Guitar Improvisation – Part 1

September 7, 2008 by  

Guitar Improvisation – The Black Art. How do you know what to play over what chords?

There are many subjects in life that seem to have very little information available to them and sometimes end up being viewed as black art. Improvising on the guitar is no exception. The problem lies somewhere between it being largely a self taught instrument (at least it is for rock and roll) and the attitude that generally attaches itself to most wannabe rock and rollers. By this I don’t mean a bad attitude, not by any means, but a general personality type that considers the maths and the theory to be boring and unnecessary. Not a surprising attitude to have when you consider how many rock ‘n’ rollers don’t know anything about music theory and have proved many times that great music can still be created without it.

If you want to be a lead guitarist then there’s no doubt you need to learn some guitar improvising skills. This often becomes a subject that many find very confusing. Before I go any further let’s be clear about something, improvising skills cannot be learnt quickly and the learning curve often seems to follow no logic. Even though basic rules can be applied, improvising is often no more than a collection of ideas strung together and played over a piece of music. These ideas vary between different styles of music. Ideas have no limits and how many you have depends on how much effort you put into it, the hard part is knowing when, where and how to apply them.

Improvising is the art of being able to play a solo that fits well and sounds good over a seemingly infinite amount of randomly constructed chord progressions or musical compositions. There’s usually little time to think in advance about what you can play other than maybe a quick glance at the chord progression but more often than not, your thinking needs to be done purely on the fly. So how do you go about learning this when nobody, and no book, can give you a logical explanation of how it’s done or even where to start.

In the past, I myself, bought many books on the subject of improvising and playing lead guitar. To be honest, I thought they all contained pretty much the same information, “here is a minor pentatonic scale”, “here is a blues scale”, “play this over a I-IV-V progression” and “here are some pentatonic licks that you already have in every other book you own and they’re boring anyway!”… er, sorry, but am I missing something?.. I thought the title of the book was “learn how to improvise on the guitar”!!!!.

I can pretty much guarantee that if I bought a book titled: “A detailed and logical approach to solving the mystery of guitar improvising, nothing left unexplained, learn to improvise over any chord progression” it would still pretty much add up to “here is a blues scale”!

You might have noticed my overuse of the word “think” in my other articles and lessons, well here it comes again because we need to think about a few things here, especially point 5.

  • Every book on improvising tells you nothing much about learning how to improvise, only how to play a scale over a common chord progression (more or less)
  • Most books about lead guitar and improvising show you a few scales and some guitar licks, little else
  • Some of these books teach you basic and sometimes advanced music theory but don’t tell you how to apply any of it in the real world
  • It’s pretty likely that there isn’t a book in existence that can explain it logically if at all
  • There are many guitarist’s that have become great improvisers, are self taught and yet learnt everything they know from the books like those listed above!

This last point is a fact, therefore it obviously tells us something very important.
The answer can only lie within you and the way you interpret the information!!.
Well that’s a great statement, I bet now you know this you’ll suddenly find you have the answer to all your questions!

But seriously, if you have been playing guitar for a long while and you still find the subject of improvising daunting, even though you have tried and tried, then it’s time to step back, slow down a little and start thinking about the whole subject differently.

The main difference between you and the person that has no problem with it is likely to be because you are searching too hard for logical answers whereas the other guitarist isn’t particularity bothered about logical explanations. This is one of the hardest things to grasp and I know how this feels because I am that type of person (or at least I used to be). Everything I learn I need to understand, it needs to make sense and needs to have a logical explanation. Unfortunately where music is concerned, logic doesn’t really belong, at best all you can have are some guidelines to work with.

On the other hand, music theory itself is a method of applying logic to an otherwise incredibly confusing art form but the more you get involved with it the more you will find it contradicting, not just here and there but often. The intermediate level of music theory becomes more contradictory than basic theory and it’s not until you get into the advanced levels that the contradictions start to unfold and make some kind of sense at which point, believe it or not, it suddenly seems almost logical.

There are a few very important things (among others) that you need to have experience in and understand in order to be a confident improviser.

  • Understand that different styles use different ideas. This is not to say that you can’t mix these ideas into other styles, they are in fact mixed all the time. If however, you play rock music using purely jazz ideas then the result will be jazz with a rocky feel to it. This may or may not be the sound you are going for
  • You need a good ear
  • Good technique
  • Know every note on the fretboard without having to think about it
  • You need to have a good knowledge of basic theory even if this is something you only apply subconsciously through experience

The first three points are what I would call definite requirements. Fretboard knowledge is something that might not stop you becoming a good improviser but once you have it you are guaranteed to improve by a huge amount.

Then there’s theory which always brings on the big theory vs non theory debate so lets start by saying that some styles require it and some don’t. If however you know the basics then you will improve greatly no matter what the style, theory only stifles creativity if you allow it to. If you use it as a tool then the only thing you can gain from it is more ideas. This is an unarguable fact, those that continue to argue it stifles creativity quite simply don’t understand how to make proper use of it.

Many of those that claim not to know it, do in fact know more than they realise because their playing style is still bound by the same set of rules as theory would dictate for that style. The difference is they figure out in their own way instead of learning the mathematics.

You don’t need to be a theory guru, just the basics can take you a long way into making you a better player but just how much you need to learn really depends on the style of music you play. If all you ever want to do is play 12 bar blues and sound like all other 12 bar blues players then learning theory might be something that offers little benefit to you, after all many blues players don’t know music theory anyway. This is however a bit deceptive and outlines what I said above about people knowing some theory without realising it.

A very important thing to remember is music is not a product of theory but rather theory is a product of music. Before blues was invented there was no theory around to explain it, in fact as far as theory goes blues very much breaks the rules. Theory itself is nothing more than an attempt to create a mathematical or logical explanation to why we tend to like certain sounds and not others. The original blues men themselves invented the sound and it became extremely popular. You cant have a theory that tries to argue it’s not possible to like something just because it don’t make mathematical sense, so instead, theory has to adapt. No sooner than it adapts, along comes another style that needs more explaining.

Music theory as we know it is mostly of no real use outside of western music. It’s the science for the styles we are used to hearing, based on a twelve note scale. Whether you know theory or not, it’s pretty likely that the music you play will still be using the same rules as the particular style you favour, so avoiding it is fairly pointless.

The art of improvisation has no real way of being explained fully in any detail and can only be learned by making use of the knowledge you have and experimenting with it. If anything makes it a black art then it is this. Your brain needs to figure it out for itself by piecing together little bits of information at a time. Try too hard and you will probably achieve nothing.

This is difficult to take in if you can’t make sense of any of it. This is the one area that you just have believe that ideas need to be built on and decoded in your own way. Sometimes things don’t make any sense for a long while and this is why variety is an important part of learning to improvise. If you don’t keep trying different things then you’ll have nothing to make comparisons with to get that sudden moment of understanding. Knowing basic music theory will help you get these moments. You are in a catch 22 and need to find ways to break the loop.

So how should you go about building these ideas?

Go to part 2


4 Responses to “Guitar Improvisation – Part 1”
  1. KIERON says:

    lee i didn’t realise you were so eloquent ! excellent site

  2. Lee says:

    Hi Kieron, cheers mate!

    How’s those scales comming on?

  3. KIERON says:

    Alo Lee, practising the minor licks at the moment & slowly getting there, great site lots of helpful info. question – when practising these licks do you bar G B & E altogether or each string individually

  4. Lee says:

    Depend’s really, it’s usually a rolling technique if all on the same fret. What lick’s in particular do you mean?

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