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One of my 15 year old students is progressing quite nicely in her ability, including playing live and playing learned guitar parts including lead lines. She reads music and can play many classical and more recently rock and blues. One thing that is holding her back is applying her knowledge to improvisation, creating lead guitar parts, and songwriting. I have shown her scales and licks and ideas for improvisation but there seems to be a disconnect. What strategies and tools have you employed for this type of a student?

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    What is the motivation for wanting to improvise? You're bringing your own ideas out for everyone to hear and judge - scary!? How to get the attitude so that the player WANTS everyone to hear her own personal subjective creations, not just execute pre-written supposedly "proper" ideas made by others? – piiperi Reinstate Monica May 7 at 14:26
  • Do you have a feel for what the student's musical tastes are? – topo Reinstate Monica May 7 at 15:55
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    What does she have to say about it? What if the disconnect is a lack of interest in lead guitar licks? – Michael Curtis May 7 at 19:50
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    What is she like with rhythm playing? Tidy changes (no open string strums) knowing most of the voicings, knowing a lot more than maj, min, three sevenths. There's always been a shortage of really good rhythm players out there. – Tim May 8 at 10:14
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    I am not very prolific here, but I have played jazz music on several instruments for many years. The best advice I ever got, and this is a direct quote, was "just start f---ing around and repeat the sounds you like and try to add to them." That helped me a lot because now 1) I get that 'weird' sounds are part of any improvisation and 2) It helped me build my own library of licks and such, rather than relying on those of others. And it also helps to improvise in private, and listen to playback. – The Count May 10 at 0:04
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I spent one year of my life designing a software training course called Improvisation By Degrees (link at the bottom) and answered thousands of support questions via email. From that, as well as from my own personal playing and teaching experience, I'd like to make one suggestion:

Students like the one you describe are those who find it most difficult to improvise. Many of them will never learn. Extremely talented in many other areas, but too "intellectual", too dependent on having to have a system for everything.

In those cases, the best treatment for them is the sink or swim approach. Zero theory, zero structure, just jump into it.

For example, you play some simple chords on one side (without letting her see what you are playing), and tell her to improvise a simple line, playing only on the high E string.

Even better: instead of playing only on the E string, make her play only on the E string with the eyes closed, by sliding a single finger over the string, to find notes that sound right. Or possibly, use a bottleneck, with the eyes closed.

She'll be miffed and confused at first, maybe even paralyzed... but encourage her, get her to break the ice somehow. Do this for a few minutes every time you meet. By making it impossible for her to rely on anything else except her ear, the part of the brain that is responsible for improvisation-like tasks will wake up and connect with the rest.

And for that very reason, I would only recommend an improvisation method or course (like the one I helped create) only to people who already have a good musical ear, and are already able to improvise spontaneously. In that case it will help them, by giving them some kind of structure to supplement their musical ear and aesthetic sense.

But that's apparently NOT yet the case of your student. So again, no more theory or methods for her, instead create situations where she will be forced to discover and use some yet unexplored parts of her brain. Encourage her so she doesn't feel silly for trying and failing at first, and encourage her to keep going, until it gradually becomes second nature, and it organically starts to connect with the rest of her musical education.

For reference and full disclosure, the improvisation training method I worked on is this: http://www.micrologus.com/courses/improvisation_by_degrees

