Now that we have worked through the various lead sections in Wonderful Tonight, we can turn our attention to improvisation.
I love improvising and playing over this track for a number of the reasons we have touched on already in this course. The track is slow and melodic, and as such requires you to play in a way that is subtle and restrained.
So, although you don’t have to worry about fast licks, improvising over this track can be deceptively difficult. Let’s look at how you can tackle this challenge:
The solo that I play in the video above is as follows:
At the 95 BPM at which the song is played, this improvisation sounds like this:
When improvising over a famous song that has an established lead section, I typically like to try and recreate the character and feel of the original solo, whilst adding some of my own style.
In this way I ensure that my improvisation fits stylistically, without being a carbon copy of the original.
As such, before I begin to improvise I like to study the original solo and look for what I would describe as the defining elements or moments of the solo.
This helps to give me a clear framework and approach, which removes a lot of the uncertainty around how I am going to solo, and allows me to focus on the quality of my playing.
Here are the key elements of Clapton’s approach that I tried to recreate, and how targeting these same ideas will allow you to craft beautiful ideas in the style of the original.
All of the lead playing in Wonderful Tonight happens laterally up the fretboard. Clapton doesn’t move up and down scale shapes from the 6th to the 1st string and back again. Instead, he targets the notes of the scale laterally along the B string.
This alters the way he phrases and the ideas that he creates, and it did the same for me in my improvisation.
As noted in the video above and as illustrated in the second solo that I play from around the 4.20 mark (tabbed out below), you don’t have to limit yourself to lateral movement.
However it sounds great, will help you to create more varied phrasing and will build your confidence moving laterally along the fretboard, which is a key skill to develop as a player.
To help you adopt this lateral approach in your own playing, here are the notes of the G major pentatonic scale as they appear across the G, B and E strings in the higher registers of your guitar:
The notes of G – which in this context are the tonic notes – are highlighted in light blue.
If you want to recreate the feel of Clapton’s playing in Wonderful Tonight, and develop the ability to navigate laterally along your fretboard, begin by targeting the notes on these strings.
Connect them with bends, slides and hammer ons and work on creating flowing phrases that you can’t play when you are moving up and down from the 6th to the 1st strings.
Now, as noted from around the 3.50 minute mark in the video above, if you don’t feel comfortable navigating laterally across the fretboard, the great news is that you can craft beautiful ideas moving vertically across the guitar
I illustrate this from around the 4.18 minute mark in the video where I play the following:
At 95 BPM per minute, this is how this solo sounds:
Hopefully you agree that this alternative solo also works well and sounds beautiful and melodic. So if you feel more comfortable starting with this approach, go for it!
Once you have tried improvising in this style though, do try moving laterally. I think it presents a great learning opportunity and works perfectly in this musical context.
In the previous example, I spoke about targeting the notes of the G major pentatonic scale across the top 3 strings.
As noted in the earlier lessons of this course, the song is in the key of G major, which means that you can play either the G major pentatonic scale or the full G major scale.
You can also think about playing the relative minor scales of E minor or E minor pentatonic. The notes here are exactly the same however, so it is just the mental framework that is different.
Whilst this might be the case, throughout his lead playing, Clapton focuses heavily on the notes of the G major pentatonic. This – in addition to the density of technique he uses – helps to keep his playing grounded in the blues, even though the musical context of the track is not traditionally bluesy.
In fact, Clapton targets just one note from the full G major scale – the 13th fret on the B string. In my improvisation tabbed out above I go one step further, adding in the 7th fret on the B string.
Like Clapton however I predominantly focus around the major pentatonic and add in these notes only fleetingly. In this way, I add some additional textures into my solo, whilst ensuring that it continues to sound bluesy. You can see these extra notes highlighted in yellow on the following diagram:
If you feel comfortable using the full G major scale and targeting some of the notes highlighted above, I would recommend that you do so. It will help you to create some different textures in your solo and make your playing more varied and interesting.
Having said that, I would continue to focus predominantly on the notes of the G major pentatonic scale. This will ensure your playing retains its bluesy edge, which can be compromised if you start to move too far away from the pentatonic.
