 bars. Make sure you are aware of how long each part of the structure is so that you can shape your solo accordingly. For example, if you are playing over a repeated 16-bar chord sequence, you may wish to play a phrase for 4 bars, develop this for another 4 bars, play a different (but still related) phrase for the next 4 bars and then return to the original phrase for the last 4 bars. Or you may wish to end phrases in key points within the harmonic sequence, to create a big release of any tension built up throughout the improvisation.

It is sometimes useful to remember that the style is catering to popular tastes, with many songs written for dancing, so try not to overcomplicate your ideas. Short, simple statements can be used to powerful effect when played with conviction and understanding of the style.

Rhythmically, it is important to keep the momentum going, without coming across as being too aggressive. Try to tailor fill-ins or busy rhythmic patterns to the structure of the phrase or section you are playing. For example, drummers can use fill-ins as an effective way to give the piece a ‘lift’ into the next section, or to indicate the end of a section, by saving their fills for the last bar of the section.

Watch video with session musician and Rock & Pop examiner Tom Fleming:

Influential artists

The Beatles are one of the most iconic pop bands the world has ever seen, taking the UK and the US popcharts by storm in the 1960s. With a plethora of hits including ‘Love Me Do’, ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’, their musical and fashion style developed over their decade-long career. Starting out with a clean-cut, witty up-beat Brit-pop style, they moved towards a more hippie, psychedelic and experimental approach. To this day the band’s music is revered by millions around the world, with one of the key members, Sir Paul McCartney, still writing, recording and performing sell-out tours regularly.

Often called the ‘King of Pop’, Michael Jackson first came to fame with his siblings, as part of The Jackson 5 in the 1960s, featuring on hits such as ‘I Want You Back’ (1969) and ‘Blame It On the Boogie’ (1978). He later began his solo career in 1971 and became one of the most prolific pop songwriters and performers ever. His 1982 album ‘Thriller’ is still the best-selling album of all time and he has countless hits under his belt. These include hits resulting from his legendary collaboration with Quincy Jones, such as ‘Rock With You’ and ‘Billie Jean’.

More recent pop sensations include artists such as Britney Spears, whose debut single ‘…Baby One More Time’ reached number one in every European country it charted within in 1998. Her upbeat, commercially accessible style and youthful vibrancy was typical of the pop image of the late 1990s and early 2000s. More recent female pop singers such as Katy Perry, Jessie J and Pink have tried to shake off the ‘produced’ and manufactured image, instead appearing more independent and confident than their counterparts in the early 1990s. This can be seen in hits such as Beyoncé’sSingle Ladies (Put a Ring On It)’ or Christina Aguilera’sBeautiful’.

Examples of pop songs in the syllabus are:

Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ by Elton John (keyboard), ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ by The Crystals (vocals, keyboard), ‘Super Trouper’ by ABBA (vocals, keyboard), ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna (vocals), ‘Price Tag’ by Jessie J (vocals), ‘Flashdance (What A Feeling)’ by Irene Cara (vocals), ‘You Got The Love’ by Florence + The Machine (vocals), ‘Can’t Fight The Moonlight’ by LeAnn Rimes (vocals), ‘Firework’ by Katy Perry (vocals), ‘Crazy In Love’ by Beyoncé (drums, vocals), ‘Cry Me A River’ by Justin Timberlake (vocals) and ‘She’s Out Of My Life’ by Michael Jackson (keyboard, vocals)

Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a metal style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a country style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a reggae style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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Shining the light on Session Skills: Open the new books and listen to the music

Hey Rock & Pop musicians, hope you’re all enjoying your music. I know that many of you are taking Rock & Pop exams right now or in the next month.

A couple weeks ago I was in Sri Lanka holding a Rock & Pop workshop. We all met at a great local venue and we played, sang and worked on understanding the Rock & Pop exams to their fullest. I must tell you I heard some great singing and playing… Sri Lanka has got it happening for sure.

If you don’t know, all the Session Skills support books are available now and they are full of great info and tips. They are divided into Initial–Grade 2, Grades 3–5, and Grades 6–8. Each instrument has its own set of books and CDs. In the Rock & Pop graded books there are two examples for playback and two for improvising, well in these new Session Skills books there are twenty, yes twenty, examples for each grade: ten examples for Playback and ten examples for Improvising. This will give you and your teacher a wide range of practice material and top tips to help develop your listening and reading skills.

Further supporting your journey to be a musician, the ten Improvising examples for each grade will help you build your style bank so you can play and perform the styles required in each grade. The parameters are outlined for the grades, giving you and your teacher more insight into how to communicate and perform your music.

