By Roly Platt

Playing a solo or fills in a song is a totally individual adventure. There are no rules and no right way to do it – that’s what makes each player unique. However, I have found that there are some very important “non-rules” that help when used as a basis for your approach.

Playing “fills” in a song could be thought of as support for the “storyteller” (the singer). When playing a solo, you are the storyteller and it has many of the same elements as the role of the singer. When playing a solo in song, your vocabulary consists of your choice of notes combined with your “phrasing”. Phrasing can be described as the “timing” and “dynamic shape” of the notes. It gives a sense of rhythm to a series of notes and to me, is probably the most important element in playing.

Much like a storyteller, an approach I take is to start a solo by creating some interest, without giving away too much too soon – draw the audience in and set up some anticipation of what’s to come. I like to get their attention, then rest, letting the song “breath” for a moment – building from there. The “air” in between the notes is as important as the notes themselves and phrasing is how we express emotion – through the notes played, their rhythm, and the spaces in between. The human brain is constantly trying to make sense of what it’s experiencing and has the ability to make predictions of what’s to come in music. What great improvised soloing does is “play” with what’s predictable (a pattern) by breaking from those patterns, creating anticipation – “tension”.

I try to get musical ideas across as simply as possible and this is always a work in progress. I am continuing to learn the value of not over-playing. Over-playing is a sure sign of an immature musician. They want everyone to see how good they can play and often try to demonstrate it in every solo (come to think about it, I did a lot of that myself)! The best thing that could have happened to me was my first band, a Country-Swing band. The band taught me a ton about taste, restraint and melody. As I was mainly a blues player, I was inexperienced at playing other forms of music and it took a lot of unlearning and an open mind to begin to understand what works in various styles of music (I’m still learning). Playing Country music is great for humbling a player who has only developed a more aggressive “blues” style. I strongly recommend it to blues players, as it will enhance skills and introduce a more melodic approach to playing.

The Song is King

Most importantly, whenever I play, I’m aiming to stay within the context of the song - the song is King. I listen to what the song is about, and then try to convey some interpretation of that through my playing. If playing a soulful R&B song, I’ll try to play a supportive solo – often long, simple but emotional phrases. If it’s an aggressive song, I can think aggressive on the harp – but don’t confuse aggressive with complicated or frantic – think power instead.
Simplify. Deliver the goods as directly and efficiently as possible. To go back to the storytelling idea, nobody wants to hear a lot of unimportant details. This only serves to water down the message and ultimately takes away from anything that was important. Develop great control and delivery. That will win every time. My approach now, after playing in many different situations, is to try to let my playing breathe. You’ve often got 3 or 4 other instruments playing with you, so make the band part of your playing. Play inside the music – not over top of it.

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