I’ve left this a bit longer than I had hoped since writing part one and I’ve kind of forgotten what I had in mind! Never mind, it’s all relevant. 🙂
Let’s start with a few things to think about, things that you don’t hear about so often in books and other lessons… What does the ear expect to hear! This is quite important. Why? Because when you add this to part of the equation of improvising, you can start narrowing things down quite a lot. For instance, take a straight twelve bar blues shuffle and there will be only so much that the ear would naturally expect to hear. In most cases for most people, this expectation would also be all they really wanted to hear. If you solo the twelve bar blues shuffle with Bebop licks and ideas then you’ll have a hard time finding an appreciative blues audience. Why is this important? Because if you look at all the improvising possibilities as a whole then you’re in for a very long term learning process. This can be a problem with guitar educational books, they often tend to get either too wide or too narrow with the details leaving you wondering what it is you should be focusing on.
There really is, in my opinion, no point in talking about things like modes or spending any time explaining flat seventh augmented ninths in a book that also includes words like “beginner”, “bluegrass” or “here is the pentatonic box shape”. Neither modes nor extended altered chords really have a place for that style or for that level of experience. Does this mean that if you are a beginner guitarist or a bluegrass fan then you will never use an altered chord? No of course not, but in depth knowledge about it is going to hinder rather than help you if you are a beginner, and if you are strictly a bluegrass player using those kind of things then it’s probably because you found it by accident or picked up the idea somewhere else and liked the sound of it. In depth knowledge of those things won’t have any real value towards understanding you’re preferred genre if it bears little relation to it.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you will never need to learn them, you may, you may not, it really depends where your journey is going to take you, the main point here is that when you get into the real complicated stuff it’s usually when you are ready for it and when that day comes you’ll find you are already way past the stage of understanding the basics, from this point it’s all about building experience and finding the sound you like.
Another example of what the ear expects… You witness the same old statements on forums and quite often when having discussions with other musicians, “he can shred like crazy but his blues sucks”, “A great jazzer but can’t play rock to save his life” etc.. These kind of statements can often be quite valid but are usually just misguided. If you get a group of the best jazzers and shredders and give them a BB king backing track to jam with then there’s pretty much no doubt a lot of them of them will play something that the ardent blues fan will think is rubbish. The reality is it’s nothing to do with them having no “soul” or “can only play fast runs,” it’s everything to do with those guitarists knowing little about that genre, they rarely listen to it, possibly hate it and have likely spent little to no time ever practicing it. Most of them could play a mean blues but few of them can play what you would expect to hear as a devoted, hardcore blues fan. Therefore listening to, imitating and learning as much as you can about your preferred style is where most of your practice and learning time should be spent. I’m a huge fan of understanding basic music theory but it’s important to be realistic. If you only want to play like the old time bluesers then do what they do, learn by listening, learn a bundle of licks, jam and learn from others. Theory won’t hurt, but it also might not matter.
Again, why is all this important? Because if you try too hard to understand too much about too wide a variety of styles in any short period of time then expect it to take longer to master your skill than if you wanted to become a brain surgeon. This is why I admire the likes of Guthrie Govan so much, he’s an amazing guitarist, put him with shredders, jazzers, blues, country or just about any style and he would be able to please most hardcore crowds. That is an amazing achievement. Most of us will never likely do that so you should make your goals realistic, at least in the beginning. Have large goals by all means but don’t let it dominate your practice time and learning experience, as time goes on, if you are ever going to get to those sort of levels then it will happen naturally and will probably only happen if you have a real desire to listen to all those different styles often enough.
The nitty gritty
So let’s start breaking things down and think about the music that relates to this website, rock and blues in the broadest sense. Both often end up a mixture of many styles but they are still based on their own fundamental ideas. In the beginning to intermediate stage of learning to improvise you should really focus mostly on those fundamentals, whatever it is that’s important to the specific styles you like. As you progress, the other ideas will work their way into your style. Don’t presume that you will need to study jazz in depth if your goal is to play blues with a “jazzy feel”. In cases like this try to figure out what it is you really like, jazz with a hint of blues or vice versa. If you find yourself not liking a lot of hardcore jazz music then you’re into blues, not jazz, and if this is the case then just study blues, jazzy ideas will eventually creep in. In other words you might not need to study any jazz to get the sound you are looking for, it will just happen as you seek out new ideas and learn new licks as you try to mimic your favourite players.
I’m pretty sure we all agree there are some great guitarists that have a great ear but don’t know any theory and don’t know all the notes on the fretboard etc.. Let’s, for the sake of this lesson just forget all about that and look at what the average guitarist (most guitarists) needs to know in order to become an advanced, all round confident blues or rock improviser.
A good ear
A good ear is a must, you can train to improve it but to be honest, play enough and it will happen all on it’s own. Training for it is not a bad thing by any means but unless you have a real desire to do a lot of aural exercises then I think it’s something the average blues / rock player doesn’t really need to worry much about, or at least not in the beginner stages.
