Starting to Improvise.

So a question that has cropped up fairly regularly has been “how do I improvise a solo?”

Well there are a few things to understand first off. To begin with don’t expect to improvise “for the love of god” from the word go. It’s a good aspiration but unlikely to occur immediately. Have some realistic expectations, take small effective steps and build up. Before long something like For the love of God might not be out of the question.

For the purposes of this simple exercise I am going to use the key of A minor. Notes being A B C D E F G.

The progression is a 12 bar looking something like this ;

Amin | Amin |Amin |Amin|

Dmin | Dmin | Amin |Amin|

Emin | Dmin | Amin | Emin|

Working from the A min pentatonic scale which is even less notes than the key signature. A C D E G.

Taking the 5 CAGED shapes as a good way of finding the available notes on the neck, see diagram.

I then select a bite sized number of notes and find myself a simple lick.

If we stop for a second and think about how a blues singer would sound over the tune. In stereotypical fashion they might sing a like “woke up this morning my woman was dead.” The second line being the same idea with perhaps a slight change in end note or infliction. The third line a similar story and the fourth line being a resolution or response to the previous three, something like “I had an axe in my hand and an aching head”….( ok maybe not quite so gruesome, but some of you like serious metal music and I’m trying to include you here;)

If we take this as an idea, we can start to develop the way we put together licks as we improvise.  This also gives us more time to think about timing the lick, vibrato, bends. All essential bits of technique that can get forgotten about whilst trying to play lots of notes because we are soloing. Nowhere does it say you have to play lots of notes, and if you are starting out it would be silly to try to.

If we think of a solo as a guitarist putting an idea forward. If we were trying to do this as speech we would need to understand how much vocabulary we had in order to best express ourselves.  Sometimes a simple motif is all that is required to make the point. Think of crowds demonstrating, something simple that can be repeated. Other times we need to speak in depth and at length with eloquence, requiring the listener to pay attention and try to digest lots of ideas. There are times for both. It is often necessary to judge your audience as to which they will be most responsive to at that time.

It is not pre-requisite to improvise using all the notes in all the positions.  There is a lot to be said for closing your eyes and listening to what you are playing.  Many guitar players tend to play with their eyes. By this I mean they have learnt the shapes and positions as geometric patterns on the neck and then proceed to replicate all of the ones they can remember. Now if this was a guitar exam and scales were being asked for this would be an excellent ploy. However improvising a solo in a song generally isn’t that situation. Think of your scales as your musical alphabet. If someone asked you to respond to something they had just said, would you respond ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ? No you’d sound like a loon, unless the question was recite the alphabet.

In order to respond you would use a small selection of those letters and possibly some would be duplicated. Can you see where I am heading with this? Is it making some kind of sense?….. ( how many duplicated letters were in that sentence alone?)

So we need to take a simple idea and develop it over the progression. Keeping things simple to begin with by using just the one scale allows the chords to move underneath and add some nice movement and harmonising to the notes we pick.

Take a 3 note motif, repeat it, repeat it again, maybe turn it backwards.

How was that? Hurt? Did the world end? OK so we can establish that trying to improvise won’t result in death, so there really isn’t anything to be afraid of. Was it as fantastic as you hoped? If it wasn’t well you could try again and see if it improves, you could try a different motif. Would a bend help? Some vibrato? Alter the length of the notes? You are improvising, the outcome is down to you.

A useful aid to this would be to record yourself whilst trying your ideas. Now you don’t need a 128 tracks studio with all the gear going and George Martin twiddling your knobs for you, although if you do have that fair play. These days most mobile phones have voice recorders available as Applications and this can give you an idea as to what the sound coming out is like.  Listen to the recording, was it how you hoped it was? You will possibly be your own biggest critic, unless of course you are married.  What would you like to do better? Was the phrase what you hoped for? Could you alter the timing?  A lot of guitarists start all their licks on beat 1. Why not try playing the phrase starting on a different beat? This can alter the way the lick feels against the chords. Try taking your lick and starting it on beat 2 then beat 3 then beat 4. See how it sounds playing across a bar into the next one. This might be a device you can utilise in your improvising.

The important thing to remember is improvising requires as much practice as every other facet. The more you do it the better you will become. So take time to add a  spot of improvisation into your practice regimes. The best thing about it is it is fun and will hopefully be the amalgamation of all the other things you are practicing. After all you don’t want to the be practicing things that have no useful purpose.



One Response to “Starting to Improvise.”

  1. Great videos

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