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Here's my problem. I hear a song and I can immediately hear a solo in my head, even anticipating chord changes. It's beautiful.

Everything goes to sh*t when I actually start soloing. The song progression/movement in my head disappears. I believe this is because I'm so focused on soloing over the chords and phrasing that I lose sense of the song itself. This is what I believe to be the problem anyways...

What do you guys suggest so that I can keep the song movement in my head as I solo? This will allow me to hit chord tones right as they go by and create meaningful phrases.

NOTE

Notice I'm NOT asking "how can I play what's in my head" and rather, "how can I keep track of the song movement while I solo over it.

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EDIT: Since I misinterpreted the question, which is about memorizing the changes/structure of the song: You can still use some of those techniques below for building a mental map of the tune but just apply them to the chords. Figure the changes out by ear. Write them down. (Obligatorily adding another Adam Neely video on this as well :) Sing the arpeggios of the changes in order. Feel how they move into one another. What does the song "feel" or "smell" like? Feel out the "contours" of the changes. Are some sections static or do they have angular movement? Construct a kind of "painting" in your head so you're moving through a kind of "landscape" as opposed to just "Chord 1, Chord 2, Chord 3..." Another thing that will help is just outright memorizing a lot of tunes as you will start to build an internal repertoire of "what to expect next" as far as chords go. You admit you focus too much on your solo and not on the song; start focusing on the song and its structure instead. If the song has a melody, try to keep singing the melody in your head to keep track of where you are and it will also feed your solo as well. There's some jazz lore about the saxophonist Ben Webster when, in the middle of a solo, he just stopped playing. Someone asked him after, "What happened?" He replied, "I forgot the words to the song." He was singing the words along in his head while he was playing. So, "The song should structure your solo, not vice-versa" is a good rule of thumb. I know it's not a "magic bullet" for memorization but whatever kind of mental tool you can find will help you out.

Original answer: This is actually something I struggle with as well. Developing the connection between your internal ear and your fingers is something very important. The always-wonderful Adam Neely has a video about this exact topic. Here's a few ways to help develop those connections:

  1. Transcribe (learn by ear) solos or bits of solos you like. Learn to sing the bit first, just as Adam points out in the video, because if you can sing it properly, that means you're hearing it properly. Then learn to play it on your instrument one note at a time. This can be frustrating at first so start with bits and pieces and work your way up to whole solos (if you feel like it). And of course feel free to notate them afterwards so you can see how they're structured and understand how they might work!
  2. Sing with your playing. This is actually good advice no matter what with improvisation because it keeps you "honest" about it. (Obviously horns can't "sing" with their playing per se, but they are still breathing with their playing which helps them form phrases, etc).
  3. One exercise that I've heard tossed around (I believe it's out of Hal Crook's book) is to record yourself playing random chords on a given day. Then, the next day after you've forgotten what you played, attempt to improvise over the random chords with just your ear. You don't need to shred, you just need to be able to hear what notes you're improvising work or don't work.
  4. Arpeggiate the chord changes to a song with your voice. Yes, it's tough, but you'll really start to hear the chord tones pop out at you. You can play the root note of the chord to help at first. Especially on a chord like G7b9, when you sing that b9 against the root, you will REALLY hear it, and not only that, you'll notice what it feels like as well. Singing tensions above the chords as well (i.e., 9, 11, 13, or even altered tensions like b13s and #9s) will help lock those in as well.

Just a few tips, not so much a definitive answer. In my experience, transcription and singing arpeggios/extensions are very powerful exercises. Plus, transcription means that you're always absorbing language to use, not just figuring out what note goes where.

  • Thank you for the reply. However, I think your points deal more with outputting what's in my head rather than keeping track of chord changes; which is my problem. – user3704920 May 4 '18 at 0:10
  • Attempted to fix it. Thanks for the clarification :) – LSM07 May 4 '18 at 0:47
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It seems from what you say that you're only approaching a song from the soloing perspective. On guitar it's quite easy to separate chords and solos. In fact, it's what most of us mere mortals do!

However, there needs to be an absolute knowledge of the chord structure before an effective solo will appear. It's all very well widdling in pent minor - we've all done it - but if you have played the chord sequence through enough - learned it if you like - then as the song works its way through, there'll be a mental map of where it's going, with waypoints and landmarks which you'll recognise. Often the start points for another phrase. These are the helping hands while you formulate that brilliant solo whilst listening to the piece, which evaporate when you start your actual solo. I guess there's no bones to hang the flesh on, if that makes sense.

When playing suchlike on piano, there's often the left hand comping, or putting in the occasional chord, which helps keep track. A lot of jazz guitarists do the same with the odd chord now and again (not too odd, please!). But it all helps to 'keep on track'. Of course, every time you play a chord, that gives you at least a few actual start point notes - those contained within the chord itself.

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IMO the best way to do this is to spend some time doing (or finding and studying) a technical analysis of the progression - understand how it works theoretically and make into an abstraction: Simple examples:

  • This tune is a I-IV-V blues in G.
  • This tune is a sequence of II-V-I's that move through every flat key and then a turnaround back to F.
  • This tune based on Rhythm Changes in Bb.

By learning a piece's algorithm - an abstraction of the specifics - you no longer have to concern yourself with the details of each chord: You know the formula - you just have to follow that. By doing so, you will be able to quickly learn even fairly complex pieces and remember them, because you aren't getting bogged down in specifics.

Another way of saying that: You need to understand the music you have to play, not just play it by rote.

This is a tried and true method in any discipline that requires one to have large quantities of complex material ready for use at any time: Generalization and abstraction are the key to acquiring and maintaining large stores of information in your mind.


Another way (if it's possible in your situation) is to make yourself a cheat-sheet: a very concise chart that you keep in front of you somehow - maybe even taped to your wrist or your instrument somewhere that you can see it - for the parts that you have to play and have difficulty with, and look a little ahead at your cheat-sheet when you're coming to the tough parts. Of course initially you're not keeping track in your head that way, but by doing so you should soon have the changes imprinted in your brain.

This is quicker and easier method than the first one, but is less effective and beneficial in the long run. Once you learn how to analyze and abstract a tune, it's a skill that will move you ahead no matter what sort of music or musical endeavor you're involved with.

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I'm not sure it's possible (for everyone) to keep track of chords in their head while playing. This is multitasking. So, I'd ask (1) are you playing with others so you can hear the chords, (2) or are playing something from memory?

If you are trying to train yourself to hear a line (or more) while you play a line one thing that may help is singing one voice while you play. For example while playing over Rhythm Changes I hum the bass roots to keep myself in check. This isn't the same as hearing the entire song structure but if you can do this I think the next step is a bit easier.

After years of playing and listening I can recall a complete piece with all voices in my mind while I sit quietly, but like you when I play that goes away. So, use a backing track.

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