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I am a guitar student. I have this problem trying to play over backing track.

For example, when playing over a backing track, I will play the 4 notes of a preferred scale on first and second strings, just jumping around the 4 notes, adding some meaningless bends/vibrato and that is it. But I see other students just play at their own will 'freedom'. Seems they have endless inspiration and ideas.

My teacher can tell I am stressed because I skipped lessons here and there. My teacher will always play a backing track and tell me to solo. I can't begin.

Well, he is not wrong. I skipped my lesson again last week on the reason of trying to give myself more time to practise and come out with some basic licks. But I still can't and I procrastinate due to the stress.

I understand my guitar lessons and my teacher even sat me down privately to 'console' me and tell me he had the same problem like me when he first started out improvising. I really appreciate that.

But I still get stuck in my problem of trying to play over a backing track.

What is wrong with me ?

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    I think you're too hard on yourself. The issue at hand is "why am I not as good at improvising", not "what is wrong with me?" The only thing that's wrong with you, if you must use that language, is that your guitar skills are not as developed as you'd like. This is a common issue, see: music.stackexchange.com/questions/70116/…
    – Edward
    Oct 23 '20 at 1:00
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    Personally, I blame your teacher. You can't learn to improvise just by having a backing track played and then being told to play over it. Your teacher should be teaching you how to come up with riffs when hearing a backing track. It's a process, it's not magic. You have to learn it just like everything else. Ask your teacher how to begin - don't skip lessons! The lesson is when the teacher should be telling you how to improvise! If your teacher is expecting you to do something without teaching you how to do it, it might be time to find a different teacher. Oct 23 '20 at 6:21
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    I remember writing an answere to a similar question. Check those answeres out, maybe they can help you. music.stackexchange.com/questions/99368/…
    – Olli
    Oct 23 '20 at 8:21
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    As a general advice: don't skip lessons because you feel you are not 'ready'. A lesson is there to find a way for you to progress with the help of a teacher, if you skip that it will not magically come! A lesson is not a performance or showing off how great you are, it should be a safe space to show your weaknesses.
    – Tim H
    Oct 23 '20 at 8:33
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    Nothing wrong with you. This is a perfectly valid question and an interesting one at that. You have acknowledged that you have a problem and rather than giving up lead guitar soloing - have asked for help. This is the best thing you could have done and the right place to ask. Bravo.
    – wombatWari
    Oct 23 '20 at 9:00

10 Answers 10

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Never mind what's wrong with you. What's wrong with your teacher?

May sound harsh, but it would appear your teacher hasn't explained, at least in a way that you understand, how to play over a backing track.

It is entirely possible to play one note, and make it work over a track. You don't need loads - BB King proved that sort of idea.

For me, to be able to play meaningfully over a track, first you need to know the chord structure - the geography - of that track. Where it stays on one chord, where it moves to, what relation one chord has with another. What key it's in is pretty important too !

Being under stress isn't going to help - but you're aware of that. So teacher should be working hard at putting you at ease, giving you ideas, showing how 3 or 4 notes can and do work easily. If teacher had the same struggles himself, it ought to have made him empathetic to your problems.

You're not quite ready for a backing track yet, so he should be playing himself for you to improvise to - a couple of simple chords would suffice. In a simple rhythm, for you to latch on to, and initially tap out a simple rhythm which you can copy with actual notes.

Are you playing scales? Which scales can fit with a chord sequence? You can actually use those scale notes, even in the 'right' order. Just change the rhythm you play them in. Be aware that you don't need to play loads of notes in every bar. When you do play a nice little phrase, stop for a moment to let the listener reflect on it. Think about what you play as a sentence: I use conversation with students - " What are you going to do tomorrow?" Then I play some notes, maybe from a pentatonic, in that same rhythm. Student answers - " I have a football match in the morning." And plays some pent notes back.

Just a few ideas. Oh, and start looking for a replacement teacher...

