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  • Writer's pictureAlex Campbell

8 Improvised Tips for Improvisation

The art of arranging anything without previous preparation.

There will never be a more true instance of pure musical prowess than what you play (say) during an improvised solo. Everything you know, everything you've experienced, all comes to light right before your audience. Developing the skills, the vocabulary, requires practice of not only your technical facility, but also your emotional acuity. One must overcome the innate desire to leave personal feelings aside in front of others, because as artists, as musicians, it is our duty to inspire and help others understand what they may not be able to express. Learning how to improvise and break down your walls is one of, if not the, hardest things to do on your instrument. This brief guide will provide you with the tools and insight you may need to move your audience and elevate your own expression to new heights.

1. Overplaying

It is important to realize that the term “overplaying” has a relative meaning. Some songs may require a slower solo, while others will call for a solo with a flurry of notes and quick execution. The musical adage of “speed kills” falls short, as not all shred guitarists are automatically guilty of overplaying. A shred solo naturally requires many notes, and if the song is well-composed and sets up the solo properly, then even the most fret-melting solo can’t be considered as overplaying. It is a matter of context and taste. That said, a 12 bar blues progression may not lend the proper context for the sickest shred solo you can muster.

The solution here is ridiculously simple: just play fewer notes! Train yourself to improvise over a backing track using only 1-2 notes per bar. If the backing track is in 4/4, this means one note every 2-4 beats. It seems easy, but if you try it in practice, you will discover that you may have to resist the urge to speed up. Do not give up! Your top speed is a valuable benchmark, but the difference between the slowest and the fastest note you can play provides dynamics. Providing contrast between slow and fast passages can not only make the fast passages appear faster, but will make them an infinitely stronger musical statement.

2. Phrasing

Now that you have an understanding of musical context in relation to overplaying, you may start to notice that slower notes may not actually sound that good as they are. If you feel the urge to play fast to hide this, resist it. The problem does not lie in the fact that you are playing slowly: the culprit is likely your lack of familiarity and training with longer notes. Yes, you heard me correctly. While many of us spend hours of practice time in order to play faster (an endeavor that I obviously applaud), how many of us actually practice to play a single good, long note?

If you practice with only one note at your disposal, you will soon discover that the rules of the game are different. It's not just what you play, but also how you play it (i.e. your phrasing). The two most common problems that guitarists encounter in this respect are 1) out-of-tune bends & 2) bad vibrato (too fast, too narrow, irregular). If you are doing the exercise I suggested above, i.e. improvising just with a few long notes, you may start to notice these issues. If so, this is a good thing! Only if you can hear the problems in your playing can you fix them. Try setting aside some time in your daily practice routine to exclusively work on single notes with bends and vibrato. Accurate bending will make you a stronger player. Tasteful vibrato will make you a stronger individual.

3. Avoiding Chord Tones

Of course, even though how you play is very important, what you play still retains a certain importance (your favourite melodies are not random selections of notes). Even when you are playing in the right key with lovely phrasing, sometimes your Improvisation may fail to “glue” to the chord progression in the backing track. This happens because at any given moment in music, some notes happen to be more “right” than others. The short story is: the “right”, or stronger, notes are the ones that are generally included in the chord that is playing in that moment (thus “chord tones”). In general, you are not restricted to play only the “right” notes. Realistically, you can play whatever you want, as everyone hears music differently and you may prefer more dissonance to consonance, for example. However, you should always consider your context when choosing the notes that would act the strongest in your Improvisation. This is the meaning of the often cited quote “there are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions”.

4. Solitary Playing

I often tell my students that music is a team sport. While you can certainly accomplish a lot by yourself, solitary playing will likely not give you the experience needed for a wholesome career. That said, I do not mean that you have to play only with other guitarists, but also with bass players, drummers, singers, keyboard players, and any other instrument that peaks your interest.

I know that some of you may be thinking: “But I am still not good enough to play with other people / have a band”. In short: if you do not go out and play with other people, you may never become gain the experience you need. You cannot learn how to swim if you never enter the water. If you want to learn how to play basketball, you can only get so far alone. Personal experience is vital for experimentation and the maturation of your techniques and preferences, however group experience is just as valid.