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    "too intellectual" ...to learn improvisation? I'm sure you didn't really mean it to sound like that. – Michael Curtis May 7 at 19:09
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    @Michael I used the word "intellectual", in quotes, to describe a person who tends to over-think and over-analyze things, and whose though process becomes a narrow bottleneck that works against the free flow of rich musical ideas and their performance. That's what I meant, but if there's a consensus that it was poorly expressed, I'll happily stand corrected and improve it as necessary. – MMazzon May 7 at 20:31
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    I was partly joking. When "intellectual" and "improvise" were put together my first thought was Frank Zappa! He was definitely an intellectual and it didn't get in the way of improvisation. It probably enhanced it! To the extent someone is "over-thinking", the problem is not about being an intellectual, surely it's a problem of thinking about the wrong things. The onus is on the teacher to explain and probably help them unlearn a misconception instead of telling them they are over thinking. "They will never learn" and "sink or swim" don't sound encouraging either. – Michael Curtis May 7 at 22:21
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    FWIW, I have a one-string acoustic guitar, made from a regular acoustic but leaving only the A string, inspired by Brushy One String (check him out on Youtube if you don't know him). To me it seems that people - children and adults as well, are less afraid to try and improvise things with the one-string than with "proper" instruments. It looks ridiculous and funny, so maybe it lowers expectations and inhibitions? But it's a real instrument in disguise. Actually, I've never had to even tell anyone to play by ear and improvise, that's what they do automatically when I hand them the one-string. – piiperi Reinstate Monica May 8 at 11:09
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Reading music - safe. Regurgitating others' riffs - safe. Both, when one is good at either (or both) have a certain authenticity to them. 'I play what's written - if it's written, it's probaably good, so that makes my playing sound good'. 'I play just like Clapton did on that track. If it sounded good when he played it, and I play it well, it makes my playing sound good.'

Making up one's own solos comes easy to some but others lack the confidence to just go for it, because 'it might come out wrong'.

I've had several students like this, and it takes a lot of coaxing to give them the confidence to just play.

An obvious set of notes to use is the pentatonics. At least with those notes, there isn't a 'wrong' one that can be played. It usually takes several lessons, but starting with the major pent., playing over a major I IV V chord set (in any order) will allow them to experiment while you strum. Then moving on to minor pent. there's a bit more edge to the solo. Then add the ♭5 blues note, and it starts spicing up.

Another approach is to simply take one, two or three notes, and get them playing those wherever while you strum. They soon realise where those notes do (and do not) fit in the sequence - which should be short - 8 bars is good.

Another is to 'have a conversation' with the student. You kick off with something like 'Lovely sunny day - where have you been?' And then play some notes which correspond to those words, maybe pent. notes, but roughly in time with the words. The reply will be spoken, then played. It's not easy! But it creates a different situation to play to.

And the last for now - get her to join small phrases that she knows together. Same key. And try playing a known phrase backwards, inside out, upside down. Same notes, different order, different timing. All that will actually be 'her own music' - once it's been pointed out.

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I am not a music teacher, have not been teached by a music teacher and would not consider myself a 'good' guitarist. But I remember having similar problems in terms of improvisation. When I tried to improvise, I felt like I don't know where to go or what to do.

The thing which helped me a lot was to focus on call and response. A friend of mine showed me a little lick which would function as a response. (Just keep the lick very simple in the beginning, as short and few notes as possible. But it should still feel like a response to the call).

Then we started a backing track and he started a solo with a lick which acted as a call. When the call was finished, I would play my lick which was the response. He kept making new calls and I was responding every time with my lick.

When I felt really safe doing so, I could start to add notes to my responses or change them around to make new ones based on the first response lick.

When I was familiar with the scales I could use, I was able to create new ones on the fly.

Through this call and response, I really felt like I know where to go. Because its more like answering a question than writing a story.

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Picking up on piiperi Reinstate Monica's comment and looking at the area of motivation - is this a person who wants to compose and improvise their own music? It's definitely healthy (IMO) for a teacher to try to introduce all areas of musical endeavour to a student, but equally, it's probably good to look at what the student's motivations are.

Just as the fact someone enjoys listening to guitar music doesn't always mean that they want to play the guitar, The fact that someone enjoys playing existing pieces on guitar doesn't necessarily mean that they are motivated to compose.

I was a little bit the opposite way - once I got to my early teens I was very uninterested in playing pieces from the dots, and much more interested in trying to work out how the composition/production on my favourite songs worked.

It may be worth trying to ascertain what the student's musical plans and motivations are. If it turns out that really what they enjoy is the challenge of rendering an existing piece, it may be totally reasonable for them to follow their bliss...

