To Loop or not to Loop?
Updated: Sep 30, 2022
That is the question.
Recently there was a post on a private Jazz Guitar FaceBook group that I frequent:
For those doing solo gigs - anyone using background tracks or looper?
The responses ran the gamut:
"It's antithetical to the whole concept of jazz!"
"It's a crutch to compensate for lack of chops/knowledge."
- And everything in-between, including predictably snarky comments from jazz purists.
My 2 cents:
First of all, for the Jazz purists out there, I can play a 4 hour, solo instrumental jazz gig with no technological aid whatsoever. I'm no Joe Pass or Martin Taylor, but I can do it. I have done it, starting with a 4-hour gig, 5 days a week for months on end back in the '80's. It was all instrumental, all standards. That was the gig that got my shit together on the solo instrumental thing. We didn't have tracks or loopers back then, and I learn best when under pressure.
So if I use a looper, it's not because I lack the chops or knowledge.
The fact of the matter is, I use a looper on all kinds of solo gigs, including jazz gigs. Why?
Because it's fun.
That's it; as a player -
FUN IS MY NUMBER ONE PRIORITY!
I don't care what a so-called jazz purist thinks about it. I use a looper on solo jazz gigs and I work quite a bit. That jazz purist attitude doesn't pay my bills. Yeah, I could work just as much without a looper (and I would like it), but it doesn't really matter. As far as I know I've never lost a gig because I use a looper.
As a matter of fact, the manager at an establishment at which I’ve been playing steadily for a couple of decades recently told me,
“I had a guy trying to get a gig here send me a promo video in which he made a big deal of the fact that he uses a looper and I told him, ‘Dude, Jay was doing that 15 years ago!’”
The manager was proud of the fact that his club had a solo artist using a looper before anyone else in town. So I could argue that using a looper gets me more gigs than not using one.
Now I'm going to get into my responses to the various arguments for and against, but if you are a bottom-line type person, you can stop reading right now, 'cause that's the bottom line for me - fun-on-the-gig.
You can't argue with that; I'm getting paid to have fun.
The question concerns two different things that need to be distinguished because they are different-in-kind; tracks and loopers. Yes, tracks can be imported into loopers, but a track and a loop are different animals.
I don't use tracks and don't ever intend to. The reason is because when you're playing to a track, you're locked into an arrangement. I hate that. Not fun. I love improvisation and flying by the seat of my pants. I've played in countless bands where I played the same parts to the same songs night after night after night. It was a major contributor to a burnout I had in the middle eighties (see, I Used to Love This! What Happened?). Playing to tracks would be the same thing and have the same result.
At some point, playing a guitar to a fully-produced backing track crosses over into Karaoke. Yeah, you sound like a full band, but so does the jukebox. So does a DJ.
Furthermore, taking requests becomes problematic. If you're dependant on tracks you're playing Russian Roulette when you take requests.
One could argue you’re playing Russian Roulette by taking requests at all, but I do anyway. I’ve been known to play songs I don’t know for a $100 tip. Or too much liquid courage.
However, if you are a horn player and somebody wants to hire you solo for their wedding reception, restaurant or event, what else can you do? Go for it! Use tracks! Especially if you like it.
If you like playing to tracks - you like the predictability, the consistency and the knowledge that you will always sound good; if it's fun - by all means and more power to ya! I get it.
I would say the same to a guitarist, if that's what you like to do, and people are willing to pay you to do it, more power to ya!
On the other hand, a loop can be created in real time on the spur of the moment. I loop the accompaniment guitar part to the section of the song I want to solo over - on the fly - while I am singing. Then I hit the play button to solo. I solo as much or as little as I want, hit the button to turn off the loop and finish the song.
The loop is erased as soon as the song is over. Nothing is saved; nothing is preprogrammed.
On an instrumental, I will play an arrangement of the head like I would do without a looper, then somewhere in my improvising, I will play chords that can serve as accompaniment and loop them to solo over. I make the transitions from head/soloing to recording the loop to playing over the loop to getting out of the loop and back to the head as seamless as possible.
Many times I loop the entire song - like a jazz standard or a song with an AABA song form - while I'm singing. I can then solo over the two A sections and come back in singing on the bridge - or I can solo over the whole form and bring the vocal back in whenever and wherever I feel like it. The spontaneity, improvisation and challenge that I thrive on is preserved; plus it provides the rhythm guitarist that I've always wanted to accompany my solos - me!
The fun factor in playing solo escalated exponentially when I started using a looper.
The argument that, "It's antithetical to the whole concept of jazz" is in my case patently false. One of the defining characteristics of jazz is improvisation, which is retained with my approach.
The looper I currently use (Digitech JamMan) is very deep; up to 99 loops, each 15 minutes long, there’s an onboard drum machine and probably many more functions I don’t even know about. I don’t use any of that and don’t care about it. Like I said, nothing is preprogrammed and the loop is erased when the song ends, if not before.
I’ve trained myself to habitually erase everything at the end of every song.
Furthermore, using a looper like I do involves a whole skill set in-and-of itself. There are several potential pitfalls to my approach:
You've got to step on the button at exactly the right time. If you don't, there's a timing glitch at the end/beginning of the loop. All of a sudden, what shoes to wear becomes very important!
Maintaining a steady tempo while recording is super-important. Obvious, but not so easy to do. There is no click-track or metronome. For instance, if you speed up during the course of recording the loop when you hit the playback button there will be a sudden decrease in tempo that's very jarring. The longer the loop, the more potential there is for inconsistent tempo - and I use some pretty long loops! Though this issue rears its ugly head every once in a while, it turns out I have better time than I thought - I've been pleasantly surprised overall.
You generally have one chance to get the loop right. Any mistakes get recorded and looped.
Creating seamless transitions into and out of the loop is a skill of its own; I've figured out how to do it consistently.
Any of these errors have to be compensated for when soloing - there are no second takes!
All of this preserves the spontaneity, improvisation, chance-taking and drama that is, in my opinion, one of the fundamental characteristics of jazz. And I apply what I call this, "jazz attitude" to most gigs I play, whether it's a "jazz" gig or not.
I could not preserve those characteristics if I used backing tracks.
There are multiple dimensions of my backstory leading to the use of the looper that involve Frippertronics, actual physical tape loops, digital delays, jazz theory and arranging, thousands of hours of recording studio experience, thousands of hours onstage in every kind of musical setting, and more!
If you want a more detailed telling, including specific looping techniques, see, Loop-Dee-Loop!
So for me, tracks? No.
Loops? Yes, but my way.
Duo with Phil Brenner on sax. Notice the jazz waltz feel with the walking bass lines in the bridge. I created the loop during the sax solo and erased it as soon as the rhythm guitar comes back in after the guitar solo.
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