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I can write decent original guitar / keys melodies in my own time. But when I'm with other musicians I'm lost in a jam session (unrehearsed).

I have a handful of times been lucky enough to produce some brief amazing moments in a jam session on guitar but the rest are just a mess or boring.

I can improvise melodies vocally on the fly quite easily. Does this mean I'm a singer at heart, is this just lack of technique and theory or is this the reason why it can take years for a band to write an album.

I like to hear the music and then in my own time explore the guitar for the right sound to fit it well. But with naivety comes quite original content, I'm concerned that learning scales like the back of my hand may be detrimental to originality. A few of my friends know theory backwards and can play for 30 minutes sold and sound decent (which I would like to be able to do) but they rarely play any melodies that tickle my musical lemming.

I often play songs to friends with a good theory and they are always breaking down my chords and analysing them, to understand why what I do works well.

  • I'm not sure what you're asking. Could you clarify exactly what your question is? – Karen Nov 3 '14 at 18:15
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    I don't have a full answer, but a tip: Playing along with songs you like can be very helpful. First, learning a song by just listening to it and playing along will improve your ability to translate what you hear in your head to what comes out of your guitar (which is very useful when improvising). The fact that you can sing melodies is a good sign, you just need to practice translating what's in your head to your guitar. Second, jamming along with songs you like will give you more practice in a relaxed environment. – Charles Nov 3 '14 at 19:58
  • If your friends are anything like me, I bet that whenever they play (I suspect improvise) for 30 minutes straight, they "rarely play any melodies that tickle their musical lemming(s)." – Dekkadeci Oct 18 '17 at 14:24
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So you can produce some musical putput which pleases you, fairly regularly. More easily, when you have the luxury of time, and not so much under the pressure of the moment in a jam session.

It's pretty much the same skill, you just have to be further along the road to have it on tap instantaneously.

You say you can improvise melodies vocally on the fly quite easily. This doesn't mean you are a singer necessarily, but it does mean you are an improvisor. The process of improvisation must occur in the mind first. The implementation of getting it out through an instrument is another process. You can do this more successfully with your voice because then you don't have the limitations of instrumental technique getting in the way. It's the same for everyone -- there is a more direct connection between the voice and the mind.

Getting to the point where you can produce the sound you hear on your instrument is, in my opinion, the heart of improvisation. And a life's work. But it is a learned skill, and you might be surprised at how quickly you can make progress with some dedicated effort.

To return to your reflection on vocal output -- which is quite telling -- think about the process you went through to learn how to talk. It was pure trial and error in the beginning and, as you got better at it, you may have had more or less formal training later. It's much the same, IMHO, with music. The art of expressing yourself comes from doing it. Whether it's jam sessions or jam tracks, or playing along with records, you need practice in becoming more fluent at what you already do. As your vocabulary and understanding increases, you may benefit from more focused training in specific areas. Or it may be that as you become able to do on your instrument what you can do with your voice, you find that is exactly what you want.

BTW -- earning scales, or anything else that you do along the road to better implementing the throughput of your ideas will not hamper your originality -- quite the reverse -- you will find that the new ideas and sounds you uncover will stimulate your personal creative process, but that process will remain your own.

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I play in multiple jams weekly, which I do because it is such a challenge.

It's important to have a decent idea of the various standard chord changes that are particular to the styles of music you like. For the blues it's pretty easy, as they're typically I, IV, V chords, or their alternates, which repeat in various ways. Throwing in 7th and 9th chords colors them. Rock will have a larger (or smaller amount of) variety, depending on the songs. Country and jazz can be even wider ranges of chords. The important issue is you have to be able to do those patterns without thinking, so you can listen to what's going on around you and think ahead to what you want to play when it's your turn to step out.

"I'm concerned that learning scales like the back of my hand may be detrimental to originality."

You do know that the majority of good players do know scales, and the licks we all play incorporate sections of those scales, right? People might not know the names of the scales, but that's only of secondary importance, because being able to play the notes is the important thing. Being able to play the common scales like major, relative minor, dorian, lydian, mixolydian, plus pentatonic and "blues", will carry you a lot farther than not knowing any of them and originality is better expressed by knowing your scales and knowing when to apply them, than by having absolutely no clue and fumbling around.

Jam at home with your favorite songs and learn the basic melody so you can play it over the solo space. Then start expanding on it by playing embellishments and harmonies. This isn't so much so you can play that same melody in a jam, it's so you can learn where your fingers need to go when you hear a pattern or melody in your head as you're playing in the jam.

Practice alternate fingerings for scales in the style too. When a song is going fast and furious, you need to be able to grab the notes wherever you hear them, not just because your fingers are in a certain place on the neck. That will help your comfort level and let you concentrate on getting the melody out of your head.

Don't try to be a star when you're up there. My attitude is it's all about the song, making it come alive and taking it somewhere as a group. It's not about my ability to solo, it's about my ability to fit into the song and help it breathe. I lock onto the drummer and bass to form a good back line behind the singer, and when I'm signaled then I say my bit, then STFU and slide back into rhythm. The singer should be calling the solos and breaks so pay attention and be ready.

