Free jazz legend Sonny Sharrock

My view of improvisation is very personal, full of love, anger, truth, lies, and, in the end (I hope), sense. According to Webster's, to improvise is 'to compose without previous preparation,' or 'to make or devise from what is at hand'.

There are three basic types of improvisers, the foremost being 'the creator,' who has an insatiable need to tell his story. For him, improvisation is only a tool. He plays each solo as if it were his last. He will not be compromised, nor will he be stopped. Next is 'the juggler,' for whom the skill of improvisation is just as important as is the need to tell his story. The juggler gathers around him all of the things he has heard, and one by one tosses them into the air. With his skillful hands he cleverly keeps them aloft. He seldom drops an idea, because he knows them all so well.Finally, there is 'the tinkerer, whose improvisations are based on formulas and the instrument itself. His scientific manipulation of sound is laboratory-created and laboratory-bound forever. Making up a subcategory, if you will, is 'the fool.' He claims he is bored with music, so he has decided to make noise. Fool + Noise = Bullshit. Throughout this discussion, I speak mainly about jazz music, for three reasons. First, because it is the music I know best, and it is also 90% improvised. Second, because classical music has not been improvised for at least 200 years. And last, because rock is pop music, with the singer and the song being the main components. Rock instrumental solos fall mainly into the 'juggler' category. Regardless of the style of music, guitarists are such an insular group that they have become incestuous. They never listen to other instruments, but instead feed upon each other. It's no wonder that everyone sounds the same. My main influences have always been horn players and drummers. I'm always slightly amused when I see a magazine mention Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, or John Coltrane along with an identification of their instrument. How can anyone think of being a musician and not be familiar with these men? If you ever hope to be a serious improviser, you have to know what, how, and why these and many others contributed to improvisation.

Sonny Sharrock - Black Woman

There are five main starting points for improvisation: melody, chords, scales/modes, tonal centers, and freedom. Most improvisers use a combination of these to obtain a particular sound. Throughout any improvisation, it helps to have a clear vision of the melody. I always strive to make my improvisations sound like a song. Melody is the first thing you learn and the last thing you hear before you impro- vise. Melody is the song. In my solo on 'Broken Toys' [Sonny Sharrock--Guitar, Enemy102) I improvise pieces of melody and use them to develop a new one, which becomes the song.

Although a composer might use chords in conjunction with a melody, an improvisation based on the chords can be totally un-related to the original song. The technique for improvising on chord changes is fairly simple: You apply the appropriate scales and arpeggios to the chords. The hard part is to turn this into music. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane were probably the two greatest chordal improvisers who ever lived. They go beyond the standard technique, extending the scales and substituting and layering chords over the basic chord changes. Modal playing is the opposite of chordal improvisation. Instead of applying scales to chords, the scales create the harmony by emphasizing different notes. Soloing on tonal centers is different than modal and chordal playing, although it is a combination of the two. It simply uses either the most dominant tonality in a set of chord changes or a melody as the basis for a solo. Ornette Coleman is a master of this type of improvisation. He builds upon the melody, shifting his tonal center at will.

Sonny Sharrock - Ask the Ages

Finally, there is freedom--the most misunderstood and the most misused of all these elements. Freedom grows out of improvisation. It is both your emotional peak and your deeper self. It is the cry of jazz. The one rule for playing free is that you can play anything you want. A critic once remarked to me that it takes a great amount of taste to play free. He was wrong. Artists cannot be hampered by the restriction of taste. What playing free does take is imagination and confidence. In free playing, there is nothing else to stand on; it's like walking in space. If you're confident, you will not fall. The road forms beneath your feet as your imagination takes you places arrived at by no other means. My confidence in the beauty of the music carries me through. Coltrane's Ascension [MCA, 29020] is the best example of freedom. Jugglers, tinkers, and fools try to play free; however, they will never succeed. It is reserved only for the masters.

I have referred to these techniques and devices as starting points, because they are what you should use to develop your improvisation. However, you must attempt to go beyond them. Your solo should be a work of art, not a technical display, which is the most difficult part to trying to create great work. Your work must be great, or it is nothing. There is no middle ground. A couple of years ago I toured Europe playing duos with saxophonists and other guitarists. We played in museums, coffee houses and anyplace where 20 to 30 people could fit into. I took these gigs partly as a challenge, because I wanted to see if I could make music without a rhythm section behind me. About halfway through the first set on the first night, I realized that I had not gone to any of the beautiful places that music always takes me. Instead, I was struggling to come up with ideas and devices to make the music meaningful. I failed. Night after night I failed. Duke Ellington was right, when he stated the first rule of music in his song title 'it Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing.' I had forgetton this. I was trying to be interesting and clever, but instead I ended up playing bullshit.

