How to improvise on guitar
“I don’t mean to be blunt. But are your solos truly improvised?” The question came from an audience member in the back of the room.
On stage was a huge mass of frizzled hair. Underneath it was jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. He was at a Q&A session at the North Sea Jazz festival and about to give an answer I’d never forget.
To many, preparing nothing and still being able to produce music is simply astounding. There’s a sort of mythology surrounding improvisation that suggests it involves some divine inspiration that descends only upon true musical geniuses.
It can be hard to believe that when someone 'improvises' a solo, nothing has been written in advance, right? And that’s probably where the question from that audience member came from. Is this for real? Here’s what Pat Metheny said:
“You just asked me a question, but you didn’t rehearse that question. You didn’t know what words you were going to use when you opened your mouth. And if you were to ask the same question again, it wouldn’t come out the same. But you would use many of the same words to do it.”
In other words, just like we draw upon our vocabulary all day to speak, as musicians we use our musical vocabulary when we improvise. Just like we respond to everyday situations with words we use all the time, we respond to musical situations with musical vocabulary that we’ve used before.
This dispells much of the mythology surrounding improvisation. Improvising isn’t about coming up with completely new and original ideas. Not at all. It’s about applying our musical vocabulary in a way that makes sense and sounds good. This means that improvisation doesn’t rely on divine inspiration that only geniuses can tap into, and is in fact much more mundane and down to earth. It’s something YOU can do.
But how exactly does improvisation work? And how should you learn to improvise on guitar?
That's exactly what I want to explain in this article.
Note: This article is a work in progress. If you have any questions about improvisation, please leave a comment or send me a message at just(at)stringkick.com!
How to start improvising on guitar
At its core, musical improvisation is simple. You tune into what you’re hearing in your head and then you play it. This is very similar to when you’re having a conversation with a friend. You just say whatever comes to your mind.
So to start improvising, I could tell you to simply do this. Put on a record. Listen to what you hear in your head and play that on your instrument.
But if you’re like most people, those instructions are pretty overwhelming. It’s not easy to tune into your musical imagination. So in this section, I want to give you some exercises that keep things more manageable.
If you have more experience with improvisation, these exercises can still be nice challenges to spark some inspiration for your improvisation.
1. Improvise using one note
The challenge is to try and make this interesting even though you only have that one note. So what other weapons do you have at your disposal? An important one is rhythm. Try to make a rhtyhm that fits nicely with the backing track and repeat it. You can also play around with soft and loud notes.
You can do this with any track you like. Just pick a note you think sounds good. If it sounds horrible at any point, just move down or up one fret and it’ll probably sound much better. But for now, give this track a try and only play the sixth fret on the high E string.
2. Improvise using two notes
Next challenge: see if you can do the exact same thing, but now use two notes. For the track below, use the third and sixth fret on the high E string. Remember that you can still repeat the same notes a bunch of times and you don’t have to alternate between the first note and the second one.
3. Stick to four notes
Add the notes at the third and sixth fret on both the b string and high E string. Now you’ll have four notes at your disposal. Stick to these and see what you can make of it.
4. Make a simple phrase and play around with it
Create a simple phrase using the third and sixth fret on both the b string and high E string. It doesn’t have to be brilliant, anything will do. Now go one round (take 20 seconds) where you just try to repeat that single phrase. Remember that you can play around with the timing.
Next, try this again, but now try to add one or two notes before your phrase. After that, do the same thing but add one or two notes after your phrase.
5. Put away your guitar and sing
Okay, time to take the shackles off! Hopefully these exercises have gotten you in some sort of a creative state of mind. Play any of the tracks above (or another track you like) and improvise a melody using your voice. Don’t worry about singing the ‘right’ notes. Your lifetime of listening to (western) music will take care of that!
Bonus points: record your singing or humming and then figure out how to play your improvisation on guitar!
6. Put on a track and stick to a single string
Pick a string, it doesn’t matter which one. Now put on a track and play any note on that string. If you think it sounds okay, remember that note and play the next note. If you don’t think it sounds good, slide up or down one fret and you’ll probably find a better sounding note.
Continue this process until you have about five notes that sound good and try to improvise using only those notes. After a while, you might want to add a few more notes, but remember that there are usually only seven notes on each string that sound good (from the first to the twelfth fret that is - after the twelfth fret the notes on the string repeat themselves).
These are a few exercises to get you started. In the next section, we’ll take a deeper dive into how improvisation works and explore the big idea behind it: 'playing what you hear'. Coming soon!