I am often asked about what one can do to develop and improve their skills as a lead guitar soloist or improviser.
One of the most important things I usually have to explain is the difference between improvising and soloing. Even though the two activities are of course related, they are not the same. When you write a solo, you plan what you are going to play in advance and you have time to refine your phrases and select the best notes for your solo. This is sort of similar to giving a report on some topic and writing out a speech in advance. When it is time to present, you know exactly what you will say, when you will say it and how you will say it.
On the other hand, true improvising has a completely different dimension to it. That element is spontaneity. This means that you are forced to create music right on the spot, without having any time to prepare anything in advance. To continue with our example above, this would be similar to having to give an impromptu speech where you are given a topic and you have to deliver a speech on the spot (or within a minute or two). Obviously, this kind of playing is more challenging, both from the mental and physical standpoint. It is more challenging from the mental standpoint because you are forced to come up with cohesive musical ideas right as you are playing, without having any time to analyze which phrases will flow well together. The physical challenge will come as a result of having to play certain passages and phrases that you may not have practiced beforehand and thus there will be a greater chance for mistakes in pure improvising. So this is a big part of the reason why true improvising is much harder than preparing a solo in advance.
That being said, there are some specific things you can practice that will noticeably improve both your improvising and soloing skills. Here is a list of a few of these things (as well as some additional resources you can refer to):
01. Study Music Theory! (as discussed in this article: Music Theory). Yes, that's right, music theory. Can you tell what key the song that you are playing over is in? Do you know how chords are grouped into keys? Do you know which chords in a progression contain the most tension? Do you know what scale degrees go into what chords? Can you quickly tell which notes are consonant and dissonant in any given musical context? Can you adapt to soloing over a progression that changes keys? These things and many others will make a world of difference in making your improvising much easier! To begin with, it will tell you the most obvious information such as what scales you can use over the progression you are playing over. Also it will tell you (indirectly), what type of phrasing will be most effective over each chord in the progression you are soloing over. There are many benefits to learning theory that are not even related to improvising, but overall, learning music theory will provide you with a musical map that will help you navigate through the surroundings (the song/chord progression) that you are in.
02. Develop your Aural Skills (train your ear). Where do I even begin with the benefits that ear training will provide to an improvising musician?! Let me start by saying that ear training is best taught and best learned in combination with some music theory (and vice versa). This way, when you hear (or think about) a certain music theory concept, you will immediately know how the notes are affected, AND how this concept actually sounds (all without touching the guitar). This will allow you to refine your musical reaction mechanism, from your brain generating a musical command, to your ears knowing how this concept will sound before your play it, and finally to your hands executing that idea on the guitar. Of course this skill requires a lot of refining that occurs over a period of many years of practice and experience, but the more you know about music theory and the better developed your ears are, the better you will be at improvising. For more information on this topic: check out this article.
03. Use a Backing tracks CD or rehearse with a band to practice improvising regularly. Yes, improvising is a skill that needs practice just like guitar technique or playing scales. The best way to practice this skill is to work on creating solos on the spot either with a full band or by using a backing tracks CD. Practicing with a band is useful for recreating the environment of a live performance if this is what you plan on doing a lot of (and of course it is useful to practice playing with others anyway). But using a backing tracks CD to practice soloing maximizes convenience, so it is very helpful to do both.
04. Work on developing your phrasing. I am often asked about what new scales can be used to solo over chord progressions in order to sound more creative and more original. My response is usually to shift focus more on developing your phrasing rather than simply learning new scales. Learning new scales only will produce limited results because THE WAY you play has not really changed. Improving your phrasing deals more with the actual element of HOW to play the notes rather than "what" notes to play. When it comes to phrasing, remember that it is all about the little nuances that can make ALL the difference. You can take 10 great improvisers and give them the same lick and chances are they will each make it sound a bit different using the nuances of phrasing when they play it. Learning new scales can make some difference of course, but when it comes to making your style more original and creative, improving (or at least changing) your phrasing will make a much greater difference than simply learning 10 new scales. I am not saying you should not learn new scales, but concentrate the majority of your efforts on improving the other musical elements that go into soloing, and think of learning new scales as more like an icing on the cake!
So what are the elements that go into phrasing how do you go about practicing it in a way that helps your improvisation? This includes many things such as articulation, pitch range, dynamics and more. There are many approaches you can take to practicing phrasing. You can begin by developing all the different nuances of attacking the strings, articulation, bending, slides, legato playing etc... and using different combinations of them when you play your usual phrases. Also develop your bending and vibrato technique and basically take advantage of all the different ways you can play the same set of pitches. It is more effective to do this either while jamming with a band or using a backing tracks CD, because by improvising with background music you will be able to work on the other elements that go into soloing at the same time, such as timing for example. Not to mention that practicing with background music is a lot of fun!
05. Improve your guitar technique. Depending on your musical style, find out what techniques are the most commonly used in the style of music you listen to (and play) and make sure your technique is at a high enough level to allow you to play the kind of music you want to play. This is important, because when improvising, you will often be playing some things you have not yet practiced enough (this is natural no matter how advanced you are). However with practice and experience you will be able to minimize the chance of making mistakes even when improvising at a very high level. For improving your technique, you might find the following articles helpful:
Misconceptions of Practicing For Speed 7 Common Problems with Sweep Picking
So I hope that now you have a better idea of some of the concepts to think about and new things to try that will make you a better improviser and soloist.
About Mike Philippov
Mike Philippov is a professional virtuoso guitarist, music composer and instructor. He is currently working on an instrumental CD that will feature music in the virtuoso neo-classical and progressive rock styles. Mike also teaches guitar, both privately as well as through guitar clinics. Mike is also a co-author of several instructional products including: a Backing Tracks CD Improve Your Improv as well as instructional courses: The Ultimate Sweep Picker's Guide, and Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist.
Currently Mike is busy working on several projects including composing and recording a solo CD featuring music in the neo-classical and progressive rock styles as well as more instructional products that are in the works at this time. Visit Mikephilippov.com to check out Mike's playing and sign up for a free newsletter which is sent out periodically and contains helpful tips and advice for guitar players.
E-mail Mike at: email@example.com