A question that has arisen repeatedly in lessons has been ” how do I improvise?”
Well there is a huge question. Due to the nature of improvisation you could in theory just do anything you like and technically that is improvising.
The dictionary defines it as, “produce or make (something) from whatever is available.

Let’s keep that in mind. You are only able to improvise with the resources available to you. If you know all the scales, chords, arpeggios, well you can improvise more expansively than if you just know  A minor pentatonic. Let’s put it another way, if you need to repair something and you have all the tools and materials available you may  repair and improve the item, but if all you have is a roll of gaffa tape, well you will repair it and it may work absolutely fine for a very long time.  Both are legitimate, it just depends what you want.  Back to music, think of it as an off the top of your head composition.  A first draft perhaps.

We need a scenario for this improvising to take place.  The safest for most guitar players, is a tried and tested 12 bar Blues, good old i iv v.  In this instance I am talking all minor chords.

We shall do it in the key of A minor just to keep everything simple.

I throw you in the deep end and tell you to improvise over this 12 bar blues. What are you going to do?

Here is a mental check list of things you might like to make sure you are aware of before you wade in.

  • Do you know the chord progression?
  • What chords are present?
  • How many bars of each chord?
  • Can you play those chords?

I’m going to give you a clue that you wouldn’t get in an exam or live situation. You can use the A minor pentatonic scale here. It fits the chord progression and well it might be the only scale you know. Ref: the definition of improvising, using what is available. If that is all you got, well that’s all you are going to be able to use.

The chord progression is

A min | A min | A min | A min |

D min | D min | A min | A min |

E min | D min | A min | A min ||


Not wanting to bog you down in theory, so I will just say that you can use the A minor Pentatonic. I would rather focus on getting you some licks and phrases and getting you playing.

Licks? How am I going to get licks?  This is where learning other songs is vitally important.  If you think of music as just a language, a method of communicating. In English you learn to speak, you learn to read, you take the words that you pick up in these scenarios and then use them in the context you need them.  Observe small children. They start with ” mum” or ” dad” and with a short while of having words said to them and being encouraged to repeat them back, they are expanding their vocabulary.  Interesting to note that often if the parents have accents, they pick them up too.  Same thing happens with music, you will pick up the ” accents” of the music you listen to.   The more expansive your vocabulary the better you can express yourself. However bare in mind a child that can only say ” Mum” and point can get the same desired outcome as an adult who can ask ” could you possibly when you have time , bring me over my freshly made and squeezed fully organic orange juice in the glass receptacle” . One is also less annoying that the other.  Translate that across to guitar, Steve Vai, will improvise one way and Billy Joe Armstrong another. Both get the job done.

Back to what are you going to play?  Well you may well know a few simple lead licks by now? Try them.  They made need a bit of alteration to fit.  Much like the Gaffa tape, you will need to get the correct lengths you need.

The relationship with language is an important one to remember.  When trying to phrase licks it is important to remember how you phrase words. The emphasis you put on certain letters or syllables. The infliction up or down. These can all add to extra meaning from the words.

In order to demonstrate this there is an accompanying video, as something are hard to effectively demonstrate through writing alone.





~ by Geoff Lea Guitar on February 27, 2017.

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