Some things seem destined to be mysterious. For beginning bluegrassers, figuring out how to play a solo is one of those things.
Now fiddle and mandolin player and teacher Nate Lee from the Becky Buller Band is here to sweep away some of that mystery. His DVD, How To Play a Solo on a Song You’ve Never Heard Before, will have you playing with confidence almost from the start.
I can say that with authority. After I watched the 23-minute lesson one time yesterday, a visitor to my studio picked up a guitar and started strumming a song that was new to me. Without really thinking about it, I grabbed an octave mandolin and started soloing over the changes. It didn’t matter that I’m a bass player, and not very familiar with the “backwards” strings on the mandolin. I nailed it. And if I can do it…
The secret to picking out passable solos in this beginner-level DVD is the pentatonic scale – the first, second, third, fifth, sixth and octave notes in any scale. With a series of simple exercises and the help of two students, Lee demonstrates that the notes of the pentatonic scale fit well with any chord played from that particular scale. And he shows that you can get a cool sound out of any or all of the notes, with eye-opening exercises involving just two of the notes and, surprisingly, a single note repeated in varying lengths and rhythms.
There’s also a fun section on how to recover from playing a wrong note. The first commandment is don’t stop. If you do, the whole world will know you flubbed it. But if you keep playing, and maybe even intentionally play the “wrong” note next time through, it will start to sound like it fits, especially if it gets sandwiched between two “right” notes.
The DVD includes a helpful booklet that illustrates how to find the pentatonic scale is any key and includes tabs for closed position pentatonic scales in all 12 keys. The DVD is designed for mandolin students, but can be helpful for other instruments as well.
There’s more to playing compelling solos than using the pentatonic scale, of course, especially for bluegrass breaks that stick close to the melody. But Lee’s DVD lesson is a fairly foolproof way of playing something that fits without panicking when the jam leader nods at you to take a solo.
Maybe building those more complex solos can be the focus of Nate Lee’s next DVD lesson.
You can order this DVD from Nate’s site for $20, or purchase as a download for $10.