Get In The Zone: An Intriguing Improvisation Strategy from Wayne Krantz
TO PARAPHRASE SONGWRITER KRIS KRISTOFFERSON, IMPROVISING AIN’T FOR SISSIES. It takes big ears, an inventive mind, and a brave heart. Bravery is essential, because improvisation means venturing into unknown territories—in front of a live audience, hopefully. Sounds a bit scary, right? Maybe that’s why so many players fold familiar things they’ve worked hard on into their solos. Even the wiliest improvisers fall back on pet phrases and patterns from time to time. Of course, there’s no crime in playing memorized licks—in fact, it’s impossible to imagine many iconic players without their signature maneuvers—but that’s not the kind of playing that drives Wayne Krantz. When Krantz is improvising, it’s clear he’s not running up and down well-trod licks, but constantly searching for new sounds in real time. Though he favors rock and funk grooves, his rich harmonic sensibilities have a connection to jazz. That gives him lots of latitude for discovery, even when his band is digging ever deeper into an anything-but-jazz groove. Krantz has a heavy résumé, including gigs and session work with Steely Dan and Michael Brecker, but he’s mostly done his own thing for the past decade or so. He recently ended his long run at the 55 Bar in New York City, where he’d played more-or-less every Thursday with his trio since the mid ’90s. During that time he released several CDs, including four recorded live at the 55. He’s also the author of the book An Improviser’s OS, which defines his unique approach to practicing improvisation. (His CDs and book are available exclusively online at waynekrantz.com, as are numerous live recordings and free, streaming “WK” radio.)
Pure improvisation calls for practicing with a particular mindset. Unlike most guitarists, Krantz isn’t interested in mastering patterns or memorizing fingerings. Instead, he practices while imposing strict limitations, which force him to be creative. He’ll start by choosing a particular zone of the fretboard to explore. “I call it a ‘zone,’” he says, “because when you say ‘position,’ people tend to think of the scale patterns they already know, in certain positions on the neck. What I do is more an exercise in, ‘Can I find the right notes here?’” Krantz’s practice zones are smaller than your typical scale or arpeggio fingering—a mere four frets wide, with no allowance for stretching outside the zone. The appropriate fret-hand finger is assigned to each fret in the zone. Say, for example, you’re in the 5th-fret zone (frets 5–8). You’ll play all of the 5th-fret notes with your 1st finger, all 6th-fret notes with your 2nd finger, and so on. “When you limit it to four frets instead of five,” Krantz explains, “you’re necessarily going to leave out notes, which means you’re going to have to think, and not just rely on what you know about a scale pattern. Don’t stretch out of the zone—not even for a note that’s part of the structure, or sounds good—or else it’s wrong in terms of the exercise.” What can you practice in a zone? Any scale, arpeggio, or chord structure—in other words, to use the general term Krantz prefers, anyformula. More to the point, you can work on improvising with these formulas. The notes you find aren’t to be memorized or mastered. Zones are meant to be places where you’re not only limited, but actually a bit lost. Krantz says, “It’s like, ‘I don’t know this—at least not as a pattern,’ and I prefer it that way. By practicing using all these things that I don’t know but can find quickly, I get better and better at finding them. It’s working towards having access to all of the possible formulas. And, within that context, trying to be as musical as possible.”