Check out these new Session Skills books at your nearest music shop or on our online store. They will absolutely boost your Rock & Pop music education.

I was also in Qatar recently for an awards ceremony and I had the good fortune to meet up with Stephen Devassy, a player from India. For all you keyboard players, you should check this guy out. If you know him from his rock/fusion and film music in India then you know the deal. If not, Google him. Great rock stars come from all over the world and all backgrounds. He also took Trinity exams back in the day.

So Rock & Pop drummers, guitarists, vocalists, bassists and keyboard players, you have the tools to keep rocking the music with our new Session Skills books. So keep on learning, communicating and performing your music. Don’t forget to check out our Rock & Pop Improvising in the style blog posts which we post monthly.

Later,

Tyler, Rock & Pop Czar

Check out our Improvising in a metal style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a country style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a reggae style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

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Improvising in a metal style

Metal is a genre of rock music developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely in the United Kingdom and United States. Often viewed as the more extreme end of the scale of rock styles, metal takes many features of rock music to their upper limits, including volume and aggression. Heavily distorted guitars, extended solos, driving drum beats and relentless energy are all closely associated with the style, which was initially given exposure and popularity through bands such as Deep Purple and Black Sabbath.

Though the metal genre is rarely lauded by music critics, many metal bands have achieved great success and a lasting legacy throughout the decades following its inception; including the likes of Iron Maiden, Van Halen, Rush, Slayer and more recent acts like Slipknot and System of a Down. Followers of the music are often dubbed ‘metalheads’, usually donning the status with pride and wearing dark clothes, band t-shirts and other more gothic styles of fashion. The metal movement is a large and thriving community, with music at its heart and metal-dancing or ‘mosh-pits’ commonplace at concerts.

Improvising in the style

When deciding how to improvise in the metal style, it is important to think about the nature of the music. Themes of metal songs are often dark and angry, performed with aggression and extreme volume. Therefore, it is important to try to reflect this in your tone, volume and delivery. Guitarists would be advised to utilise heavy distortion or overdrive, if they have the capabilities. Vocalists might explore ‘belting’ or ‘screamo’ techniques (although make sure you always explore these techniques with your teacher, as if done incorrectly they can damage your voice).

Bassists generally receive less attention in metal music, often adopting a supporting role, but you can still think about creating a rhythmically driving and consistent bass-line, which is going to help push the song forward. Like guitarists, keyboard players should think about the voice they choose to utilise; this should be loud and harsh to match the style of the genre. Keyboardists and guitarists could also explore common metal techniques such as bends, slides and hammer-ons, which regularly feature in improvised solos.

Drummers play a key role in metal, often choosing big, open sounds to ‘ride’ on, such as open hi-hats or even a crash cymbal. This is usually played alongside strong and clear bass drum patterns and snare drum back-beats. Fill-ins are often elaborate and employ most or all of the tom-toms available.

Whatever instrument you are improvising on, be sure to maintain the high levels of energy and forward motion of the piece. Unlike some other genres, you should try to be either precisely on top of or in front of the beat to create tension and drive. It’s also worth checking out the key of the section and chord changes within it so that you can choose your notes and melodies accordingly.

Watch video with session musician and Rock & Pop examiner JJ Wheeler:

Influential artists

There has been a plethora of great metal bands over the years, many of whose careers span several decades, such as Iron Maiden. Their anthemic songs such as ‘Run to the Hills’ still rock festivals and stadium tours to this day. Metallica took the world by storm in the 1980s and 90s with songs such as ‘Seek & Destroy’ from their debut album ‘Kill ‘Em All’ and the metal classic ‘Master of Puppets’, which is now entrenched in metal history.

As with most genres, many bands have injected their own influences into the music to create distinct musical flavours. One example is Slipknot, whose extreme heavy style and expressive performances (complete with costumes and face masks) helped them to stand out from the crowd. Check out their single, ‘Wait and Bleed’.

Another example is System of a Down, whose music is influenced by a range of unexpected styles, most notably Armenian folk. Since coming to fame with songs such as ‘Chop Suey’, they have taken more of an openly political stance, with their latest tour named ‘Wake Up The Souls’, to commemorate and raise awareness of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

This cross-pollination and development of particular stylistic features has led to the further growth of many sub-genres of metal, such as death metal, nu metal, black metal, punk and thrash metal.

