Improvisation Basics III: It's Where You Take It To

Short article on Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, their style of playing and overall importance of actively listening to the music you hear and like to enrich your own music.

Ultimate Guitar
Division Bell rings once more. Welcome.

This kind of an unorthodox lesson is going to focus on one of the crucial aspects of any improvisation that has ever been made - analyzing other players. I will try to shortly present both of my picks and materialize something from their style into a rule(s) that's beneficial to follow.

And one more thing: Some of you might think this is stealing or something. I'm not forcing anyone to read this, obviously, but just to clarify - my stance on this has been perfectly voiced by a great film director Jim Jarmusch, and it applies to music a whole lot:

"Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don't bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: 'It's not where you take things from - it's where you take them to.'"


A. Miles Davis and phrasing

I believe many of you, aspiring musicians, have heard of Miles. If not, I strongly recommend listening to him. And doing it a lot.

Miles Davis was a very influential jazz trumpet player who helped forge the music for a long time. Starting with bebop, he worked his way through cool and modal jazz, swinged to jazz fusion and ended with postbop and experimental crossovers (doo bop style is a merge with hip-hop for example).

You can start with his groundbreaking album "Kind of Blue."

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Miles Davis' playing here is very different to what other players played at the time (or play on this record). He is not doing any harmonic/melodic escapades but his solos still sound great. This actually left some critics stomped but when we think about it and listen closely, we find that the greatness comes from HOW he plays, not WHAT he plays. Those immeasurable characteristics of music like tone or colour are wonderfully utilised by him.

(For the next paragraph, this article served as a main source)

To point it out, listen to his opening solo in "So What." Over Dm7 Miles plays the root, 4th and 5th, which are not really interesting degrees, BUT anchoring us in these simplistic aesthetics allows Miles to render us surprised afterwards by using the tones others would consider first-choice but waste them in first few bars.

And that is the mastery - you build your own set, your own field for the game, by paying attention to the architecture of your solo. You build up from laid-back and simple ideas. Listener grows accustomed, he learns the rules of your game, and then you strike him down with a mighty outburst of inspiration. Because after all, you are the demiurgos, the storyteller, here. And by knowing that and using it right, you are one that managed to make his listeners hooked.

Another thing we can mention here is the fact that old bluesmen didn't really have many ways to learn fingerings and what we could call "music theory." Their solution was simple; yet, let's say that, very hardcore - they aimed to learn their chords and so from watching other bluesmen play and listening to the records. In effect, this led them to be really limited in terms of using the whole neck - they (T-Bone Walker for one) improvised only around the given chords position.

And that's it! That's a wonderful way to force yourself to give some meaning, give impact and sense into each and every note you play. When you are familiar with them as you are with your wives and girlfriends you start to understand them and use them accordingly and in a way that sounds right.

As I've already mentioned - classic rock has its roots in blues. But e.g. David Gilmour's playing might show us one more influence - it's horn instruments in general. What is the one thing you need to do when playing saxophone what you don't need to on guitar?

It's breathing.

If you imagine that your guitar breathes and you have to give her time to catch air, you will notice that you start to make natural pauses and your phrasing gets better.

To summarise:
  • build your solo from simple phrases to more complicated ones
  • practice playing very few notes, e.g. for a whole backing track 
  • remember that silence is as important as sound in music - don't flood the poor listener with meaningless stream of notes and technical exercises
  • imagine you are a neurosurgeon of music and really focus on what you do and what notes you choose
Another Miles to end this part with:

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B. Jimi Hendrix and colour

Well, I doubt you don't know who this one is. The great Jimi Hendrix who created the sound of electric guitar as we know it today. Even though you might think of him as some kind of eccentric judging by his exalted performances, he is thought to have been quite... complicated in terms of life happiness. It's said that he was at his happiest when in England, not when he became the big rock icon in the US. Recording studios used to force him to "do another 'Purple Haze'" which, you certainly understand, is a huge blow to anyone's artistic vision.

To present him I will use three songs.

The bluesy number you might remember from lesson II.

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A lyrical "Little Wing":

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My very favourite piece - "Bold as Love":

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First thing to mention - I strongly recommend learning his style of accompaniment. In my opinion, his way of doing this is completely genius. You can best hear it in "Bold as Love." Chords are a very working formula but he gives them even more of a soul and rhythm in his own way.

His soloing is also wonderful. Notice that he plays the guitar as a guitar. It might sound silly but guitar is an instrument of colour and Hendrix knew that very well. That's why he wasn't afraid to break free from "music" and explore "sound" which in effect benefits the music. But enough of this, I'll show you an example.

Hendrix was a master of string-bending, of course, and here we will learn two great techniques.