Like Clapton, I tried to leave sufficient space in the solo and not crowd each phrase too much. On reflection I think I could have achieved this a little better. However I do still feel that my solo has an open and airy quality with enough space between notes and different ideas.
I know that I really bang the drum on this point. However, it is so easy to get carried and play too much. We all have this belief that playing more notes equates to more effective improvisations, but this is just not the case.
In fact, the opposite is true. Leaving space will add more weight to each of your individual ideas and make them more impactful. It will also give you more time to think, which increases the likelihood that you will craft better ideas.
As a rough rule of thumb, when you start out focusing on your spacing, try to play so little that you feel a little awkward. You should actively be holding back and working on not playing. This will help you to strike the perfect balance where you actually leave enough space in your solos.
To confirm that you are striking this balance effectively, I recommend filming your practice every now and again. You can review your spacing after you have finished playing, and assess whether you are packing too many notes into your phrases.
In music the term ‘legato’ is used to refer to notes that are joined together in a way that feels smooth and flowing.
In guitar playing, this affect is created by using techniques like bending, sliding and hammer ons and pull offs. When you use these techniques, you join together multiple notes at a time, without having to pick every note individually.
In this way, you break out of the rigid structure of the fretboard and create ideas which are much more vocal and expressive. You stop moving in fixed tones, and start to target all of the microtones that exist in between the frets on your instrument.
This brings you closer to the sound of the human voice, which is essential if you want to create solos with feel and emotion.
For this reason, there is a high density of legato technique in both Clapton’s lead playing in Wonderful Tonight and in my improvisations.
This is particularly the case in my improvisations, where I actually play very few notes without using slides or bends etc. I also combine different legato techniques together – either playing them directly after one another or within the same phrase.
This adds a real vocal feel to the improvisation and breathes life into what are essentially simple note groupings. You can hear this on the following audio clip, where I have replicated the notes of my solo, but removed all of the bends, slides and hammer ons and pull offs:
As you can hopefully hear, with the legato techniques removed, the solo is without life and sounds stiff and mechanical.
So, when you are constructing your own solos, make sure you include a high enough density of technique. Try to pick much less than might feel natural, and place a greater burden on your fretting hand.
It might feel like you are using too much technique, but it is in fact very unlikely that this will be the case. Instead you will be playing in a way that sounds smooth, musical and expressive.
As a final note, it is worth mentioning that this applies to almost all blues guitar playing. If you reduce the amount of technique you use, you increase the risk that your solos will sound stiff. So keep focusing on technique, as it will do a lot to improve the quality of your playing.
The final point that I think is worth keeping in mind, is that you can utilise some of the ideas that Clapton actually plays in Wonderful Tonight.
As you might expect, this does a lot to help you recreate the feel of the original in your own improvisation. There are of course a few key points to keep in mind when you take this approach.
The first of these is that you don’t want to overuse whichever idea you are directly taking or borrowing from the original. If you do, then your solo will start to sound more like a direct recreation than an improvisation.
In a similar vein, you also want to place whichever idea you are copying across directly amongst phrases of your own creation. In this way, you craft a solo which is totally yours, but which acknowledges the work of the original player.
I illustrate how I use this approach in the closing sections of my opening improvisation solo above when I closely replicate one of the ideas from Clapton’s outro solo.
The rest of the solo is structured around the framework of Clapton’s original, but never references it too strongly. Then in the final bars, I create a favourable connection between my improvisation and the original.
In this way I am able to reference and acknowledge the beauty of the original piece, without simply mimicking it.
Try to do the same when you are improvising. Look at some of the specific ideas that Clapton plays which resonate with you. Choose one or two of these, and then try and work them into your improvisations in a way that feels natural and improvisational.
Not only will it help to improve the quality of your solos, it will also develop your ability to take whole licks, and adapt them for your own use. This is one of the best ways of building your repertoire and improving your ability to improvise.
Further soloing options
In my opinion, the approach to improvisation over this track should be focused on feeling and phrasing. I don’t think you need to explore a lot of different scales or more advanced soloing options.
