So I'm playing jazz guitar for a year now. I know all "important" theory like scales, chords and their roles in a tune, etc. I used to practice hearing, like playing the first note and singing the other, singing and listening to chords and chord progressions, transcribing solos and melodies, figuring out chords by ear.

Now I feel I've hit a dead end. I now understand that "only" thing you need to be good at, in order to be a good improviser, is hearing a line or a melody in your head and instantly play it on your instrument. This is how I practice now: 1. Listen to music 2. Hear a line that I dig 3. Listen to that line for a few hours on a loop when I'm working 4. Get home and find the line on a guitar 5. Practice it and apply it on some backing tracks 6. Stop practicing it, but continue to listen to it on loop so it imprints in my aural part of the brain rather than to my muscle memory part of the brain.

I also play with people few times a week.

The problem is that this is very slow process and sometimes I feel that my musical mind is very clouded and abstract. Like when I have a guitar in my hand I feel that my fingers are doing more than my musical mind. It's not that I can't sing what I play, but I thing the melodies I create in my head are based upon the fretboard logic and not the music logic/musicality. Moreover, when I lie in bed audiating lines or melodies sometimes it takes a lot of effort to have a continuous flow of melodic ideas but sometimes it comes to me very naturally. The first one is much more common.

The question is how to I practice flow of ideas in my aural brain and how to hear them better (how to have clearer and louder audiation experience).

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    'I think the melodies I create in my head are based upon the fretboard logic and not the music logic/musicality', Ah, limitations of the instrument (you have 'guitaristic' ideas, rather than pure musical ideas)... what we can do... :) Btw, year of playing, when jazz is in question, is not too much, imho. I think that for 'natural melodic flow' in jazz, player needs years, meaybe even decades (depending on time invested) of practicing and listening. – sinisake Dec 27 '17 at 15:00
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    @sinisake, I really do think Coltrane could hear those mega fast lines. He practiced them at different tempos and for hours upon hours. I've heard lots of musicians say that they can hear what they play. I don't think it's a myth or exaggerated. – jdjazz Dec 27 '17 at 16:22
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    @sinisake this is, actually, myth... - On what do you base that assertion? I hear lines in my head as the music moves and then play them out all the time. It's not really very hard if you have some talent and you know your instrument, and I'm nobody special. And if you're a genius and a virtuoso, there's nothing to talk about. when they play at 300bpm when you become a musical genius and virtuoso with 25 or 30 years of professional playing experience under your belt, report back to us and tell us what it's like... Ever hear of a guy named Mozart? Art Tatum? Jaco Pastorious? – Stinkfoot Dec 27 '17 at 21:57
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    @jdjazz I don't think it's a myth or exaggerated I have no reason to think so either, and my own personal experiences bears that out - and I'm a musician with only 'half-decent' talent and chops who's been plugging away for a while. Impossible to imagine what a musical genius and virtuoso can accomplish after playing 8 hours a day and gigging regularly for 20 years... – Stinkfoot Dec 27 '17 at 22:07
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    I'm strongly with @Stinkfoot on this one. sinisake, I think your position requires you to believe that many iconic jazz musicians--and many less iconic jazz musicians--are lying. – jdjazz Dec 27 '17 at 22:10
up vote 5 down vote accepted

If you find that your fingers are going on autopilot or you're just navigating visual fretboard shapes there are a couple exercises I'd try:

  • Play melodies on a single string or a restricted set a strings (say only the 1st and 3rd but the rest are forbidden). Yes the fingering will be awkward and it will slow you down. But that's the point. You won't be able to rely on familiar shapes and muscle memory so you'll have to think about the notes more.
  • Play melodies on piano if you aren't as familiar with it. Again, getting away from your muscle memory and the visual shapes that the guitar fretboard allows will make you think about the notes more.

That said, I think technique practice is part of what builds your ear for musical patterns. You hear these structures over and over and over again and make the connection between mind (the theory), ear (the sound), and fingers. Maybe try varying your technique practice a bit. When you play scales and arpeggios play them in creative patterns. Play all the intervals, randomize the patterns a bit, play them backwards and forwards, play them in song context (don't just do the circle of 5ths but practice the scales and arps that fit over real changes).

The other thing is ear training:

  • Traditional ear training like hearing intervals and chords is useful
  • But even more important for that concept of connecting the theory to the sound (mind and ear) is singing. Get yourself a sight-singing book and work through it. Also practice scales, intervals, and arpeggios without the aid of the guitar.
  • Sing while you play (sounds like you're doing that already).

Lastly, your strong focus on a single lick sounds interesting. But I'd also do some branching out. Digest as much different material as you can—play heads, transcribed solos, whatever you can find. Keep in mind that you can't really have a melodic idea until you've become familiar with those musical structures through experience. So listen to and play as much material as you can.

