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Improvisation for guitar is a fairly well-covered topic, with good resources to be found within multiple contexts (Web, traditional literature, etc).

However, most of what I've read is basically designed to "arm" your playing with resources, so that you have something to base on while improvising.

Still, I don't feel like I "get" improvising. I consider my overall creativity for composing fairly good, but with improvisation I can't really express myself like I wanted to.

So - for those of you analytic enough to have ever thought about it - how do you mentally approach improvising? Here's a few more specific "trigger" questions that - I hope - will clarify what I want to know more about:

  • Do you think in terms of "musical phrases"?
  • How long are they?
  • How "complete" are they when you start them (sometimes I only know the start and end note)?
  • Do you make them up "along the way" or "outline them in your head" a few moments before starting?
  • Do you have explicit strategies to "keep track" of "where you are" in the rythm section (in order to "not get lost")?

PS: as far as open-ended questions go, I hope this one is still insightful enough to be helpful for those wanting to improve (or kick-start) their improvisation chops?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

If you have to think about what you're going to play, then you've already missed the moment in the tune to play it. Thinking and playing need to happen simultaneously, they need to be the same thing. I may think about a solo in some larger sense, like where I want to go through a chord progression or how my melody interplays with a vocal line, but I don't tend to give it too much thought on a measure by measure or note by note basis. That's kind of hard to get to though, and I've been improvising for 18 years now.

So what do I teach my students?

  • Practice - A lot. I start kids improvising in the first 10 lessons with the minor pentatonic scale and spend 5 minutes a lesson making them jam. It's not an obvious or an easy thing to do, and it takes a lot of time. Since you are, by definition, making it up as you go, you have to practice it a lot to get any good at it.
  • Sing - It's much easier to imagine a melody line than to play one. Try singing (in your head if you must) along with a tune that you want to improvise over. Then sing while you're playing. Singing the notes and playing them will sync your hands and your thoughts. After a couple of years (yeah, this isn't easy), you'll find that you can play anything you can sing. At this point thinking and playing become the same thing.
  • Copy - If you want to play a style of music, learn a solo (or ten). You'll figure out what people (great people none the less) are doing with phrasing, notes, bends, technique, etc. Once you know a solo cold, improvise over the same tune in the style of the guitarist. Having already learned the solo, you'll have all the tools to make it sound "right". This ends up being a much more practical approach to the idea that you learn licks and then use them. It's much less abstract since you've already got a great example on cd (or whatever the cool kids are using these days).

Although, like everything else on this site, that first one is the real killer. You have to practice. A lot. All the time.

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1  
The singing tip is indeed great. In fact, not long time ago I started using my cell phone to record musical ideas (by singing them), and it's good to get validation on that. I'll definetely add this concept to my improvisation pratice! Thanks! =D –  Rafael Almeida Jan 24 '11 at 8:06

It depends on the type of improvising you have in mind.

If you are improvising to set chord sequences in a pop song, for example, then your job is relatively simple. You have the structure in place and you just have to come up with something that sounds good on top of it. In that case, what I do is:

  1. Think about what you want the arc of the overall improvised passage to be. You can build up to and down from the climax of the improvised section in pitch and in volume.
  2. Think about, on a note by note basis, what a natural progression from what you're playing right now will be. For example, if I'm currently playing a D, and the next chord is an A major chord, it probably makes more sense for me to play an E or a C# than an A.
  3. Protect yourself against slip-ups. Occasionally I will pick a neutral note to start the next chord, just in case I mess up and have to quickly switch it out. For example, if I'm playing in E major, and in the heat of the moment I can't remember whether the next chord is A or B, I might consider playing an E as the first note of the next chord. If the next chord is A, then E is a note of the chord and I'm OK; if it's B, then I can play a D# right after and people will interpret the E as a suspension. A cheap trick, but it works. :)

If you are improvising a whole piece entirely from scratch, then you will need to put more thought into it. Depending on the style you're aiming for, you will need to construct a melody or two and work those into your improvisation with appropriate accompaniment. It's more like a proper composition, written really fast and in your head. Alternatively, I've heard folks improvise pieces that are basically just arpeggiated chord sequences. That could work if your target audience is not expecting something terribly musically sophisticated.

If you are somewhere in between -- for example, arranging an existing melody on the spot (e.g. playing a "request"), then it's more like improvising a complete composition, but you don't have to make up the melody or the accompanying chords. In that case, just make sure you know the original well, so that you can more or less "automatically" play the chords that go with the song. Then you can occupy your brain with thinking up different ways to play the melody -- say, different octaves, different rhythms in the accompaniment, changing keys, etc. -- rather than frantically trying to remember what the next bit of the melody is. Of course, Bach could improvise three-part fugues off the cuff...but hopefully your audience isn't expecting that!

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It's not for advertising myself. I'm a professional pianist has also winning compositions, 4 published book about becoming a virtuoso.

The first and the most important thing is that what do you know about music? When I ask you this question if your mind tells you some scales or harmonic movements, some kind of chords, mods etc. To me, you don't know it. Because those are some little pieces about music. Not the whole thing.

The thing blocks you somewhere between this question and you. As you know anybody can learn theory and the ability about how to sound them. But it's not enough to be a musician. Becoming a musician is much more than some kind of things easy to explain here.

1- I recommend you to listen the big people in music history first. Glenn Gould, Horowitz etc.

2- Read. Not just some musician life. Relationships of Kandinsky and Schoenberg, Monet and Debussy, Ravel.

3- Of course know all about theory specially functional and non-functional for you.

4- Become a master for your instrument.

5- Try to understand most important principles about composition. Analysis Rachmaninov, Chopin, Mozart, Bach. Spend some years with Arnold Schoenberg theory of harmony book.

6- Later on try to transcript jazz musicians such as Adam Rogers, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Kenny Garret, Jaco etc.

7- Understand other arts such as literature, painting. Read Gustov Flaubert to understand Chopin, go to museums to understand Debussy through impressionism with paintings.

When you really get in the things I just wrote for you, you will be the one really knows music and will not need to ask anything about it. Because it will bring you to yourself first than somewhere you want to be.

Good luck

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In western music, there are two fundamental approaches to improvisation that appear consistently in many styles of music:

  1. Improvisation based on melodic variation
  2. Improvisation based on underlying harmonic changes

You may find it a bit easier to get your feet wet with the former. Learn the melody to a tune, and then try some simple variations of it -- substitute notes, change the rhythm, change the phrasing. Start with little variations, and you'll slowly build confidence.

For the latter, a lot of musicians start out by practicing chord outlines. You can start with 1-2-3-5 outlines:

  1. Take a chord progression to a tune you know
  2. For each chord in the tune, play the root, second, third, and fifth notes of the chord.

If you were practicing a simple I-IV-V-I progression in G, your outline would look like this:

G A B D | C D E G | D F# A C | G A B D

You can start to elaborate on these lines by displacing notes -- jumping down a seventh instead of going up a second, jumping down a sixth instead of going up a third, etc. If you can read music, you may find it useful to write out some simple outlines and practice them daily.

As you get more comfortable, you can practice other outlines (7th chords, 9th chords, connecting 3rds, and 7ths, etc...). This is a basic technique that musicians at all levels use. When confronted with an unfamiliar tune or a new set of changes, it can help tease out ideas and strategies for improvisation.

Don't be afraid to practice slowly -- practice at a speed at which you can think and react comfortably. Speed will come with time.

Above all, don't become frustrated. Improvisation is a learned skill, but it's a lifelong pursuit. Enjoy the journey.

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