Last night I played a solo guitar gig for a wine and cheese crowd in Midtown Atlanta. I've been concentrating pretty heavily on Tea for Two, so it's been a while since I've played completely solo. I really enjoyed the job. It was in a beautiful room, the acoustics worked well for solo guitar, the guests were pleasant, and my client was easy to work with.
There's no way my client or the guests could have known, but this was a breakthrough experience for me. This was the first time I've improvised unaccompanied in public. I improvise quite a bit in group situations, but pure solo improv on the guitar is a challenge. I've been taking stabs at unaccompanied improv at home for a couple months, but I've never been brave enough to try it in public. When I booked this gig a few weeks ago, I decided to challenge myself and improvise throughout the evening.
There are two main reasons I've been working on unaccompanied improvisation. One is practical, and the other is artistic.
For practical purposes, improvisation enables you to stretch out the time. The solo guitar gigs that I play are musical wallpaper gigs. I'm there to help create a pleasant atmosphere. Some guests will listen for a while, but I'm not the center of attention. These gigs can last two or more hours. That's a lot of time to play solo, and it's quite a workout, too. I've arranged around 50 jazz standards for solo guitar, which is enough to get through a two hour gig. When I improvise, though, I can really stretch it out! I played for two solid hours last night, and I didn't even make it through half my repertoire.
An even more important reason to practice unaccompanied improv is that it makes me a better musician, and it helps me keep myself entertained at a wallpaper music gig. If I can improvise unaccompanied, I become a better solo musician. On top of that, it makes me a stronger improviser when I'm playing with other musicians to back me up. Playing my arrangements note for note can feel pretty stale after a while. If I played a few solo gigs each week (which is a goal of mine), I would get bored with these arrangements pretty quickly, but not if I sprinkle in some improvisation to keep it fresh.
I was pleasantly surprised at how well I improvised. I'm not exactly in the same league as Joe Pass or Martin Taylor, but I made a good start last night, and I'll be sure to include unaccompanied improvisation more and more often.
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.