Swing is based in confidence. It is the grace that you acquire after years of paying dues. Technically, it could be the emphasis placed on a note or part of a phrase that gives it movement; however, don't forget that technique is only a beginning. Swing is the dividing line between those who can play and those who can't. Although the term was first used by jazz musicians, all music can swing in its own way; it simply depends on who's playing it. Little Richard, Professor Longhair, Aaron Copland, Bo Diddley, Samuel Barber, and Sonny Terry all swing mightily without ever having played a note of jazz.

Sonny Sharrock - Seize the Rainbow

Music can be played at breakneck tempos, or as slow as the most painful blues. It can be composed or improvised, but swing it must. The swing that I use is the same swing that Benny Moten spoke of in the 1930s, that Bird and Dizzy used in the 50s, that Thelonious Monk turned inside out and Miles turned into a groove, and that Coltrane, Ornette, and Cecil Taylor set free. Goddammit, you really can't play without it!

A rhythm section that plays static, highly arranged music behind a soloist doesn't add much, but one that swings and improvises brings excitement and surprise to the music. They make the music as wonderful as a first love and as devastating as death. I love to play with drummers who play loud, long, and strong. Many years ago I had the good fortune of playing with Elvin Jones. I always pay a lot of attention to the way a drummer uses his ride i cymbal; Elvin plays it differently than anyone I've ever heard. His time is impeccable, but he doesn't use the standard repetitive rhythm on the ride: Instead, he accents his ceaseless snare and tom patterns with it. Elvin's high-hat cymbal does not always fall on the traditional second, and fourth beats; like his ride, it too is used to accent when necessary. With all of this coming at you at once, you hear and play differently. You swing or you die. When I played with Elvin for the first time, I was afraid that I would be swallowed up by the music coming out of the drums. Eventually I got my nerve together and let myself go into the music. I started to develop melodies based on the rhythmic phrases. My confidence grew. I realized that I could not get lost, because I was in the hands of a master drummer and improviser. I had just met swing head-on for the first time. All great improvisers spend many years developing their own sound. On the other hand, many guitarists buy their sound in little boxes, or, if they can afford it, in rack-mounted 'stairways to heaven.' If their individuality is ever questioned, they just point to their digital read-outs to show that their numbers are different from the other guy's in town. Ultimately, your sound is your hands. It may i take a lifetime for it to reach its fullness, but playing is a lifetime gig. if you're not totally serious, do yourself and the world a favor and just do weddings, or buy a can of mousse and become a 6-string gladiator from hell and make some money.

Imitating someone else's sound is unforgivable. I've known cats who began by trying to sound like their favorite players. Now 25 years later they are struggling to develop individuality--what a waste of time. No one remembers the imitators. Miles is Miles, Coltrane is Coltrane, and Sonny Sharrock is Sonny Sharrock. For better or worse, you are your own truth. Likewise, I hate to see soloists thinking onstage. At that point you should only be concerned with feeling. Trying to find places to insert your favorite licks is like painting by numbers: Always correct and always boring. When I'm improvising, I don't want to spend time groping for notes, so I find all of the appropriate scales and modes within a few frets. By starting scales with your left-hand 3rd and 4th fingers, you can minimize your movement' up and down the fretboard. This allows you to concentrate on creating melodies instead of performing gymnastics.

Remember that your improvisation must have feeling. It must swing and it must have beauty, be it the fragile beauty of a snowflake or the terrible beauty of an erupting volcano. Beauty--no matter how disturbing or how still--is always true. Don't be afraid to let go of the things you know. Defy your weaker, safer self. Create. Make music.

There is 1 comment on this article so far

Comment on this article

Email address
solve the following equation: 4 - 2 =
Margaret Grimes Comment left 2nd December 2017 21:09:25 reply
Sonny, you are the greatest, most thrilling, most original, most powerful, most beauty-laden, most inspired and inspiring guitarist I have ever heard -- and among the rowdiest and most revolutionary as well. My dear husband Henry Grimes can attest to all that, having played music with you on Pharoah Sanders's earth-shaking recording "Tauhid" and on "Marzette Watts and Company," both in 1966. We listen to your recordings and those of your followers and admirers today and always know your sound and your truth are life-giving and eternally with us. And every little once in a while, Henry's green upright bass starts singing Sharrock... Thank you, Sonny. Thank you!




