Friday, January 4, 2013

Keeping a Vamp Interesting: Texture

This is the first in a series of posts that will address improvising over a vamp (a relatively short repeated section of music like a repeated bass line, i.e. Chameleon ). Because their isn't usually a huge amount of harmonic movement in a given vamp, it is commonly one of the first settings that musicians become comfortable improvising in. However, its sweetness soon sours as the musician's ear and ability matures and some of the difficulties of creating a complete musical statement over static harmony begin to rear their head. In fact, vamps can present a real challenge for telling a story or making an improvisation really feel like it goes someplace. Too many canned pentatonic or blues licks over a repeated chord progression or bass line can quickly bore the listener and the player. This series of posts will be dedicated to exploring different methods of propelling a vamp-based improvisation forward and keeping yourself from falling into a musical lull. Of course, all the concepts are also readily applicable to other musical settings.

Today's post will deal with texture, loosely defined as the musical mood established by the combination of  articulation, dynamics, and rhythmic and melodic content. Texture can be a very useful and relatively easy to use tool in your improvisation. You can use it to set up contrasts or establish a unique musical landscape, and as long as you are familiar with the different elements that create them, you will be able to compose various textures on the fly. Following are examples of some different possibilities, each with a notated example (I had originally intended to include an audio example as well, but those will have to wait for the next post). The notated examples are should be played at a medium tempo (quarter note = 100-120) and played with a straight eighth feel.

Like a Melody

An easy way to create musical textures is to simply copy one you are familiar with. For example, one possibility would be to play melodically, generally using longer rhythms like you find in the average melody that accompanies a lyric. Classic jazz standards come to mind like Autumn Leaves or All The Things You Are. These melodies contain longer resolution notes, and smooth voice leading. Here is an example of a few bars of improvisation loosely within this texture.


Articulation can be a powerful and easy tool in setting up a musical landscape. Any articulation used in a repetitive or even semi-repetitive fashion can establish a mood. One example could consist of staccato notes and accents regularly used in a phrase.

Giant Steps

There are a variety of textures you can create by focusing on intervals, but one might consist of medium size intervals like thirds and fourths, the building blocks of arpeggios. This can definitely lead to some interesting territory.

Elvin Jones

Continuing in the Coltrane theme, a repetitive rhythmic element can also establish a certain mood. The following example uses a repeated three 16th note pattern (two notes and one rest), a polyrhythm, which can establish a very dense and energetic mood.

Perks of Exploiting Textures

Not only will employing textures in your improvisation  fight the potentially static feel of a vamp, but it can also give the solo unity and focus. While you can use them to increase intensity or transition to a new musical setting, they also give the ear something to latch on to. Sometimes I'll remember a particular solo on an album because of the specific unique textures it uses, and I think we sometimes remember compositions in that way too.

A good introductory exercise would be to list a few musical textures that appeal to you and experiment with them all over the same vamp or tune. With continued experimentation you will soon find new favorites which will not only help develop a given solo but eventually become an integral part of playing.

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