The ability to improvise is a useful skill that is sometimes not given enough attention by aspiring guitarists. Of course, everyone likes to jam, but many don't have the fundamental skills that would really make them sound like a pro.
One reason for this is that many guitarists don't fully understand how to practice improvisation. It's not a part of their regular practice routine and isn't taken as seriously as learning a song or practicing scales.
So what is improvisation? You already improvise every day even if you don't play an instrument. When you're having a conversation with someone, you don't plan what you're going to say beforehand. You have to react to them in the moment and spontaneously create.
I've heard a number of people say something like this: "just play, you need to express yourself naturally." There is a big difference between a master guitarist who just plays and a novice or intermediate guitarist who just plays. The problem is that you can't just play until you've learned how to. Learning how to improvise is like learning a language. I wouldn't ask someone to just speak a foreign language because if they haven't practiced the language they won't know what to do. It's exactly the same with the guitar.
Improvisation isn't just tied to a single style of music, but style is important. Soloing over a jazz progression requires different knowledge and skills than soloing over a metal riff. However, many of the fundamental skills are the same. A talented improviser can adapt to stylistic changes much more quickly.
There are many benefits to practicing improvisation, but here are a few important ones:
Improved Aural Skills
Aural skills are, in my opinion, the most important skill a musician can have. Being able to hear exactly what someone else is playing, and react to it effectively is fundamental to improvisation. With practice, you'll be able to recognize intervals, chords and scales instantly. You'll be able to hear the right melody, meaning the one that's right for you, before you even play it. Being able to do this is at the core of improvisation. We all want to play the music of our minds, not our fingers.
Again, improvisation is composing music in the moment. If you can write music live with a band, then it's that much easier to do it at home in the studio. The same skills apply, no matter what the situation. Even though you have more time to think at home, being able to create spontaneously is a huge advantage. You will be able to write great music more quickly.
Your solos will become more creative since more possibilities will be open to you. Being able to react effectively to a particular musical context is the key to playing great solos. Improvisation will open up new patterns of thinking about your music.
Here are some basic ways to begin increasing your skills:
Turn on the radio and play along to anything that comes on. Try to make it sound the best that you can. This is challenging since you don't know what's coming next, and the musical styles might change drastically.
Memorize the sound of the basic intervals and chords. You can start doing this with your guitar, or a pitch pipe. Think of an interval, and hum it to yourself. Then check and see if you got it right with your guitar or pitch pipe. For chords it's best to have someone play a chord for you so you can guess what kind of chord it is. For more information on intervals and chords, read this article.
Have a friend play any rhythm guitar part that comes to their mind. This will be similar to playing along with the radio. It could be constantly switching keys, time signatures, tempos and styles. The point is for you to improve your reaction time to these changes and be able to adapt as quickly as you can. This can be very difficult at first, but should be fun too. Of course, you could be playing with a bassist or keyboardist instead and do the same thing.
Memorize all of the basic major/minor mode patterns. This takes a while, and it's not necessarily that much fun, but it is extremely important. It will become much easier to figure out the right scales to use if you are very familiar with these patterns.
Great improvisational skills will have a significant effect on your activities in music. When you are writing music with a band, you'll be able to hear new, creative ideas to put in songs, and how to organize the songs better. You'll be able to play creative solos, even if you've never heard the music you're soloing over.
When you write solos, those solos will be more creative and interesting because they will be informed by your improvisational ability. These skills will free you to express your music any way that you want and enable you to play with anyone, even if you don't know any songs in common. With all these benefits available, it should be clear now why practicing improvisation should be a core part of your regular practice routine.
For more articles and resources to improve your playing, visit Dave's website at Cardwellmusic.com.
Copyright 2007 Dave Cardwell. All rights reserved. Used by permission.