Instead, I think your focus should be a technical one, in which you try to get as much mileage from simple note groupings as possible through the use of phrasing, and then techniques like bends, slides, hammer ons and pull offs and vibrato etc.
As I have been at pains to illustrate throughout this course (and in most of the Blues Club courses!) these techniques all have many levels of depth. You can slide, bend and apply vibrato in a variety of different ways, and this will impact the way that your playing sounds.
However, if you feel comfortable with the approach I have discussed so far, there are a couple of additional soloing options that you could consider. These are as follows:
Using the full major scale
As noted earlier in this lesson, during his lead playing in this song, Clapton relies mostly on the G major pentatonic scale, and then adds in just a single note from the G major scale.
In this way, he actually ends up playing 6 of the 7 notes of the major scale. However, his focus is heavily on the major pentatonic, and he targets the full major scale sound only fleetingly.
I think this approach makes sense, as it ensures that his playing retains a distinctly bluesy feel. Having said that, if you would like to explore the full major scale, then you can absolutely do so.
When you add all of the notes from the G major scale onto the G, B and E strings in the upper registers of the guitar, you end up with the following:
The tonic notes of G are highlighted here in light blue and the ‘new’ notes of the G major scale are highlighted in yellow.
If you would like to target these across all of your 6 strings across the fretboard, then you can download the 5 shapes of the G major scale here:
Playing these notes with greater frequency will add new textures into your playing and help you create sounds and ideas that are not possible alone with the major pentatonic scale. So if you are looking to move beyond the major pentatonic sound, give this a go!
Playing the changes
The final option that you can consider over this track is playing the changes. When you improvise in this song, you do so over a chord progression that moves through the chords of G, D and C.
In this way, rather than simply playing the G major pentatonic or G major scale over the entire progression, you can think about altering your approach over each chord.
You can do this in one of two ways:
The first of these is slightly more aggressive and involves changing the scale that you are using at each moment. So over the chord of G you would play the G major or G major pentatonic scale.
Then when the progression moves to D, you would alter the scale and play either the D major or D major pentatonic scale, and so on.
The second approach only really works if you are using the full G major scale. As noted in an earlier lesson of this course, the notes of this scale are as follows:
G A B C D E F#
The G major scale contains all of the notes that are within the chords of both C and D major. In this way, when the chords in the progression alter, you can think about targeting the notes that are within that new chord.
So when the progression moves to the chord of D, you can think about targeting the notes of D, F# and A. Significantly, you can do this without altering the scale that you are using.
To discuss the nuances of these options and how they work in more depth is beyond the scope of this lesson. However in both of these approaches you will create a stronger connection between your lead part and the rhythm section over which you are playing.
This can do a lot to give your solos a more melodic and musical feel, and prevent them from sounding just like a series of licks.
Having said that, there is a risk that you get so focused on playing the changes (which happen relatively quickly in this track) that you overlook the importance of your phrasing and technique.
I see this a lot with players who are making the move from soloing using scale shapes to thinking about playing the changes. So be mindful of this if you do want to make this shift in your own playing.
Whichever approach you take, there are a couple of final ideas that I would like you to take with you to bring this course to a close.
The first of these (and sorry to repeat this, but you knew it was coming!) is that a focus on granularity is critical to your success in blues improvisation.
Altering a single note, or changing your timing a little can totally change the feeling of your playing. When you combine these small changes together they will transform the sound of your improvisation.
Look at the techniques you use at a deep level and work to extract as much information from them as possible. It will do a huge amount to improve the quality of your playing and your development as a blues guitarist.
In addition to this, don’t underestimate the size of the challenge here. Just because Wonderful Tonight is a slower and more pared back track does not mean that it is easy to craft a compelling improvisation within this context.
Playing in a slow and melodic context is difficult. You have to extract as much as you can from your technique, and do so in a way that feels natural and serves the song. Soloing in this nuanced way is complicated and should be treated as such.
So, as always take your time here and don’t rush through the process of improvisation. Enjoy it and enjoy the process of experimentation and expanding your comfort zone.
On that note, this course comes to an end.
Please do let me know how you get on and if you have any questions at all – just send them across.
Good luck and I look forward to seeing you in another course soon! 😁