First is unisono bend - place your first finger on fret twelve E of high e string and remaining fingers on D of 15th fret - B string. Pluck them both and bend the D to a E. You are playing the same notes but this thing screws up the frequencies so it sounds very distorted and cool. You can do this on any strings of course; another nice example would be 12th fret B on B string and 14th fret A on G string (bended). Here, when in the key of E, you pass through the blue note on A sharp which creates even nicer dissonance. This is useful when beginning your solos and grabbing attention.

And grabbing attention is what the second technique will be all about. I call it a "sharp bend." This means that instead of bending, let's say, from A to B you bend to B and then you quickly bend it even a bit higher hitting the quartertone above the B. This is highly dissonant but it punches the listener right into his ears. If you use this well and don't overdo these sharp bends, you will acquire yet another way to drag people into your improvisation.

But there is one more non-note thing Hendrix does. It's at the beginning of "Little Wing" and "Bold as Love" but it's utilised even better here (it comes in at 2:40):

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Using muted string this way can give a great rhythmicity to your solos.

To summarise:
  • learn Hendrix style of accompaniment ("Bold as Love," "Little Wing," ...)
  • focus on the sound of your guitar but do so tastefully and meaningfully
  • learn unisono and sharp bends
  • incorporate muted strings into your playing


There is a lot more we could talk about here but this lesson has just reached its limit. If there is demand, I can do some follow-up, just let me know.

I hope I showed you how vital it is to really listen to your favourites and devour what you hear. This way is very potent and natural at the same time and I guarantee you will get results if you combine it with all those "ordinary" things other lessons on improvisation try to teach you. Music theory is a wonderful thing and I'm certainly not of those who think it kills spontaneity or something. But people tend to forget that it doesn't PRESCRIBE what to do in your playing, it merely DESCRIBES what those before you did and how it sounded. Always be original and explore the world of music, finding yourself tied up by over-memorised patterns and dull scale playing is one of the saddest experiences of any musician.

However, to broaden some horizons I'm going to end with listening suggestions. Take care until part IV and let me know if you agree or disagree with anything written in the series.

Goodbye and play on.


Listening suggestions:

- wonderful album by a great jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery:

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- fantastic improvs by John Coltrane, probably the most skilled musician ever, and McCoy Tyner (among others):

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- great Bach improvisations by Jacques Loussier showing yet another side of Bach's genius:

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- Esbjörn Svensson and his novelty approach:

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- a great jazz cover featuring crazy accompaniment that I've never heard before:

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21 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I've been reading guitar lessons on the internet for 10 years, and this is the very first time I bother to make a comment. This is by far the best lesson I've ever read, really helpful and deep. Congratulations and keep on the good work! Nelson, from Brazil
    Thank you for this comment. One more word and I'd be crying here ) I hope I will not disappoint you with further entries. Let me know if I do or with any question you might have.
    satyam 29
    Its great how how draw inspiration from saxophone players and use it in guitar, after all, its all music.Fredrik Thordendal of Meshuggah uses a lot of these dynamics which are actually from jazz. I find it cool!!!
    Yes! That's exactly the thing I like very much about music - every instrument has its own uniqueness (be it either limitations or advantages) but you can somehow transfer the good things to your own playing whatever instrument it is you play.
    Well, the thing i liked most is that the lesson is focused on concepts. That is so good because we can use these concepts on almost any musical situation, regardless of style, technical level, genre or whatever.
    Yes, that's exactly what I tried to do here. I was a bit worried it would be criticised for lack of practical examples. Glad it's not the case.
    This was a refereshing read and I just had to sit and listen to the entire 'kind of blue'
    Awesome lesson. You keep your ideas rooted in practical, real-world use as opposed to getting lost in the theory and crazy names(as a beginner-to-intermediate player I always find lessons like yours much easier to follow). I would love it if you posted more lessons.
    Excellent lesson! These are the concepts that help me the most, and you explain better than most people posting lessons on UG. Don't worry about trying to impress us with your fourth lesson, just do what you do and it will be great.
    You did well for posting a down-to-earth meaning on what you can do when it's your turn to play a solo. Very well done! I need more patience to study my favorite solos, and practice more on them.
    Thank each and every one of you. It is great to receive such a feedback! I'm really glad I started writing these series. Thank you again.
    Amazing, well written lesson; one of the best I've seen on here. Fitting examples and reasoning. Going to have to check your other ones out.
    How can you talk about improv with Miles and not mention Bitches Brew, considering that is one of the finest examples of recorded improv ever.
    Well, I totally agree that Bitches Brew is a seminal record filled with wonderful improvisation and should definitely be studied. However, I don't agree it is missing in this lesson - not only I don't possess enough knowledge to analyze Miles in his fullest, but I also aimed here to pick only the most understandable and simple things he does. If you understand principles behind BB, I would really love to read your lesson on it, that would be something very helpful to anyone who wants to improvise well (and I mean this without the least drop of sarcasm). Thank you for your feedback.