Formula In Action
To demonstrate, Krantz chooses a formula—Abm7b9 pentatonic. The m7b9 formula is 1, b2 (the same chord tone as b9), b3, 5, b7—which, in the key of Ab, translates to Ab, Bbb (or, enharmonically, A), Cb,
G#. These are common names for common formulas. rife with cooing half-step bends. If you’re wondering how useful it is to practice on a m7b9 harmony—not a chord you see in many songs— consider that this novel pentatonic scale can be put to other uses. It could be an attempt to play prettily. playing Ex. Krantz then opts for the 5th-fret zone. I’ll use Lydian augmented. B.” says Krantz. A. 1a.” he explains.” With that. D#. b7. 4. A. “I listen. as we can’t play the sixth-string root (Ab) of this formula. I know symmetrical diminished is 1. modally speaking. C#. #4. as long as the note comes out right. C#. Since I can’t reach the next b3. but I found it really hard to apply that to actual music making. b3. F#. “First thing I’ll do is choose a formula for each chord. or an attempt to play funkily. I’ll use symmetrical diminished. “Any kind of guitaristic articulation is cool. then b2 and b3 on the first string.) Also. and two for the last chord. For Cmaj7#5. 7. “I start with b2 and b3 on the sixth string. 3. He’s got a similarly utilitarian portable cassette recorder nearby. it’s a bit jagged. B. I go to 5 on the third string. 3. For E7. One bar for the first chord. B. “It doesn’t matter what they are. I judge it by listening and then ask. and Dorian is 1. and I make that search as musical as I possibly can. I practice trying to find any tonality in any zone. and plays Ex. so this pentatonic acts as a cool alternative (not your average blues box) over F#m7. it works great in E major. b7. so I skip to 1 and b2 on the fourth string. It’s nothing fancy. 1c using the same limits. so try it over B7.Eb. For Bbm7 I’ll use Dorian. Whatever I try to do. and the phrasing is right.” He scrawls E7. If the note choices sound completely random. Trippy!) He dishes up Ex.” says Krantz. even though it lies a mere half-step below our 1st finger at the 4th fret. E. 2b. and a piece of clear tape covers the mini speaker grille to dampen the sound a bit. b3. then I’ve failed. “I allow bending into any note that’s in the formula. What’s interesting here is that he’s using both melodic elements (one note at a time) and harmonic elements (two or more notes at a time) within the same phrase. D#. then I’ve succeeded. allowing for more stepwise motion.” he continues. the limitations of this zone become apparent. D#.”
. one bar for the second one. Also.
Krantz is ready to generate more lines. The next available note is 5.” Krantz says. so notes available in one measure may be off limits in the next. It’s how most of us are taught. then listens back to what he has just played. it’s easy to see that it’s a subset of the E major scale. which is spelled E. Krantz is getting into the flow now. G#. on the fifth string. 6. 5. It’s a considered choice. #5. F#. “to try to remember it and get good at playing it fast. which is to be expected when you’ve only got a five-note formula to work with. b5. I usually don’t include open strings cause they expand the zone and fill in too many notes in the formula. G#. Hold on to your hat! “Sometimes I’ll make a list of random changes. 2. B. Without them. it’s a cousin of F# Dorian (F#.” Krantz hits the rewind button. 2a. If I’m trying to play in a random way. “I could map this out. It’s similarly related B Mixolydian (B. which means the 1st finger lays out entirely in this zone. 2. Melodically. b7 on the second. bigger intervals are built right in—which I like. C#. Each new harmony requires a new formula. I can’t reach b7 on the fifth or fourth string in this zone. Lydian augmented is 1. 1b. “Going through this low to high. 6. Right off the bat. A). I was always limited to only being able to play what I’d practiced. (Notice that no Gmaj7 tones occur on the 1st fret. D. A. So I decided to forget that whole bit of trying to remember stuff and getting fast at playing up and down and all that. Then I’ll pick a part of the guitar—say the 3rd-fret zone—and then run through the changes. E). and Gb. The first phrase that comes is Ex. (Enharmonically reconfigured as G#. “so I can ask questions about it—whether the time is good. and Bbm7 on a piece of scrap paper. D#. Instead. and some of the notes are out of reach and out of bounds. 5. He hits the record button and starts generating Abm7b9 lines in the 5th-fret zone. Krantz flips his metronome on. then says. and now he’s got a new formula and zone in mind—Gmaj7 (G. F#) in the 1st-fret zone shown in Ex. ‘Is this as good as it can be?’”
A Change Is Gonna Come
Krantz’s zone practice gets even more interesting when it is applied to chord progressions. and I’m trying to play melodically. b2. For instance. F#. That’s how I used to practice scales. Cmaj7#5. 6.
focusing on one note at a time. sustaining lines of just a couple notes per measure—which is perhaps a good approach to start with if you’re new to rolling through changes in this manner.”
Besides Krantz’s harmonic command on the guitar. Varying the common formulas isn’t the only way Krantz staves off ennui. in the sense of ‘Hey. If he gets bored working with a formula—for example. Even then. a four-note pentatonic formula—he’ll change it up by adding a note. “These aren’t patterns.”) Adding two notes is another possibility. 5. But Krantz’s approach can be applied to chordal improvising as well. (“It could be a note that’s diatonic. 6]. Remember. another remarkable element of his playing is his time feel—his groove. allowing new voicings to be generated on the fly. Work this angle for a while.”) And at other times.” Krantz reminds us that however creative you get with this routine.
