How listening to jazz trumpets improved my guitar improvisation
It’s easy to get stuck into well-worn clichés and patterns when we improvise, but listening to things that aren’t the guitar can help you break free.
Miles Davis runs the voodoo down. Image: Jack Vartoogian / Getty Images
As someone who has been playing guitar for more than half their life, I’ve realised I’m often inspired by anything except guitarists. In being conscious about crafting a unique sound, from melody making to soloing, I’ve just figured – what good is learning from another guitarist? So I branched out.
This started with synths, listening to bands like Kraftwerk and Daft Punk. Then hip-hop’s ability to chop up a sample, then the piano. I ventured as far out as Arabic jazz and the crazy rhythms people play on the oud. However, no instrument has had a greater impact on my playing than the trumpet.
It might sound weird, but stay with me and I’ll break down just some of the areas in which I have analysed the trumpet and applied it to guitar, and how it has allowed me to leave convention behind, expanding my versatility, thus making my playing way more exciting to hear and actually, more enjoyable to play. You can likely go and do the same with any instrument, but here’s how the trumpet has helped me.
Obviously, a trumpet is played very differently to a guitar. Sound is produced by blowing air through nearly-closed lips, which produces a buzzing sound. The vibration goes through the instrument’s various pipes and out of the bell. As a result, fatigue occurs far easier than on a guitar. Different intensities of blowing will also make different pitches – forcing more air through makes higher pitches, so in theory, the higher-pitched you play a trumpet the quicker you’ll fatigue.
I decided to apply this idea when playing guitar. Breathing out while soloing, breathing harder when playing higher notes and softer on lower notes. I found this meant I was taking pauses in places I normally wouldn’t and also stopped trying to fill every gap with a note. While playing, I also felt I was more varied with my expression – listening to my breathing I held some notes longer and then would play a flourish of shorter ones, something I overlooked when soloing previously.
A good solo often isn’t about shouting over everything and not considering the conversation around you, nor is it stuttering with indecisiveness. The difficulty is playing without rigidity, both of these issues dissipated when I tried to think like a trumpet. You also can’t ‘shoegaze reverb and delay’ your way through life. You have to consider rhythm and play precise notes at the right time.
A good example of this is Milestones by Miles Davis. He comes in at around the two-minute mark. There ’s quite a lot of quick notes, but every now and then there are longer, sustained notes. Applied to guitar, the timing is abnormal. He’s not always starting on the beat or bar, which makes the phrasing really unique.
Listening to a trumpet also revolutionised which notes I play. One of the characteristics of trumpet is that pitch will shift really suddenly. All it takes to sweep from one end of your range to another is force. It’s one the reasons a trumpet solo is so intoxicating, you can never quite predict where it’s headed, and it means you can really suddenly explode into a high-pitch frenzy. For guitarists, this means trying to use the neck diagonally, as opposed to thinking about moving up and down, or from left to right across a couple of strings, which keeps you stuck roughly in the same range for too long, making things staler. Granted, it’s harder to move diagonally, but it sounds so much better.
One way to do this a little easier is to get out of the habit of using a pentatonic scale, and to follow the chords you’re soloing over. Not only does this allow you to move around more, but it also means your notes feel more specific to what is happening, and with a bit of practice they’ll feel even more melodic too. There’s also a lot more call for chromaticism and dissonance within this, which from Hank Marvin to Joey Santiago, has always proved electric.
Another aspect of trumpet playing is that it’s common to hear a trumpet playing in unison with other brass. You can add a similar sense of texture to your playing by striking octaves and other intervals in a solo (provided you have your theory in check!). While he more likely derived it from piano, jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery’s iconic use of octaves also remind me of how brass bands sound when doing this.
Along with texture, one thing trumpet players and brass bands have in spades over a guitar is their ability to use dynamics properly. Guitarists are often exceptionally lazy when it comes to dynamics. We play at a pretty standard forte (f), and then whack it up to fortissimo (ff) for a solo using a Tube Screamer or some other sort of booster to crank the volume.
But have you ever noticed how a trumpet is playing at a pretty good volume and all of a sudden there’s a screech so deafening and beautiful that it sounds like you’ve been struck by lightning? It’s hard to create that effect on guitar without adding a boost or overdrive pedal that will inevitably colour the tone in some way, but there is a way to increase your dynamic range without having to step on anything – don’t play as loud!
It sounds simple, but it requires discipline and practice. The trick is to play with about 60 per cent of your normal volume and attack, and then crank your amp a little to compensate for the shortfall. Then, when the time comes for you to have your Spinal Tap moment, you can kick things to 11 simply by playing harder and louder.
And if you really want to get that trumpet-style broadside of volume, dig in even harder than normal with the pick and watch your guitar screech with glorious loudness. Make sure to really put your wrist into it, I usually upstroke these as it’s easier to get more volume, and for the sake of the string).
Playing guitar isn’t all about being loud of course, and trumpets also provide useful lessons on how dropping things down low can make things more interesting. I’m thinking of a big band, where they drop out for one horn to take the lead. Naturally, there’s a decrease in volume and texture, but it sounds good. With guitars, often we just make the guitar louder and play on top of something pretty similar to what we already had, so why not try the opposite and let everyone else back off while you take things down low?
In addition to sounding great and being quite a bold move in the show-off world of guitar, it also makes it seem like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going – it’s refined and elegant. Check out Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, around the seven- to eight-minute mark the trumpet is pretty fast and epic, but it isn’t very loud.
This more laid-back approach doesn’t mean that you can’t play with embellishment, however. Listen to Black and Tan Fantasy by Duke Ellington (Newport 1956 especially), the way his muted trumpet comes in full of horse whinny and dynamics, from blues to funk it would be pretty cutting edge if incorporated into a guitar solo. Bits of it make Tom Morello sound tame.
You would probably want some distortion, a wah, and a whammy, tremolo; plenty of slides, hammer-ons and vibrato to achieve a similar tone. Another idea the trumpet made me think is to double bend a note, it isn’t done too often, but it sounds really good. This track generally exemplifies a lot of what I’m on about, but in terms of adding colour to your playing, it’s an essential listen.
Finally there’s tone
Trumpets can go from really warm and mellow to sounding like a punch in the face very easily. It’s worth manipulating the tone control at certain points in a solo to help improve the overall variety of sounds you’re able to produce. But also, don’t be afraid to really use that treble and make it shriek, it’s a solo after all!
All too often, guitarists silo themselves by only looking to other guitar players for inspiration, I hope this article has encouraged you to look outside of the six-string realm when you’re looking for new sounds and approaches. It’s certainly helped me break out of my comfort zone, and it’ll help you too – good luck!
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