IMPROVISING IN A SOUL STYLE


By JJ Wheeler – musician, teacher and record producer


Soul is a popular form of music born in the United States of America, in the late 1950s/early 60s. It’s largely an African-American derived style, incorporating elements of blues, jazz, rhythm and – most importantly – gospel music. Despite many rhythm and blues artists being well versed in gospel music, there was some resistance to blending sacred music with a genre that was considered by many to be ungodly. The resulting blend of rhythm and blues, jazz and gospel, with secular lyrics, came to be known as soul. An early popular example of the gospel influence is in the 1954 hit ‘I Got a Woman’ by Ray Charles. The partly improvised, declamatory style of singing was based on the call and response between preacher and congregation and required a powerful lead singer. The hand claps and simple steps that became a common feature of soul were also straight out of the gospel music tradition. Aretha Franklin, among many others, also began her career singing gospel music.



Soul was made popular by giants of music such as James Brown, Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder, initially recording on legendary labels such as Motown, Stax and Atlantic.

Many later styles, for example: funk, hip hop and contemporary R‘n’B, can be considered direct descendants of soul. Today, soul artists still feature in the UK, US and worldwide charts, including stars such as Joss Stone, John Legend and the late Amy Winehouse.



Like many styles, there have been various off-shoots and sub-genres, such as funk, R‘n’B, disco and more closely related categories including neo-soul, psychedelic soul, blue-eyed soul and geographically grouped styles like Detroit soul, Memphis soul, Chicago soul, Philadelphia soul and Northern soul in the UK.

Improvising in a soul style

It’s important to think about the origins and feel of soul music when deciding how to improvise in the style. Soul songs are often simple in harmony and rhythm, but feature catchy melodies and hooks, which stick in the listener’s mind and draw you in. This might be something you wish to achieve in a melodic solo. Another feature is the use of call and response, particularly in vocals, which derives from gospel and African forms of music. This means you need to leave space between phrases for other singers or instrumentalists to reply to a call. Or you may wish to be the person responding, in which case, try to develop a phrase or counter-balance something sung or played by another performer.

Soul generally has a very laid-back feel, with funky grooves. Drummers should keep things simple and focus more on creating the appropriate level of energy and feeling by sitting on the ‘back’ of the beat and delivering clear backbeats on the snare drum. Interest in drum grooves tend to come from basic variations in bass drum patterns, but remember, consistency is the key to a catchy groove. All instrumentalists may wish to think about adding a very slight ‘swing’ to their phrasing, much like we hear in blues music; one of the key styles which influenced soul.

Soul is a hugely emotive genre, and this is most effectively expressed through voice. Singers often use a wide range of rich vocal timbre, expressive in sound and feel, and also in the lyrical content. Songs often describe trials and tribulations, or love stories, including heartbreak. It is important to reflect the content of the story in your performance as a vocalist. Melismas and vibrato are common vocal techniques you might also wish to employ.

Guitarists have used a wide range of techniques and ideas in soul music over the years, but some common techniques are to use upper register chordal accompaniments in a rhythmic manner, as in a lot of Motown classics. You can also play arpeggiated chords for slower tempo soul songs, as in many Otis Redding songs.

Keyboardists may wish to choose a softer voice or padding to accompany a soul style song. Common sounds might be a Hammond-Organ voice or a Fender Rhodes-type sound. Bassists, on the other hand, should think about keeping a warm, clean tone, allowing clarity in their funky riffs and simple, rhythmic bass-lines.

Influential artists

Despite a short life lasting just over 26 years, Otis Redding remains one of the most influential soul singers of the 1960s. Having left school aged 15 in 1956 to support his family by working in Little Richard’s backing band, The Upsetters, he gained experience touring and performing with various groups throughout the late 1950s. An unscheduled appearance on a Stax recording session in 1962 led to his first single, ‘These Arms of Mine’. Later hits included ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’, ‘Respect’ and ‘Try a Little Tenderness’, some of which only gained worldwide recognition after his untimely death in a plane crash in 1967.



Ray Charles was one of the first artists to bring his blend of gospel and rhythm and blues to the mainstream in the 1950s. Little Richard and James Brown were also key figures in the development of soul at this time. In the late 60s distinct sub-genres appeared, the earthier funk from James Brown and other artists such as Sly & the Family Stone contrasted with the more produced style of artists such as Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Stevie Wonder.



Despite being blind from an early age, Stevie Wonder signed to Motown’s ‘Tamla’ label aged just 11 in 1961. To this day he continues to write and record for the label, still touring the world and performing to huge audiences. His tight, melody-driven funky-soul sound has resulted in legendary hits such as ‘Sir Duke’, ‘Superstition’ and ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’, featuring Stevie’s multi-instrumentalism (although live he usually performs piano/keyboard and vocals), alongside sharp and catchy horn-section writing.



Aretha Franklin started her career as a gospel singer at her minister father’s church whilst only a child. By the age of 18 she had begun a secular music career, recording on Columbia then Atlantic records, with hits such as ‘Respect’, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ and ‘Think’. By the end of the 1960s she was known as the ‘Queen of Soul’ and her often fiery, protesting style of singing displayed virtuosic vocal technique and emotionally-charged vocal melodies. Aretha has since gone on to win 18 Grammy awards and, as one of the leading women of soul music, she had a profound effect on current British soul singer, Joss Stone. Joss’ debut album The Soul Sessions included hits such as ‘Fell In Love With a Boy’ and ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’. More recent hits for Stone include ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’, in collaboration with Al Green.


Soul Spotify playlist

We've pulled together a playlist of soul songs that appear on our Rock & Pop 2018 syllabus as well as other great soul and soul influenced songs for further inspiration and ideas. Follow our Spotify profile and playlists to easily find the playlists whenever you want to have a listen.




About JJ Wheeler

JJ Wheeler is a professional touring and session drummer and percussionist, teacher and record label producer. He has worked with artists such as Celine Dion, worked on West End musicals including The Bodyguard and regularly performs in a range of bands across the UK and abroad. JJ runs workshops, clinics and masterclasses all over the world, and is also a Trinity Rock & Pop examiner

"IT'S REALLY NICE HAVING THE ABILITY TO CHOOSE WHAT YOU LIKE ... IT'S HELPED ME DEVELOP AS A MUSICIAN."

JOSHUA, GRADE 7 GUITARIST

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