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  • Agreed about being ready for a backing track. Maybe that's the first step for some people, but I liked playing on my own and found playing along in time, matching chords, etc. much harder to start with. You count bar after bar as you wait for the perfect place to break in. It's like asking someone to start painting by transferring a sketch to paint vs. starting on a blank canvas. Different people will find different requirements intimidating. Oct 24 '20 at 4:23
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What is wrong with me ?

Tension, lack of experience and too much thinking. Compose and, uttermost, improvising is about express patterns you know well. If you don't know much, you're limited to "little vocabulary", like children learning to speak. Chill out and study - and important, sing and feel whatever you're playing.

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  • I agree. Listen to songs in the style you're learning and how they start solos, and use their pickups until you can think up your own. Oct 23 '20 at 3:30
  • It can be dangerous to tell someone to "Chill out", because it is formulated almost like an order, in contradiction with how someone truly feel. Not for everyone, mind you, but that's something I learnt as I studied how to approach a difficult conversation.
    – Clockwork
    Oct 23 '20 at 19:47
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    @Clockwork chill out, man! Hahaha! But seriously, tension management and awareness are some key features that usually seem like details, but can transform a meh player into a great performer over the years. Oct 24 '20 at 5:30
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I will play the 4 notes of a preferred scale on first and second strings, just jumping around the 4 notes, adding some meaningless bends/vibrato and that is it.

If this is what you are doing, then you are not playing music, you are doing some kind of guitar Sudoku.

Music is ultimately about sounds rather than finger patterns.

My suggestion

Learn to sing the notes of the scale you are using. It doesn't matter if you have a bad singing voice. Play the notes of the scale on the guitar as a reminder and then put the instrument down and try singing (no words) along with the backing track. When you get good at this, pick up the guitar again and see if you can sing and play the same notes at the same time.

The advantage of this? You can practise anywhere and anytime because you always have your voice with you.

Eventually, instead of singing out loud, you will be able to imagine the next note in your head and then find it on the fretboard.

It is clear to me that you are currently not listening to the sounds you are making - you are simply looking at the fretboard and moving your fingers by rote. This is not music.

Listen to B. B. King, the blues idol of so many famous guitarists. Instead of shredding, he imitates the human voice. I suggest you watch this series of 5 videos and then follow up by watching his live performances.

B.B. King Clinic 1/5 - Influences


P.S. From what you say, I get the impression that you don't practise regularly. I'm similar but I am also aware that the really outstanding players are addicted to their instruments and will pick them up at any opportunity even falling asleep in bed still playing.

P.P.S. There are plenty of backing tracks online that you can play along with at home, just search YouTube for blues backing track

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Perhaps you should lay back from improvising for a bit. Concentrate on other aspects of guitar playing. How's your reading? Can you play the licks from the well-known songs you're likely to get asked to cover on a gig? Try some 'classical' - can you cope with 'Cavatina'? I know there's a vacancy now Eddie Van Halen's gone, but there are other musical fields to explore too!

(Oh, and it sounds like you need a better teacher. Unless you're just obsessing on ONE of the skills he's trying to teach? You could equally complain if he taught ALL reading and NO improvisation.)

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I find the problem relies on the fact that you have not enough vocabulary.

Improvisation is a language. As such, you need to know words that will allow you to form sentences. A word is the equivalent of a short phrase. A sentence could be a lick that is composed of several words (short phrases).

Then you need to know your context. The context is where the communication is taking place. In this case the context of improvisation is stablished mainly by the harmonic elements of the music: tonality and chords inside/outside that given tonality.

So, you learn words, you come up with sentences, you apply all that over chord changes that give you a context.

Also there is the style. For example I even use distinct techniques when playing blues and when I play gypsy jazz. Not a specialist in one or other style but I know some vocabulary and standards to play on with other musicians.

