In case you’re getting into blues music and are trying to figure out the best solo, coming up and practicing ahead of time isn’t the best idea, according to Robert Cray. With a decades-long prolific career as a blues guitar master, Cray explains that, in his case, the best guitar solos simply flow out of him in the spur of the moment.
Robert reflected on this while discussing his songwriting style and how it evolved over the years in a recent chat with Guitar World. Although he’s learned a lot from other players he collaborated with, Cray says that when he writes, it’s nothing but serious business for him:
“I’ve been fortunate to have contributions from many great players. I’ve worked with people who would paint pictures with how they wrote, so I’ve always kept that in mind. But I’ve also realized that only some things need to be so serious when I’m writing. I can have fun, write goofy things, or, depending on the mood, go in a more serious direction.”
“I look at many perspectives, and I’ve taken account of many things I’ve learned from working with various people. I keep all of that in mind when writing.”
So, how does this affect his ability to write solos?
“Oh, I’m in the moment when soloing,” Cray replied when asked if his songwriting approach affects his lead parts. “Practicing a solo ahead of time puts you in a position of being unable to reach it later.”
“I don’t subscribe to that theory or that way of doing a solo,” added the blues legend, explaining that his “solos have got to come straight out of me at the moment I’m doing them.”
When the interviewer mentioned that there’s something about this “meditative state” when improvising a guitar solo, he responded that this is exactly the case with how he does it. However, there’s another aspect to it:
“It also stems from doing live shows because I’ll go into that state when playing live. The thing I’m always trying to get away from is playing the same song several times a week. If you do that, there’s no stretching of your imagination, which is not satisfying.”
And yes, it comes with its risks. You may just end up with a solo that you’re not exactly satisfied with. But Cray says it’s worth it, compared to doing the same old thing over and over again. He added:
“It’s always better to reach, even if you’re not happy with it than to play the same boring piece of crap over and over again [laughs].”
But, at the same time, there’s also a chance that you’ll play the same thing twice without realizing it. After all, it’s far from a simple task to improvise all the time within one genre and using a limited set of scales. Reminded of how Buddy Guy said that, if he played the same thing twice, that it wasn’t intentional, Cray responded:
“That’s very true. The way I see it is, once you’ve left the studio, all bets are off. The moment you record a song in the studio is a specific period, you know?”
“And you won’t be able to do it again, or you shouldn’t want to. But I have done that; when ‘Strong Persuader’ was released in ’86, I thought I needed to do that. But I got away from that type of thing quickly because of what I just expressed. “
“You can’t do that; otherwise, you’re not really performing. If you’re doing it exactly as you played it on the record, it’s not exciting.”
“Every time you get on stage, there will be something different about the way you play that song,” added Cray while explaining his live approach. “And my band and I don’t do the same setlist every night; we try to keep that from happening.”
Interestingly enough, this practice goes way beyond blues or jazz music. In fact, you’ll even find it in metal, which is a genre usually associated with incredible precision, preparation and everything being rehearsed to detail. Metallica’s Kirk Hammett adopted this approach for the band’s latest album “72 Seasons” and doesn’t plan on playing the same solo twice for any of these songs.
“I have every intention on playing every solo from this album differently when we play live,” said Kirk in an interview from earlier this year. “If you watch old videos of Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck, or even Michael Schenker, they’re not playing the solos on the album – they’re playing whatever the fuck they wanna play. I love that because it’s a moment of real honesty.”
“With this album, I went in intentionally to improvise 20, 30 solos, give them all to Lars [Ulrich] and Greg [Fidelman, producer], and go ‘You guys edit them!’ I know I’m gonna play something completely different live, so I can offer something different every time you see Metallica. When you buy a ticket to a Metallica show, you’re not gonna hear carbon copy versions of the album.”
“At a time when it’s just so accessible to see videos of your favourite band, there needs to be some sort of impetus for people to go out and see live shows that are actually somewhat spontaneous. That’s my thing these days – and if people don’t like it, that’s just tough!”