Examples of metal songs in the syllabus include:

Bring Me To Life’ by Evanesence (vocals), ‘Run To The Hills’ by Iron Maiden (drums, guitar), ‘N.I.B.’ by Black Sabbath (bass), ‘Paranoid’ by Black Sabbath (guitar), ‘6:00’ by Dream Theater (bass), ‘YYZ’ by Rush (drums, bass), ‘Freewill’ by Rush (guitar), ‘Would?’ by Alice In Chains (bass, drums, guitar), ‘And The Cradle Will Rock’ by Van Halen (drums) and ‘5150’ by Van Halen (guitar).

Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a country style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a reggae style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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Improvising in a country style

Country music was born in the 1920s in the Southern United States of America. The style is a development of American folk and also shares similarities to blues and Western music. The typical country songbook consists largely of ballads and songs for dance, traditionally performed on a variety of instruments such as the banjo, electric and acoustic guitars, double bass, steel guitar, fiddle (violin), vocals and harmonicas.

Initially dubbed ‘hillbilly’ music, ‘country’ became a term that generally encompassed this style and Western music; today the term is a general umbrella name for a variety of sub-genres which share similar sensibilities. Beyond its roots in American folk, it often includes elements of Celtic folk, cowboy songs and other traditional music from European immigrant communities. This is due to its place as the music of the working-class white man in the early and mid-1900s.

Country and western music is the single biggest radio listenership in the US and among the most famous exponents of country are Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and more recently Taylor Swift, whose background in the genre heavily influences her popular style.

Improvising in the style

When thinking about how to improvise in a country style, it’s important to consider some typical musical features and aspects. In general, country songs are usually written to tell some sort of story. For this reason, many of the musical features are kept simple and delivered with clarity. Therefore, it’s important to try to stick to this mindset when improvising an accompaniment or melody in the style.

When thinking about melodies, most country songs (particularly in the chorus) have highly memorable, catchy tunes. Try to create something similar when improvising, or perhaps find a catchy phrase which you can repeat, develop and paraphrase throughout the performance.

On the clarity front, it is useful to think about the sound you are creating through your voice or instrument. Country songs tend use clean, clear tones on the guitar, vocals or whichever instrument is playing.

As a vocalist, if you choose to improvise lyrics you may wish to mention journeys, animals or cowboys, if you want to stick to basic generalisations of the genre. Meanwhile, a drummer’s role in this style is usually a background one, with the aim of keeping a simple, clear and concise beat with a laid-back feel. Try not to push the beat or create too much tension.

Watch video with session musician and Rock & Pop examiner Tom Fleming:

Influential artists

Arguably the most legendary name of country music is Johnny Cash. Known for his deep baritone vocals and lazy-sounding, dark tone with themes of sorrow and moral torment, Cash had a more bluesy element to his style. With studio album releases from the 1950s, all the way through to the 1990s, his biggest hits include ‘I Walk the Line’ and ‘Ring of Fire’.

Dolly Parton is widely recognised as a huge part of the country music lineage. Born in 1946, she is still active today with a career now spanning into seven decades. In the late 1950s she began as a child performer (aged just 13) with radio singles, but it was later in 1967 that she rose to fame as a featured performer on Porter Wagoner’s weekly TV programme. She went on to perform in several partnerships with various other country artists, before becoming a well-known act as a solo performer. Her more classic country style of voice with heavy Southern accent is easily recognisable in hits such as ‘I Will Always Love You’ (covered later by Whitney Houston) and ‘Jolene’.

More recently, Taylor Swift has found great success in the UK, US and worldwide charts with her country-pop crossover hits such as ‘Love Story’, ‘You Belong With Me’ and ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’. Having moved to Nashville, Tennessee aged just 14 to pursue a career in country music, she later added pop elements to her style which has seen her rise to fame in the late 2000s. Yet much of her music retains elements of her country music roots, including instrumentation, song forms and simple, catchy melodies.

Examples of country songs in the syllabus include:

I Walk The Line’ by Johnny Cash (guitar), ‘Stand By Your Man’ by Tammy Wynette (vocals), ‘Can’t Fight The Moonlight’ by LeAnn Rimes (vocals), ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ by Michael Buble (vocals) and ‘Love Story’ by Taylor Swift (vocals).

Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a reggae style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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Improvising in a reggae style

Reggae originated in the Caribbean island of Jamaica in the late 1960s. There were many musical genres that influenced it including rhythm and blues, jazz, calypso and mento. However it evolved mainly from ska and rocksteady; popular dance styles in Jamaica in the early 60s.

In ska, the bass underpins the pulse with a walking line, accompanied with an offbeat comping pattern on piano or guitar. The horns have a fairly prominent role, with repeating figures (similar to rhythm and blues). Rocksteady shares the offbeat comping with ska, but is a significantly slower tempo, and has more stress on beats 2 and 4 (and less on 1 and 3). This more relaxed tempo led to more interaction between the players, different stresses in the comping and more rhythmically involved bass lines create a subtler groove.