You will very soon discover that when you are playing with other musicians, the dynamics of your playing are entirely different. You must adapt to what other people are doing, react to their music, and provide your own interpretation. Many excellent players have honed their skills by playing in bands, specifically skills that can only be acquired through direct responses with other musicians. This is also one (but not the only) reason to have a good teacher: you will be regularly playing with someone better than you.

5. Not Listening

One corollary of “music is a team sport” is that when you are playing with other musicians, you have to listen (and in general pay attention) to what they are playing and the context that their playing resides in. How can you tell if you are paying attention to the other musician (or the backing track)?

  1. You find yourself looking at other musicians, rather than your fretboard.

  2. Waiting to improvise after the backing track/band starts. Experienced players often let a few bars pass before improvising to absorb the feel, the tempo and the chord changes of the song.

  3. Listening to the vibe and dynamics of the music, rather than just waiting “for your turn to play”.

A good way to learn how to listen is called “trading fours”. You need another player to do this. While playing together, for 4 bars you will be playing the rhythm and he will be soloing, for the next 4 bars you will invert the roles and so on. Your task is to play something in context with what he just played, ideally making it seems like there is only one soloist and not two.

6. Not Training with Backing Tracks

Even if you wanted to, you can't play with other musicians all the time. Every good athlete trains with his team, but also on his own. Musicians aren't any different. Backing tracks offer a non-interactive simulation of a band that can help you train a multitude of different things,from dynamics and phrasing, to genres and progressions.

Training with backing tracks should be part of your daily routine, but you should not just blindly improvise over the backing track. You should have in mind a technique or a concept that you want to implement in your playing, such as: “Just few notes with a good vibrato” or “let's try to implement this lick I just learned”.

7. Not Playing Live

As strange as it may seem, this is one of the most powerful factors in making your improvisations sound like music. If you are just playing for yourself with nobody to communicate with, your improvisations may lack the range of emotions that only appear on a stage. If you are playing to impress other musicians, as often appears in a jam session, your solos may sound artificial. However, if you are playing in front of an audience, you are playing to tell them something, to establish a connection. You can gauge your improvisation by observing the reaction of the audience, so the communication is two-way.

Some improvisations can be dull when played for oneself (for instance, when the improvisation occurs alone with a backing track). Though when in front of an audience, the improvisation can become fluid, strong, and expressive. This is occurs when the focus is on communicating with the public, rather than being concerned with technical ability. Play to express, not to impress.

Now, before you think “I will never be able to step on a stage”, let me specify that “audience” does not necessarily mean 10,000 paying people in a stadium. Two or three of your friends are enough of an audience to get this started: ask them and they will likely be happy to listen to you. It is important to practice performing, just as it is to practice technique.

8. Not Playing to Express

This is probably the most “esoteric” point here, but it is the definitive factor that makes your improvisation jump from “sick lick” to “wow, I really felt that”. This is, if you think about it, the whole reason why we are playing an instrument. Just stop for a moment now and think back to the last song you listened to before reading this (or the song you are listening to right now). Does this song have a meaning or an underlying emotion? Of course it has one. What is the meaning of that song? Regardless of lyrics being present or not, you'll be able to associate your own experiences and emotions with it and thus derive meaning.

It is essential that your playing should reflect a statement or have an underlying feeling or emotion to it. However, very few people actually practice this. Like in our native language, we practice emotions and the words associated with them. Music is just a different medium to communicate the same ideas.

Take your guitar, and using only three notes, try to express the deepest sadness you can. What notes are you using? How are you playing them? Three notes may not seem like enough to evoke a specific emotion or feeling, though that is part of the challenge. Do it well in the simplest format and then you'll begin to recognise how adding complexity can either support or detract from your core emotion. Now, do the same trying to express a calm serenity. Then try to express anger. Then express regret. Joy. Trepidation. Impatience. Ennui. Wittiness. Exhaustion. Humor. Amusement. All of them, using only three notes.

Make a list of other emotions you want to express. If you can’t find a word for that emotion, describe a situation that gives you this emotion (“Summer afternoon reading a book under the shadow of a tree”, “driving a fast car”, “running the last mile of a marathon”, etc), then try to express it using only 3 notes. Notice that there is not one right answer, rather there are many. With all the answers you collect from a single emotion, you can compose a solo that means something to you and your listener.

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