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I think every player that tries to improvise gets to a point where he starts playing things out of memory without focusing too much on the ideas in his head. It happens to me all the time. I just hate it when I play long sequences of sixteenth notes without even knowing what they are. Sure they sound ok because they are in the key, but they're starting to take over my playing. What can I do to avoid this kind of playing? How can I keep my improvisation spontaneous?

I think these are good solutions, but are they?

  1. Learn new instruments (so that I rely less on muscle memory, and more on my ears).
  2. Write/Transcribe music without my instrument (computer software, or just pen and paper).
  3. Avoid playing fast.
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I play guitar mostly, but also when playing keyboards, I suffer from the same issues. –  Anthony Jul 30 '13 at 14:42
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Related: music.stackexchange.com/questions/2060/… –  luser droog Jul 31 '13 at 4:58

10 Answers 10

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I have my own approach to this problem that's served me well over the years. The basic formula is : Pick your cliche, and Ban it.

there's a balance at play hear, because repitition in music is one of the things that can objectively make it sound great. The human mind likes when it can pick out a pattern, and the balancing act is to make your phrases souand familiar to each other while continually developing them. The reason I say is just so you're cautious not to over-randomise your playing.

1. Write down every over used technique you're doing.

This can be anything from a scale position you rely on, A key you always play in, a scale you always use, always ending phrases on a perticular degree/note like the Root. Always bending, always using a set pattern or rhythm. You get the idea

2. Pick one BAN IT from your playing for a set amount of time.

I compose, and had a bad habit of always composing in C Major because it has no sharps/flats to worry about, so I banned it for a month and as a result. Once that was done I found G and F were getting really easy, so I cut them out too until I became comfortable in more keys.

If this is too easy, and you're just relying on another crutch, ban that one too. The idea here is to get comfortable with new tricks, so that your old ones aren't alone.

3. Pick, or engineer situations where you had to use the original technique. And find alternative ways to solve the problem.

Let's assume that your over used technique is the minor pentatonic scale. Here you take a minor chord progression that lends itself to minor pentatonic, and start using some other scales. Perhaps Dorian, Harmonic Minor, Natural Minor etc.

4. After the Ban on the old technique is over, go back to the situation you used in step 3

First, just have a play around with the situation, see what technique you drift towards, and notice how you now have a choice of at least 2 different approaches to what you're playing over. try focusing on the old technique, then the new, then do some switching or combination work. You'll find that because you HAD to find another way to play, it now comes naturally not to rely on the original crutch.

Hope that helps, I am aware at how messy my language was there!

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I love your solution but it sure needs a lot of determination. –  Anthony Aug 2 '13 at 16:27
    
Start by taking them one at a time. If you recognise that you're always relying on something it will be easy to spot and stop :) It's much harder when you have a varied bag of tricks and your problems are a level up. –  Alexander Troup Aug 6 '13 at 11:40

The first question would be: What instrument are you playing?

As a bassist that's where my answer will be coming from.

I have a few ways to change up what I'm improvising:

  • Backing tracks: this is the big one that helped me the most. By getting as many different tracks as possible to play along with I saw a dramatic improvement. If you have computer software you can make them yourself, but I bought a load of good ones off the internet. You can really hear how things fit together and find new ways of interacting with the rest of the musicians.
  • New styles/tempos: by not sticking to one style you'll find greater variety of ideas.
  • Going through songs/other musicians styles: what makes their music unique and how can I use that/develop it into my own new ideas?
  • New techniques: I found I could take advantage of a couple of new ideas to change up how I play. For my instrument adding bits of slap bass, palm muting, harmonics or others. This may not be plausible based on your instrument
  • Forcing myself to use different scales/modes: since I've learnt mode theory I've got a much better appreciation of how keys fit together. Also knowing which notes of a scale/mode to hit/emphasize helps alot.

And the big one:

  • Playing in a group - you'll constantly get new things thrown at you. Be it a group of people on the same instrument who have different approaches or working as part of an ensemble you'll nonetheless find new ideas that you can try and add to your playing.

I'd definitely say the last idea is good, as long fast sections are good, but get stale. I do have a normal guitar I play, but mostly for consolidating theory as opposed to genuine practise.

Mostly it's just a case of sitting down with your instrument and just playing as much as possible. Try some new genres if possible. Using myself as an example I mostly play rock/indie rock with my band, but I've gotten into jazz alot lately and it's given me loads of new ideas. I've got one eye on a bit of blues too just to beomce more well-rounded as a musician.

Mostly though, it depends what instrument you're playing.

