Improvisation Basics II: Dissonance Is Sexy... and Repetition Painless

Second part of my series on improvisation. This time dealing with applying the knowledge.

Ultimate Guitar
In the first lesson we have covered the most important thing - that is, "Where do we get the tones we play?"

I wanted to dedicate this lesson to deepening this knowledge but then I read some of the reactions and decided to take a somewhat different angle. We are still going to broaden our horizons on theoretical level but I will try to focus on the application too. Hope you'll appreciate it.


Part A: Fundaments

Fundament no. 1 - Practice

There are many ways to practice improvisation. One of the most effective of them all, though, has proven to be playing the blues. We have our pretty clear harmony, the aesthetics are understandable and even though nowadays not many people listen to blues, we all have a pretty good idea about how it is supposed to sound.

Trivia no. 1 - You may say, "What? Me, I grew up on Zeppelins, I ain't learning no old guys music," and you couldn't be further from the truth.

Jimmy Page and "You Shook Me"

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Eric Clapton and "Strange Brew"

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Jimi Hendrix born under a bad sign

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These guys all were very aware of their musical roots and so should be you.

So, how to do it now?

1. First - choose a fitting set of backing tracks. Make it as simple as possible to begin with. I personally like tracks made from "Thrill is Gone" because it can be very melodic, or something derived from Gary Moore for its emotional qualities.

Here is a list of a few but you can choose whatever you like:


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Rockier vibe (not really blues here)

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Slow one

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2. Then - play! And bear in mind all the other tenets I'm going to present.

3. You can also try to record yourself. (for which I recommend to choose short tracks so you don't get lost in them)

Fundament no. 2 - Know the power of the tones

Okay, we are beginning to sound too "chinese monk teaching martial arts in an ancient monastery"- like so I'm going to clarify: to be a successful improviser (and composer), it is essential to be familiar with as many emotional effects of certain fragments of music as possible. Then you can take these little bricks and place them just into the right spots to create something of value and something new. After all, isn't creating a new emotional response everything the art is about?

There are three things I can recommend to achieve this.

1. Get familiar with your intervals.

Interval in music is the difference between two notes. We have our common and well-sounding intervals (octave, fifth, fourth,...), we have a little bit uncommon but still euphonic intervals (ninth, sixth) and we have our dissonant intervals (augmented fourth,...). And all of these shape up any piece of music you find.

2. Get the relationships into your muscles

A wonderful set of lessons has been made on this topic, so I'm just going to refer you there as I'm certainly not able to explain it as good as the teacher does there. I will post the introductory lesson; feel free to find all those other lessons on his channel. Don't take them for a golden cow tough, but use them to see just how to work with all the scales and intervals you've learned. It helped me a lot to get some kind of grasp and then start to create things myself.

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3. Listen

I will cover this topic more closely in lesson III. But you can certainly try now - listen to your favourite performers and try to analyze what they do. What makes this particular solo sound so good? Why has this lick made me shiver a bit? And can I recreate that myself (using tab or not)? You have some knowledge, you have a set of ears, I'm sure you will manage.

After reading the Part B, I recommend you try this backing track:

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It offers a lot of possibilities thanks to its modulation into B major in the middle. If you don't know what to do with it just play in B minor pentatonics and then switch into B major pentatonics (or G-sharp minor, it's "the same" if you refer to the first lesson)


Part B: Tenets

In this part, I will present some of those principles that resonate in my mind every time I play. Some have been told to me by my teacher who is a great man and invested so much patience into my improvisation that I don't understand how he could have done it. Others I have discovered by myself as I started to see (or hear) those blocks my favorite music was built of.

Tenet no. 1 - Be meaningful

This tenet is actually connected to part IV of this series - The Architecture of a Solo - so I'm going to skip it a bit for now. Shortened version: your musical ideas always have to lead somewhere and say something. When you start to solo mechanically, without any feeling and without delivering any message, if you catch yourself playing only a scale or a learned pattern, then you have lost and to get back on your feet as a valuable musician you better go back and practice and listen and find what has gone wrong.

Surely, crowd can appreciate this kind of playing but that is not the way you should think about music and art in general. As Oscar Wilde said, "Whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong." Remember that.

Tenet no. 2 - Rhythm beats pitch. Pitch beats melody.

I had to simplify this a bit, so let me explain - don't get caught up in a feeling that your solo sounds good only because you have managed to land on the right notes. No. You have to land on them at the right time (rhythm) and on the right place (pitch).

Human ear is much more sensible to rhythm and pitch than it is to single qualities of the notes played. Bear that in mind as you play. We will explore this topic more when we talk about designing your solo but until that try to focus on this in your favourite solos. Do you hear what they do there? Rhythm and pitch can be equally effective when carrying message. Tension and resolution can be created very well using these; don't underestimate them. That's why I've come up with kind of "subtenet" that reads - Repetition is painless (but it can do a lot).

Tenet no. 3 - Play your guitar as a guitar

Our instrument is one of the most colourful out there. Don't destroy this advantage by forgetting about this. Be loud, break out of all the harmony and melody and on the verge of the climactic end of your solo, go wild and shout and scream, or, when the situation suits it, be quite like water dripping down in an old cave. This kind of painting with sounds (or onomatopoie as someone could call it) is a very strong force in the universe of music and not many people know how to use it.

To see what I mean, on an example that shows only one of the thousand approaches, try a solo that really surprised me in following song:

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Trivia no. 2 - if you are interested in this topic listen to "impressionist" composers like Debussy (his "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune," his "Fantaisie for a piano and orchestra" or the "3rd movement" of his string quartet) or Satie and Ravel.

Tenet no. 4 - Dissonance is sexy

When Richard Wagner was writing his opera "Tristan and Isolda," he needed to express somehow the longing of the two in his music. This was materialized in the famous overture to this piece where he uses chords that are dissonant and resolve only at the end when the lovers die.

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Trivia no. 3:

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Well, we cannot expect that we would able to do something similarly astonishing but still, the dissonance can be a very powerful tool. It usually expresses something sad and, if done well, can catch the listener by his guts.

We have talked about the blue note, which is one of those nicely dissonant sounds. Other could be the note half a tone below the tonic (in A it would be A flat) but you will surely discover many more.

Keep this in mind; perhaps it's just the thing you need to spice up your playing. After all, do you hear what happens here?

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There are some important melodic techniques connected with this, one of which is chromaticism. This means that you play some amount of notes that are only a half step apart (e. g. A, A flat, G, F sharp, F). It is used a lot in works of Astor Piazzolla but as an example I'm going to present something else (and yes, I know Pink Floyd did it before him). The main riff is just what I've talked about.

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That will be all for today, thanks for reading this far. Next time we will focus on analyzing your favourite musicians. Practise what we've learned, remember the tenets, work through the material in this lesson slowly and try to understand everything. You success will be guaranteed that way.

Take care until then.

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