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    This is a good point. I went to high school with two amazing trumpet players. One was a classical genius. He had the control and form to play anything. The other was a jazz master. They hated each other, mostly because the jazz guy would say the classical guy couldn't improvise, and the classical guy would say it didn't matter and the jazz guy was just playing random crap. Motivation is key to what success looks like. – The Count May 10 at 0:06
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    @TheCount I'd love to see that scenario as a Netflix sitcom! Of course even as a musician who purely follows the dots, there are still lots of creative choices to make in terms of how to articulate and play the notes.... – topo Reinstate Monica May 10 at 6:59
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With any solo, you want to tell a story. The licks, riffs and grooves are your words. Writers structure stories as narrative arcs.

A narrative arc is usually:

  • Exposition: The introduction the story in which characters are introduced, setting is revealed.
  • Rising Action: A series of events that complicate matters for the protagonist, creating a rise in the story's suspense or tension.
  • Climax: The point of greatest tension in the story and the turning point in the narrative arc from rising action to falling action.
  • Falling Action (Anti-climax): After the climax, the unfolding of events in a story's plot and the release of tension leading toward the resolution.
  • Resolution: The end of the story, typically, in which the problems of the story and of the protagonists are resolved.

In good stories there's usually a series of rising actions (and slight falling actions) that gradually get bigger to the big climax and the resolution of the story.

You can provide your student with some example solos in the genres she's interested in. If she's into blues then BB King is definitely a good source for these. Or Pink Floyd's "The Great Gig in the Sky" vocal part.

Use the example solos, motivic improvisation, arpeggios and pentatonic scales as the words and grammar to show your student write how to write stories with solos.

For just one example:

  • Exposition: Take a melodic fragment from the tune and use it as a one bar motif
  • Rising Action: Start using motivic improvisation: transpose the motif through the chord changes, displace it by an octave, etc. Then start chromatically warping the motif or playing it against a new motif in call and response. Keep building the tension every 4 bars or so.
  • Climax: Point of maximum tension. Chromaticism, volume, speed at their highest. Some times just a single, screaming note high up on the neck is right.
  • Falling action (release): Release the tension. Return to calm
  • Resolution: restate the first motif and then back to the tune.

Once she starts doing this, practice becomes easy and fun. Since she's into classical music, you could also show her how to construct a blues sonata solo.

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I've noticed in my life that science has formulas and definitions to describe just about everything there is to know about the process of learning and it almost seems like magic when we can make sense of that process. However, we seem to lose sight of the fact that most of those definitions and formulas were arrived at very often by experimentation and sometimes by accident. Ironically, these are often the same way all of us learn all the lessons in life, we experiment and fail over and over again, until that first time when we don't fail. Then we try to repeat what we did and improve on it until we've got something of value to present. This doesn't have to be done in public, we can work ourselves in private until we feel confident enough to show others. It involves listening and experimenting, practicing and perfecting, and knowing when we're ready to present. All that and of course to willingness to pick ourselves up again and keep on trying in the event that we fail. Failure teaches us valuable lessons. If this student wishes to go in this direction which is much more exciting and dangerous, she can choose to but the choice needs to be hers to make for herself.

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  • But isn't that one of the key reasons we have teachers? We could go through th ethousand wrong ways of doing something, and then, serendipity, we find the right way. Or, we go to a teacher, who has probably been there, done it, or at least seen others like that. And short circuit the whole process. Of course the choice will be hers, but doesn't it make sense for a teacher to steer her in the right direction, and encourage the propensity to experiment and make that decision. And, yes, I know that some folk just have to learn the hard way... – Tim May 8 at 5:47
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    @Tim- I agree teachers can be a good thing, I think you are probably an excellent teacher judging from the answers you have posted. The question, as I understand it, was posted by a teacher. I would stand up against any advice that discounts the value of experimenting and toying with your instrument and your music because very often we discover other ways of doing things that teachers never get around to teaching, A combination of the two ideas might hold the most promise – skinny peacock May 8 at 14:54

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