With reggae, we can see the same stress on beats 2 and 4 and the same offbeat comping pattern. The tempo is similar to rocksteady, but the interaction between the different roles is more involved. The grooves are constructed of repeating cycles (often with variations), which may change in different sections of the song. Like many other groove based genres, when we look at the whole picture of what everyone is playing, we find rhythmic cycles of different lengths in the groove.

We can see this when looking at the song ‘Natural Mystic’ by Bob Marley & The Wailers.

Music image

This is the groove at the start of the song. The swing is really clear on the percussion and the hi-hat. The keys are comping offbeats, following a 1 beat rhythmic cycle, and the bass, drums and percussion are following a 2 beat cycle. This drum pattern with the kick and cross stick snare only on beats 2 and 4, and the closed hi-hat on beat 1 is called the ‘one drop’.

The swing in reggae is very important and unique to the style. The smallest divisions of the groove (semiquavers in the example above) are not evenly placed through the beat. The best way to get to grips with this is to tap semiquavers along with recordings, whilst keeping the pulse with your feet, and try to hook up with the groove that they are playing.

Instrumental solos are rare in reggae, but it’s worth noting that the guitar in this song plays some solo lines that answer the melody (from about 0.45). Call and response is a very important aspect of reggae.

Improvising in the style

When we improvise in the style, we need to ask ourselves some questions for each song we play. What is your role in the groove? How does it fit together with the other elements? Are you hooking up with the swing? If you’re not sure to the answer of any of these questions, then check out some more recordings.

The role of the bass is fundamental to reggae. The high frequencies are removed with equalization, giving it the characteristically fat sound. The bass often plays a riff that repeats the same rhythm through a given section of the song, but may be altered to fit the changing harmony. The above example is a 2 beat cycle, but 4 beat cycles are also common. The riff will often emphasize beats 2 and 4.

There are different drum styles within the genre, but the cross-stick technique is normally employed on the snare through most of the groove, saving the open snare for the fills to mark the form. The snare is tuned very high and fills rarely end with cymbal crashes.

One of the most striking characteristics of reggae is the offbeat comping pattern, which could be played either by the guitar or keys. The non-comping player will often have a riff, which supports the bass line or answers other parts of the groove.

Watch video with session musician and Rock & Pop examiner Tom Fleming:

Influential artists

The success of Bob Marley & The Wailers in the late 60s and 70s brought wider international interest to reggae and Jamaican music. Socio-political and spiritual themes were often raised in reggae in the 70s, but songs about more personal experiences of love and socializing were also common. Peter Tosh was one of the original members of The Wailers and he went on to have a successful solo career in the late 70s and 80s.

In the 70s dub developed from reggae and became popular in Jamaica. Dub artists such as Lee “Scratch” Perry were record producers and they remixed earlier recordings, usually with the vocals removed and with more emphasis on the bass and heavy use of special effects. Reggae and ska had a huge influence on British punk in the 70s and there was a resurgence of ska in the UK, with bands like Madness. This ’second wave’ of ska tended to have faster tempos than the Jamaican ska of the 60s and a more aggressive sound, showing the influence of punk. Ska had a ’third wave’ of popularity in the late 80s and 90s in America. Dancehall emerged in the late 70s in Jamaica. The early songs were like a less busy style of reggae, but the vocals were often spoken or chanted to a monotone as well as sung (by the ’deejay’). Dancehall lyrics were often about dancing, violence and sexuality; rather than the political and spiritual themes common in reggae in the 70s. Like dub, dancehall has more emphasis on the lead vocalist than in reggae, where the singer is always with a band. Eek-a-Mouse was one of the most popular deejays of early dancehall.

In the 80s the use of electronic instruments increased in dancehall, reflective of their wider use in popular music. Ragga also emerged (with artists such as Chaka Demus & Pliers), using programmed drums and increasingly faster rhythms. These developments represent a significant stylistic shift from the reggae of the 60s.

In the 90s international hits from artists including Dawn Penn brought dancehall to a much wider audience. Early 00s saw success from emerging artists like Sean Paul, whose numerous accolades include the Grammy for the Best Reggae Album 2004 with ‘Dutty Rock‘. In many ways this is quite far removed from the reggae of the 60s, demonstrating how the term is sometimes used in a wider context today.

An example of reggae in the syllabus is: ‘You Don’t Love Me‘ by Dawn Penn (bass)

Blog post written by: Paul Trippett

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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