So this is one of those great moments in life where you can put a little bit in and get a lot out in return. The idea behind limitation exercises is to zoom in and isolate a very small idea/fragment of a concept and try to be as creative as you can with it, trying to milk as much usable content from the tiny segment that you possibly can. Once you get the hang of the concept of limitation exercises on a smaller scale you can either string a few smaller ideas together to create longer larger ideas or use the same technique on a larger scale. After a bit of practice it will give you a real overhaul in creative ideas. To explain my point, if you can be creative/expressive and interesting with only one or two notes, then imagine how free you will feel with all 12 notes at your beck and call.
Here's a few short ideas to get you started and explain how far you can stretch this:
One noteTry using ONLY one note, and do what you can to make it sound cool. Play different rhythms, slide into it, bend into it, different vibratos, etcetera. Of course, it isn't going to blow away audiences but find as many different ways to make that one little guy sound hip and you'll start to open doors.
Two notesThis is very similar to the first but now you have twice the options, all of the above apply but now you can switch between the two, or find as many different cool ways to transition between the two notes.
Root notesFollow the changes to a backing track or chord progression and try being creative with only using the safest notes possible; root notes. Again the limitation here is using what could be considered mundane or bland notes and trying to make them as interesting and new as you can.
Not starting on the rootThis one is a great exercise even outside of this. Follow your changes while you improvise but avoid starting any phrases on the root note of the current chord. Starting on the third or fifth is a great place to start and you can extend it later to try and avoid starting on any chord tones and starting all your phrases on "colour" tones (any note other than the R, 3, 5, 7 of the chord).
Stick to a rhythmic ideaLimiting yourself to one set rhythmic ideas can produce some interesting results. Tom Quale has spoken in previous material about playing only 16th note legato for as long as you can. You could try a set rhythm such as constant 8th notes or 16th note triplets or you can take a set rhythmic idea (two 1/8th notes, a 1/4 note and then 6 8th note triplets for example) and using only that rhythm to come up with interesting ideas.
Same phrase different rhythmThe reverse of the above is to stick to one melodic phrase and only alter the rhythm. Try adding in odd rhythmic groupings, or maybe something like switching between swung and straight rhythms mid-phrase.
One chord backingsLimiting your underlying harmony is going to free you up on the neck as well. Typically the less information that is present in the harmony the more you can imply (or get away with) in your lead lines. A static one chord (Minor7th chord for example) vamp will let you imply many different modes because the chord itself and the surrounding chords (in this case there aren't any) are not implying any specific tonality other an a minor 7th chord. This means you could try implying Dorian (with 9 and natural 6) or maybe Phrygian (with b9 and b6). See what other modes/chords you could imply that share the same minor 7th chord tone "shell."
Technique limitationsTry limiting yourself to only playing with a certain technique. This could be only playing strict staccato, or only using hybrid picking. You could also try only bending up to notes (or the reverse, only pre bending and releasing to notes). Maybe try only sliding into or away from your choice notes, or possibly dipping into them with your whammy bar.
More than one noteInstead of playing single note lines try harmonising with yourself and playing two note lines with double stops, or maybe three notes at a time in a form of chord improvisation.
Target "wrong" notesHave some fun trying to target only the "wrong notes" of course no note is a wrong note, but try to make dissonance sound cool and interesting.
String set limitationsTry improvising with only a single string and still try to follow your changes and sit inside your chord progression. You can also try only using two string 'sets' at a time, or maybe only using alternating strings (playing on the high E and G string but miss the B string for example).
Only use one finger on your left handThis is fairly self explanatory.
Limit your keyLimit your practice session to a certain unfamiliar key and use only backing tracks or chord progressions from that key. Practice your scales and arpeggios around this key, practice intervals, write licks, transcribe licks from songs in this key, transpose your favourite stuff from your familiar keys to add familiarity.
Fret spanLastly, limit yourself to just a 4 fret span anywhere on the neck (frets 1-4, 4-8, 8-12 for example) and try to stick to it while you improvise and follow the chords. This can be a great way to familiarise yourself with unfamiliar areas of the neck. You could loop a progression and on each repeat move up to the next 4 fret span (or even just move your current fret span up by 1 and continue. So from 1-4, to 2-5).
So that's a LOT of ideas there. Hopefully you can see that limitation exercises (ironically) aren't limited to just "pick three notes and play." You can limit your harmonic content, melodic content, technical content, visualisation on the fretboard, physical limitations (one finger, or two strings) and pretty much any aspect of playing. Each idea will require a lot of thought and creativity in isolation in order for you to make them sound great and use them to come up with new ideas. Once you have a few of them down try stringing the ideas together or using the same concepts from a more zoomed out perspective. Of course, don't think that you're limited to just my ideas here, they are just a few I came up with quickly to put the idea across and get you started. Be sure to come up with your own limitation ideas and make it specific to your own playing (or instrument, if you are playing something other than guitar).
About the Author:
By Steven Martin, www.stevenmartinguitar.com. If you enjoyed this, share it on Facebook and Twitter, and be sure to get in touch with any questions or comments in the boxes below.