(Don’t) Get a Grip
Most of our examples so far have been melodic. yet it’s harmonically rich enough to be effective as comping. and it’s where their rhythm section guys—usually heavy R&B and funk
. the more likely it is you’ll only know x number of voicings for a given chord. In a sparse power-trio setting—as Krantz most frequently plays— the ability to bridge the gap between soloing and chording is a vital skill. so it’s an 11-note scale. “I always thought I had good time. “I might even put the click on just beats two and four. It’s melodic enough that it could simply be part of a solo. Ex. then harmonically. Returning to the same progression we explored in the previous three examples. I don’t limit myself like this. but when I got into that band I realized that they were playing in a part of the beat that I didn’t have access to—dead center. but finds ways to keep it interesting. b7). though— the clusters you find aren’t meant to be the ultimate chord voicings.”
Keeping It Real
Krantz acknowledges this math-y routine can get boring if the approach taken is too straight or pedantic. Ex. or not being swingy. You find stuff that’s cool. They’re simply to be found. look at this cool Ebm7b5 voicing I have. Krantz plays simple. at the end of the day it is just an exercise—to be left behind in the practice room. “These things are being generated by my knowledge of the formula. or just a weird note from the chromatic scale.” says Krantz. b3. This one-zone/all-keys strategy is a great way to organize your practice time. Krantz puts his harmony goggles on and plays Ex. and you play it. He’ll try using bends.” he says. Donald [Fagen] plays from there. He’ll play melodically for a while. Walter [Becker] plays from there. he’ll take the chromatic scale in one key and subtract its 5.’ The whole idea of improvising is that you find cooler stuff than you could ever think up ahead of time. then forgotten. as he puts it. (Note: When playing chords or even just diads during zone practice. he sails through the formula in different keys [Ex. The more you’re attached to form. Krantz allows himself to break the one-finger-per-fret rule if adhering to it would make the fingering at hand awkward. 3 has a bluesy vibe.” “That comes from my Steely Dan experience. “If I’m on a gig. and your comping may never be the same. he consistently nails the beat bang on and. At the extreme.Krantz cycles through the 4-bar progression twice. with varied results. Without ever sounding mechanical. b5. or use different time signatures. He’ll change the tempo.) Choosing the m7b5 formula (1. “lines up vertically with the click. supple.” says Krantz. “and then practice being swingy. 4 is syncopated and hyperkinetic. you could pick one key and explore it in every zone on the neck. who played with the band on and off from 1996-2006. he’ll try to center his improvisation around the given chord. then not using bends. The whole thing about playing live is that things come up in the moment that have nothing to do with limitations. to be used time and again. Conversely. and the 4th-fret zone as his workspace. (“That was me just kind of bouncing around and being rhythmic. and the less chance there is of something truly spontaneous happening.
In whatever zone.’ or ‘that note’s the 3.” When jumping up or down the neck. however. It’s a place—a physical place in the beat that you either play or don’t play. say. “When moving horizontally. which I do a lot. ‘Am I playing right notes?’ and. Once you know where that is. “The other way. because this is something that’s invisible to you as you’re playing.players—play from.” he says. enharmonically. and hear it in relation to something that is centered.”
Finding the Notes
When practicing zonal improvisation. Bbb (or. You have to listen to it on tape. when I’m practicing. A). Krantz uses one of two tactics to find “right” notes. and Db. you have to record yourself. There’s nothing more centered than that horrible click of a metronome.’ You learn to see intervals. When I first tried to hook up with that. ‘Where’s b3 above it? And b7 below it?’ And so on. Krantz tends to think in terms of note names. to create an Ebm7b5 harmony.” he allows. you won’t be able to shift. ‘Is this in the center of the click?’” To fine tune your pocket in this manner. One is to think of the actual note names he’s looking for. Now. “That sounds trivial. my hand may not know that from one note to the next is. says Krantz. I go to F#. Gb. ‘Where is Eb?’ Then. and can hear it. ‘What’s up there?’ If I need an F#. I’ll say. a major seventh. So I have to think. Also. “but without that. I can see that ‘that note’s the 5. If you can make a bare click sound good. he’ll think of and play its chord tones: Eb. especially in the studio. and not working on site-specific improvisation. That’s how I move around. the most important thing is simply the desire to do so. “is to think of function. the two things that are always on my mind are.”
. For instance. I got to thinking that would be a very clear strong place to come from with my own rhythmic ideas. I wasn’t there and I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t control it. your placement will get better. you can go there.