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It should of course be your teacher's job to teach you, but from what you're saying it seems that you're only getting demands and pressure, no actual tools, skills and examples. Many people do figure out how to do things when simply pressured hard enough, in a "to save their lives" sort of way, but I don't think it's a good general teaching method.

In my experience, improvisation is learned like children learn to speak: by repeating and mimicing existing phrases and expressions. Children are not given the letters of the alphabet in order to construct something sensible from them - they repeat phrases. You learn to play songs, melodies, snippets of music, in such a way that you can combine the snippets and phrases in other contexts, primarily in different keys.

You do know at least one song, one melody? What key is it in? Can you play it in a different key? Play a phrase from that melody over your teacher's backing track. Then play the same phrase again. Then play a different phrase. Then play the first one again - congratulations, you just improvised a solo! A-A-B-A is a commonly used structure for many things.

Placing existing phrases in different contexts is one part of improvisation. Another is playing variations of phrases. Take a short note in the phrase and make it longer the second time. Then delay the note a bit compared to the original. Etc.

One of the most important things to do for improving your improvisation is to play lots of songs by ear. This way you accumulate vocabulary, you get new phrases in your bag of tricks. That's where you harvest the raw material for improvisation. Another part is to actually practice improvisation, taking things from your palette, applying them in different places and with different variations. These are things you can do in practice. Just sit down and play. Not the whole world at the same time - one phrase at a time, one song at a time. If you can play even one phrase in different keys, you can create solos. Maybe not the best solos in the world, but certainly better than what you get by playing random notes in random order.

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  • @ElizHo Did you try playing a phrase or two from existing melodies already? :) Oct 26 '20 at 16:55
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Another thing that may help. Find a backing track for a song you know well. Pick out the tune and practice that before you try to do it with a backing track. Get comfortable with a couple of songs that way. Also, one way I improvise is to first know the chord structure cold, and then play the 3 notes of each chord -- C-E-G, F-A-C. G-B-D -- like that, then vary it by changing note order C-G-E, C-F-A, B-D-G ......

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Here's another answer.

Trying speaking (not singing) a phrase that has emotion in it. For example

What a wonderful day!

or

I feel so sad.

  1. Notice that when you speak, your voice will go up and down in pitch and the more dramatically you speak, the more the change.

  2. Notice that you naturally emphasise certain words and syllables more than others.

  3. Notice that you speak with a certain rhythm and if you repeat a phrase without thinking too much, the rhythm will be the same every time.

Now these three things, pitch, rhythm and accent are also the basis of music. Therefore try saying (not singing) phrases or even the story of what you have done today in time with the backing track and notice how your voice alters according to what happened and what your emotions were.

Now, instead of speaking, use your scales to play these speech patterns. When your voice goes up, play a higher note in the scale. When it goes down, go to a lower note. The timing and emphasis are exactly how you were speaking the words. You don't have to worry about note values, just stay in time with the track.

If you play as though you are saying something important that you want to get across to your listeners, and put the same emotion into it, this will come out in your music.

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I'm going to say "Keep It Simple" (and no, you are not "Stupid" so it's not KISS). For the moment, forget about scales and work on and fiddle around with arpeggios. When you do that you will hear "Hey! That sounds familiar!" because something in the arpeggio is used in a tune you know.

Also, learn really simple stuff like the riff from Rikki Don't Lose That Number and Smoke on the Water. Also any of the first 4 or 5 Santana albums. Arpeggios and riffs is my prescription for you. I wish you success and enjoyment.

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Try using the building blocks of music on strong beats then insert decoration on weak beats . Ex in C major play on Cmaj chord CEG ,EGC,GCE , 1234 are strong beats 1 a 2 a 3 a 4 a the ( A) is weak beats . Say we take Cmaj7 arpeggio on 1 2 3 4 CEGB but on the weak beats add grace notes . 1 a 2 a 3 a 4 a CFEF#GA#B this gives you a way to start transforming things like arpeggios or scales into music

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