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Just as a P.S. There's nothing wrong with having a set of standard licks as a fallback - I have a few that I can always use if I get a little stuck - but it's mostly a case of knowing the theory as well as possible and learning how it applies to you and your instrument. The more genres and varied your background, the more you can throw in that will wow your audience/fangirls. –  Folau Jul 30 '13 at 12:25
    
That's true, by learning new styles of music, some your of old licks and patterns just don't apply anymore and you're forced to think of everything you're doing on the instrument. –  Anthony Jul 30 '13 at 14:52
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Ah ok, just seen you play guitar. So my advice would be to study new genres and look at musicians you look up to. I have no idea if it's your prefered music, but Ret Hot Chili Peppers do amazing improv jams that give me great ideas. Contrast that with bassists like Miller and Wooten, Arctic Monkeys and already you're getting a range of influences. These all apply to me mostly. I also look at bits of metal, funk, blues just for new ideas. Bass is interesting as I mostly play harmony with odd fills, but solos are where it gets interesting. What genres are you into? –  Folau Jul 30 '13 at 14:54
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Also reading your other comment (not enough rep to comment there) slowing down is a great thing to do, even if it feels painfully slow. If you're interested in playing in your head then ear training exercises like intervals will let you 'hear' what you'll play before you actually play it. That will also come from practising with the instrument. –  Folau Jul 30 '13 at 14:58
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As a background I played cello originally and moved to bass ("School of Rock" style...), but have also played flute, keyboard and guitar. I'd love to learn drums. The more you know the more you can apply to your music, and if you apprecaite what everyone else is trying to do you can interact much better with the rest of the ensemble. If you're interested in bass there's a great site called scottsbasslessons.com that I use alot. He has some great stuff about improv and creating lines that I bet would be handy on guitar too. Mostly Jazz orientated, but useful for any musician in my opinion. –  Folau Jul 30 '13 at 15:05

I think one thing that hasn't been mentioned is the idea of how you practice things like scales or melodic concepts. If you run scales all day you can shred through a scale or changes in a linear fashion and sound impressive but there isn't a lot of melodic content. Similarly people come up with riffs or figures that fall into their hands or voice nicely and ten to practice that, which makes it occur even more frequently. As a bass player I am constantly trying to avoid the same patterns/lines as they can easily accompany lots of different songs with the same or similar chord progressions. Here are a few ways to break habits and find new ideas:

  1. Practicing scales with rhythmic patterns: Usually people start with a steady pulse and increase the tempo as they practice scales, which is great practice for technique but can lead to monorhythmic ideas. Try breaking up the rhythms in as many ways as possible starting small. Try playing a quarter note then two eighth notes, one note per rhythm. Then try two eighths and one quarter. Then you can evolve that to the point where your rhythmic patterns are a whole measure long, then two or as long as you want.

  2. Practicing scales with intervals: There are many ways to do this... Try in thirds (in C: C,E,D,F,E,G,F,A,G,B,A,C,B,D,C and back down C,A,B,G,A,F,G,E,F,D,E,C,D,B,C) You can also try ascending and descending (in C: C,E,F,D,E,G,A,F...) Or the opposite (E,C,D,F,G,E...). This can be done with all of the intervals on all scales.

  3. Combining 1 and 2: Try playing rhythmic patterns with an intervalic approach.

As you work through these patterns you will eventually find that they become more melodic and musical and less mathematic or rule bound. Once you have practiced these new patterns they can fall in your hands easier, much like running the scale linearly, and you can combine the different patterns to create melodic ideas with less focus on how to play them. Also, the practice will instill more of the theory. Practicing the intervals will help you learn what a third sounds like as well as the other intervals.

There are endless ways you can practice that will lead to new ideas with easier access. Here are a few more with less detail.

  1. Note Permutations: Take a set of notes and play them in each permutation (3 notes: 1,2,3 - 1,3,2 - 2,1,3 - 2,3,1 - 3,1,2 - 3,2,1 - 6 total permutations)

  2. Melodic Approach: Practice writing/playing longer melodies. Some of my favorite players impress me with their melodic ideas as much or more than their virtuosic abilities (Jon Scofield comes to mind).

  3. Melodic Development: Each piece of the melody, or the whole thing, can be used to fuel your improvisation (listening to the theme and development sections of classical pieces is great too).

All of this practice can be great and there are always more ways to do so but all of the other answers are just as important. You have to listen to more music. You have to learn to play more music. You have to play with other people. Learning from the masters and practicing your ass off will not only help you come up with more unique and impressive lines but it will help you find your own voice on your instrument, which is always the most powerful tool.