An all original post war Epiphone 18 1 / 2" Emperor. Carved spruce top and carved maple back I purchased this guitar from the son of the original owner . When I first laid eyes on this guitar it was for an appraisal for the Estate of the original owner. I told the family that if this guitar ever left the family I would like to bid on the guitar. Five years later the son walks into my shop and asks me if I'm still interested. His Dad had wanted him to keep the guitar in the family and for it ... more

Vintage 1962 Guild Artist Award Archtop Hollowbody Jazz Box Guitar Circa 1960's



This listing is for a beautiful looking and playing Vintage 1962 Guild Artist Award Guitar. This guitar was made in Hoboken, NJ by Guild in 1962 and is an early Artist Award. This was one Guild's most high end models and is really a lovely example of American guitar making at it's finest. The guitar is all original except for the tuners which are not original. The guitar has a Gibson manufactured Van Epps String Damper installed. This guitar has been professionally set up and plays and sounds ... more

1996 Gibson Citation Archtop Jazz Guitar -Natural Flamed Maple Back and Sides



* Scroll down to see 56 Hi Resolution images ** Here's a 1996 Gibson Citation model in a factory original natural finish. It was the 1st Citation made in 1996. This guitar is in excellent condition and has light play wear. It has no headstock breaks, cracks or repairs. There is some clear coat checking but it is not noticeable to the touch. The top and back are pretty close to flawless. Overall, the finish is glossy, clean and the pick guard has no pick scratches - see pics. All the electronics... more

1979 Gibson Super V BJB Archtop Electric Guitar! L-5 400 Johnny Smith Floating P



1979 Gibson Super V BJB Model! One of the best archtops Gibson made in my opinion. Here's a great example. It's a 1979 Gibson Super V with the BJB floating pickup. Less holes on the top is better for tone and acoustic abilities. The guitar has no issues and is super clean besides a few small dings on the top. It's not mint, but is definitely in excellent condition. No strap button drilled on the heel! Comes with original hardshell case and case key. Really a beautiful example of this model. The ... more

Epiphone Joe Pass Emperor-II PRO Sunburst Hollowbody Electric Guitar - Archtop



Epiphone Joe Pass Emperor-II PRO Sunburst Hollowbody Electric Guitar Here is what Epiphone has to say: New Vintage Natural Finish plus ProBucker™ pickups with coil-splitting The classic Epiphone Joe Pass Emperor-II PRO honors the "President of Bebop Guitar, " one of the most prolific and groundbreaking guitarists in the history of jazz. The Joe Pass Emperor-II PRO is a true archtop with hand-scalloped bracing. Featuring Epiphone’s critically acclaimed ProBucker™ hunbuckers with ... more

Vintage 1965 Gibson ES-175 Archtop Electric Guitar with original hardshell case



Classic era Gibson electric guitar with great sounding Patent Number humbuckers with chrome covers and patent stickers. Gorgeous cherry sunburst ES-175 with the original Lifton hard case and vintage string packages. Dates to 1965 with the serial number stamped on the back of the headstock and on the orange paper label in the bass side F-hole. Double line double ring Kluson Deluxe tuners. The guitar has had a nice pro refret and the frets are in great shape. Play wear is evident in the finish on ... more

Find more jazz guitars for sale at

Jazz Books

Hal Leonard Guitar Method - Jazz Guitar: Hal Leonard Guitar Method Stylistic Supplement Bk/online audio. Featuring in-depth lessons and 40 great jazz classics, the Hal Leonard Jazz Guitar Method is your complete guide to learning jazz guitar. Songs include: 'Satin Doll', 'Take the A Train', 'Billie's Bounce', 'Impressions', 'Bluesette' and more.

Jazz Guitar Lessons

Jazz Bebop Blues Guitar helps you to create the authentic sound of jazz guitar, without having to learn numerous scales and modes. Based around the familiar blues progression, this book uses simple chord / scale substitution ideas to create beautiful jazz-blues lines in the style of the great jazz guitarists