Perhaps the hardest thing to learn is to relax and be comfortable. The jams I go to welcome people of all experience levels. I hadn't played in about 25 years when I started again, so I was really rusty and was very self-conscious. The leaders of the jams I go to remember what it was like and put together sets that work for everyone. In the beginning I was nervous to the point of feeling sick. Now I'm one of their regular work-horses; On some nights they call me up set after set to help others who are new or inexperienced. And, we're not just playing blues now; Two weeks ago we did an extended version of Billy Cobham's Stratus, which I didn't catch the name when they called it, and then recognized the riff, told myself I could do this, and ten minutes later we were laughing after having had so much fun.

Part of being comfortable is knowing your guitar and how to get a variety of sounds from it quickly. I have a Strat I love, so it's my go-to guitar, and if I want something darker and nastier sounding I'll take a T3 semi-hollow body. Strats are endemic but too many people play only on the middle pickup, so know the sound of the other settings if that's what you play.

Amps. Some jams don't let you bring your own. I don't play at those, because the fingers, guitar and amp make the sound. I've had jam leaders turn the amp down so low it was inaudible on stage, and after having that happen multiple times before I'd even played a note, I found other places to go. Have a rig you can drop on stage in a minute and have powered up and be ready to go in three. Be tuned, and very quietly noodle around and listen to the song suggestions. In short, be ready to go.

So, hang in there, find a place that soothes your heart, relax, learn to transfer your melodies to your fingers, be humble and listen to the others on the stage, then put your heart into it.

I'll be standing to the side during jams and have non-musicians ask how the heck do we do it, do we practice together, do we learn all the songs, etc. I laugh because to me it's so simple, we just listen and make it about the song and the rest just happens. Invariably though, they are amazed we can figure it out on the fly and walk off shaking their heads.

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This is an old question, but something jumped out at me in this question that I wanted to address

I can improvise melodies vocally on the fly quite easily. Does this mean I'm a singer at heart, is this just lack of technique and theory or is this the reason why it can take years for a band to write an album.

What this shows is not being a "natural singer" but a lack of training in audiation: the ability to translate melodies from the mind onto an instrument. Singing comes naturally, most people can make their voice reproduce a melody fairly easily, but doing the same on an instrument requires practice. Thinking this shows a natural deficit is an error, it's almost like saying "I can speak very well but I can't write. Am I just a natural speaker?" Everyone is a natural speaker. Writing is a skill that must be learnt.

To help with both composition and soloing, you should develop this aural skill to the point that any melody you can sing, you can also play. This skill can be honed by practice. To train it, you should try to work out simple melodies by ear, such as twinkle twinkle little star, happy birthday etc. and work your way up from there. If you already read music regularly, then sight singing can be a useful skill (trying to sing from music without "cheating" by playing an instrument first), but if not, then this isn't necessary, just another way to achieve the same goal.

It is impossible to overstate how important this skill is for a musician, especially if you are trying to write or improvise.

Learning scales, learning theory etc. are all also very beneficial, but until your audiation skills are at the same level, then there is a divorce between your theoretical mind on the one hand, and your musical ear on the other hand. That is to say, you will never know how your theory sounds until you play it, and you will never know the theory behind the notes you're singing (because you don't know what they are). The strength and power of theory comes from the way it augments and refines your musical ear: if it's kept separate then it's mostly wasted.

I like to hear the music and then in my own time explore the guitar for the right sound to fit it well. But with naivety comes quite original content, I'm concerned that learning scales like the back of my hand may be detrimental to originality. A few of my friends know theory backwards and can play for 30 minutes sold and sound decent (which I would like to be able to do) but they rarely play any melodies that tickle my musical lemming.

What you're describing here can be caused by learning basic music theory, and then relying on that instead of audiation. This reflects a "paint by numbers" approach to music theory, where you play from a preselected set of notes, not really knowing how they're going to sound. It's not a bad idea to have this to fall back on, especially as a beginner, but unless the proper time is spent refining the ear then it'll sound as you described.

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If in doubt, play the tune. The original tune of the song you're playing. Play it beautifully! The audience (if any) will love that.

Don't show off. Improvise an alternative tune using fewer, longer notes. As you say, no-one except other guitarists are interested in scale-playing. (And they only pretend to be interested, while waiting for it to be their turn.)

Don't worry too much about improvising. It's fun, but it's a minor requirement in most musicians' careers. Learn to play the classic riffs and how to accompany effectively. Learn to read music, so you can do shows and cabaret gigs. Learn tasteful acoustic playing, you might get to meet and work with a beautiful lady who ends up doing your laundry! You might even get some paid gigs!

I note that you can 'improvise melodies vocally on the fly' but they rarely 'tickle my musical lemming'. Is this a band or a zoo?

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Try listening attentively to the rhythm the drummer play. He lays down the general rhythm and you expand upon his ideas. If he plays a general 4/4 beat try soloing with this in mind. It also helps if you practice with a metronome as it will teach you some great skills on how to play in time.

Also you and your band mates may find worth in playing slowly at first but concentrating on playing in time. As you grow as a band you can work on playing faster. It is a team effort though.

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