It sounds like it would be beneficial for you to move beyond the framework of individual licks and look at the larger development which occurs over 32 measures of a solo, 64 measures, etc. It also sounds like a little more variety would be helpful.

My advice is to transcribe full solos in one sitting. You're spending a lot of time digesting a single lick, which could start to feel tedious, overly mechanical, and not very fun. Instead, transcribe an entire solo all at once. Choose solos that are your favorite to listen to. I recommend that you use the transcription as an ear-training exercise. Here are the rules of the game:

  • you're allowed to slow down the recording
  • you're allowed to loop the recording
  • you're allowed to write the solo out on manuscript paper as you go
  • you're not allowed to use your guitar/a piano/a computer to check the accuracy of the notes you trascribe
  • after writing down/transcribing a full 16 bars (or 8 bars, or 32 bars, etc.), you're allowed to go back and check your accuracy by playing the notes you wrote down on your guitar and checking to see if they do, in fact, match the recording

Diversity is crucial to staying motivated to practice. If our practice becomes too monotonous, we can lose interest in music. Moreover, there's more to a solo than just the individual lines. Great solos have repeating themes, motific development, harmonic development, rhythmic development, etc. Analyzing a full solo allows us to explore these deeper connections that unite many choruses together into a cohesive piece of art. Try to find small snippits of licks that the soloist plays throughout the solo. Analyze how the soloist develops ideas. Write out the particular chord tones the soloist starts/ends each lines on, and look at whether this becomes more complex as the solo progresses. Inspect the solo for changes in rhythmic complexity. These sorts of things are really fun, interesting, and intellectually challenging. Thinking this way about your favorite solos can reignite your passion, and it can push you to conceive of your own solos in these larger frameworks. That's a great way to break out of a rut.

Don't believer that 'hear a line in your head, then instantly play it. It might work for the first phrase you play, but can one actually 'hear' the next phrase, whist actually playing the current one? That's too complex, even for the slower numbers.

It's an awkward place to be, and without hearing what you do, it's even more difficult to answer productively. You say you revert to playing using fretboard logic. there's a chance you tend to use the same shapes around certain chords, and on guitar it's so common - it's the way guitars are configured. Given a phrase of about 7 or 8 notes, can you play it consecutively in 7 or 8 different places around the guitar, using different octaves as needed? If not, start developing that, as it'll help you break out.

Do you know the chord sequence of songs well enough to play them in quite q few different voicings? Have you tried trading 8s, 4s, 2s with your bandmates? Take a standard, and try playing as few notes as you can - like one per bar, and make them still sound connected and tuneful. Especially if you don't play another instrument, try learning one, using the guitar theory to guide you. These are but a few random ideas that hopefully will give you some breaks, but we all plateau at several points in our careers, where the brain is still working hard - it's just not telling us it is!

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    Isn't it possible to sing an entire solo aloud? When we sing a solo aloud, we don't have to simultaneously play one line and think ahead to the next line as you suggest. Yet, singing requires us to move our vocal chords, our tongue, and our mouth. But those mechanics don't require any thought, and the process is effortless: we sing exactly what we hear in our heads. The reason is because we've spent hundreds of thousands of hours practicing speech. The same is achievable on our instruments--it just requires tons of practice. There's no fundamental distinction here between voice & instrument. – jdjazz Dec 27 '17 at 16:32
  • @jdjazz - yes, of course it is. However, here we're considering jazz, and I presume, improvisation, and thinking about the next few phrases, with different harmonies, while playing the current one, well, I find doing that quite difficult. Another thing is singing in key seems to be a darned sight easier than playing the same thing on an instrument - for most people, especially those who haven't played much - but who could still sing that solo aloud - which has probably been memorised anyway. Which is why it can be done almost automatically. Not talking about the same things. – Tim Dec 27 '17 at 16:58
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    "thinking about the next few phrases... while playing the current one [is]... quite difficult" - what is there to think about? The pros can identify a song from just a few bars of changes (harmony), and spontaneously compose melodies on the fly. If you really know a tune, the melodies will come to you. Then it is a matter of whether you can play them or not. – The Chaz 2.0 Dec 27 '17 at 17:28
  • @TheChaz2.0 - I know, I do it frequently. However, The OP has been playing jazz guitar for a year, so I'm trying to answer at an appropriate level. – Tim Dec 27 '17 at 17:32
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    @sinisake - (and I know we risk being relegated to chat...) - maybe my experience is unique to me, but when I immerse myself in a harmony (i.e. chord changes), it's as if I have learned all of the roads in a new city. Then I can navigate (improvise melodies) without GPS or a map. Sure, most of the melodies will start with a chord tone, will use 8th notes, and will have natural elements of phrasing. As for a guitar not having enough sustain, there are effects pedals for that :) – The Chaz 2.0 Dec 28 '17 at 3:17

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