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This is all brilliant advice. Playing through scales in slightly different orders/rhythms/tempos will give you a great awareness of intervals and how they fit together. Without looking to play the same lick over and over again you can still use bits of scales to change up what you're doing - just playing little elements of it. My word of advice for scales is to use a metronome (I think my fellow bassist would agree), as timing is critical. Practise playing on the beat as well as pushing and pulling it to see what you can come up with. –  Folau Jul 31 '13 at 9:21
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Absolutely, metronome is god. –  Basstickler Jul 31 '13 at 18:42

Though I still get stuck in a rut on occasion and the answer sounds cliche...

Play what you feel or what you hear in your head. Getting started with playing what I hear in my head took me years, but the few times I manage to pull it off were WOW moments.

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I totally agree, that's what I'm looking to answer. How to always play what's in my head and not stray away? No matter how hard I focus, I cannot manage to keep my focus long enough. There's these impulses I get to let my finger move on their own! –  Anthony Jul 30 '13 at 14:45
    
@Anthony, practice singing what you hear in your head. Then practice playing exactly what you're singing. –  empty Aug 8 at 17:00

Listen to your mistakes

When your fingers don't quite do what you intended, it is a mistake; but it's not necessarily wrong. Sometimes it sounds good.

Especially for live improvisation, you need to be able keep going, despite any flubs or missed notes. But getting back on track can involve getting back to the track. If you do it right, nobody knows you made a mistake and the mistake can be rechristened a variation.

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The old jazz saw of, "If you play it twice, then it isn't a mistake." –  empty Aug 8 at 16:59

This happens to everyone, but the key is to listen to, and play along with as many different kinds of music as you can.

Sounds obvious, sure, but you get the benefit of the common riffs or patterns that other people have. Angus Young has a few very common licks. So does Joe Satriani or Slash etc. Get familiar with their licks and you will find new ones in your muscle memory.

Just play and listen. As much as you possibly can.

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Experiment by yourself with different melodic and rhythmic patterns. Do it at slow tempo, so you are not tempted to let muscle memory take over. When you find interesting patterns, try them out at higher speed. After a while, you will have increased your "riff repertoire", and you can easier improvise around a broader specter of musical patterns.

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You might want to have a look at this free Coursera course on Jazz improvisation. There's plenty of useful information about the relationships between melody, chords, scales, etc... with an emphasis on how to use them together for improvising/soloing.

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Improvisation means falling into the same patterns. If you want to be original, try composing. Even then, you might fail. People fail at being fresh and original when composing notes: when they have all the time in the world to adjust every note, and revise as much as they want before they reveal the final product to the world!

Improvisation consists of small variations on canned phrases, period. If you deviate from the "rut" too far, you will blow it; your live experiment will not mesh with the music.

What you can do from time to time is to reinvigorate your repertoire of phrases by introducing new ones. How you introduce new ones is by composing them, not in real time, not while you are performing. Piece it together, taking as much time as you need. When you hit upon some interesting pattern, rehearse it. Once you have it down, transpose it throughout a scale (say, diatonically or whatever system that applies) and begin improvising with it: sandwich it between your usual phrases somehow: improvise while cutting between your "auto pilot" existing material and the new stuff you just invented.

Stick with it for some weeks, months. Don't introduce too much new stuff, too often.

One way to discover new things is to delve into fingerings that practitioners of your instrument tend to stay away from (due to difficulty). For instance, if you're a guitarist, you probably know that most guitarists (in jazz, pop, rock) improvise in various diatonic or pentatonic "boxes" that fit more or less into four frets across the neck. These boxes, to a large extent, produce some of the cliches we often hear. You can escape from the box by expanding into difficult stretch fingerings, like stretch pentatonic. Or scale patterns that are diagonal, involving slides between positions. Another thing many players do is proceed stepwise, and from one string to the other. Avoid that by using large intervals and skipping strings.

What naive non-musicians think comes from the musician's brain oftentimes just comes from the fingers. The repetitiveness caused by noodling fingers can be attacked from the perspective of noodling fingers just by changing the noodling patterns, even without regard for music: your original new stuff doesn't have to come from the brain any more than the old stuff did and nobody is the wiser.

Lastly, one way to get new material to creep into your playing is to play other people's material: play composed music, or crib someone else's improvisation.

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Learn how to reharmonize songs.

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Would you mind expounding on this short answer? –  American Luke Aug 3 '13 at 14:42
    
Sure. When you reharmonize the song, you open up different possibilities for improvisation, because you will be improvising over different chords. –  Michael Martinez Aug 9 '13 at 22:05

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