Technique and timing
A good technique is a must but there’s no mystery involved, everyone knows it just takes a lot of practice. What’s a bigger problem here is that a lot of amateurs really think their technique is better than it actually is. It’s very easy to think something sounds great while you are playing but… record it and listen back, you might be surprised. Timing is also a very overlooked factor, some musicians timing is quite poor and they don’t realise it. Again, recording it often shows this but it’s also a lack of understanding basic timing and rhythms that lets a lot of amateurs down.
Common chords and progressions
For most rock and blues it’s enough to just know the common three and four note chords plus maybe a few five note chords. This means major, minor, major seventh, minor seventh, dominant sevenths and ninths, Sus 4 and Sus 2 (same thing but I’ll leave that for another lesson). It’s important to know how to find these chords in various places on the neck.
Being able to recognise common progressions quickly is also a must. Most Blues and many rock / pop songs often stick around common progressions. A lot of beginners may recognise some of these in just a few keys. Learning to recognise them in all keys is important.
Knowing all the notes on the fretboard is a must simply because it ties everything together.
Chord tones and arpeggios
Arpeggios are basically scales consisting only of chord tones so the two are kind of the same thing. Either way, knowing the chord tones across the neck is probably one of the most important things every guitarist should know. Chord tones are a very important part of improvising and creating solos.
Knowing scales is obviously important. There are many types of scales worth learning but the major, natural minor, pentatonics and the blues scale are the most important ones for rock and blues.
It’s important to learn a lot of licks and understand their placement over a particular chord or just a certain style of music and relate them to scales or chord tones where possible. With experience you will find yourself manipulating these licks on the fly.
Recognising the key
This one takes a fair amount of experience to do quickly but it’s important that you understand when a piece of music is in a particular key, if it changes key or temporarily steps out of key, and what your options are when this happens. There is a lot to learn with this one and it takes experience as well as knowledge but the good news is there are some tricks you can use when in a tight spot and you need to make quick decisions. A straight key change is easier to deal with but when faced with temporary key shifts it’s common to just use your ear or rely on chord tones. An important thing to realise with key changes is to know the fretboard and chord tones so well that you can lead into the change smoothly in the smallest step possible. As talked about above “what the ear expects” there is also what the ear generally likes. For most people a smooth change that lands on a chord tone is far more pleasant to the ear and it makes it just sound like you know what you are doing.
Rhythm, space and accents
Possibly the beginner guitarists biggest let down. Music is about rhythm and pitch movement. Unfortunately a lot of beginner solos consist of not much more than sequential, repetitive note movement with no space and no dynamics, I.e. Just running back and forth through scale notes in stepped order with little attention to rhythm and space. It’s easier to forgive a lack of knowledge on note choice because it’s a daunting subject to begin with but paying some attention to the rhythmic value of a guitar solo is something that can improve an amateurs lead playing massively in a short amount of time. This will be discussed in more detail elsewhere on this site.
The bottom line
Experience enough of the above and eventually you will piece all of those things together into one multi-level way of thinking and playing the guitar, sooner or later, a lot of it will start happening on autopilot as long as you are taking it all in as you go. It’s very important that you learn to recognise the difference between repetition and actual learning because this is what often holds things up and stops a lot of guitarists moving forward. For instance, you learn a new lick… now what can you do with it? It’s common for amateurs to do nothing more than learn the lick and have no further use for it outside of the example they got it from. Licks are great block builders to base new ideas around, a lot of the time they are wasted because the guitarist can’t do anything else with them. Simple answer, experiment. Try them in different keys, different styles, different timings, if they are minor licks then try converting them to major, split them in half, speed them up, mix them with others. The possibilities are endless but obviously you need to be able to associate the lick with a scale, chord, arpeggio or any thing that helps you make that association before you can do anything with it in the first place. If you view a lick as just a bunch of notes somewhere on the fretboard then that’s all it will ever be.
Other than playing a blues scale over a twelve bar blues, the entire subject of improvising seems to have no consistent or solid foundation for you to build your knowledge and experience from. If you read enough books you might come to the conclusion that you can play any scale and any note you like over a common three chord progression. Although that is almost true, it’s not how it should be interpreted.
Improvising is all about options and the choices you make are dependant upon what you know and how you have built your experience. For a lot of rock and blues guitarists the options they choose might not be based on a thorough understanding of music theory. You’re guitar idol might be able to play a mean rock and blues solo but give him a complicated jazz chord progression and his options become severely limited if no time has been spent studying jazz or music theory. It don’t mean he won’t have a go though, if his experience has given him a good ear and he can find chord tones quite quickly then a good solo can still happen. It might however sound great to the average rock listener but maybe not to the hardcore jazz fan. If there is one trick that can get you out of a sticky situation it is chord tones and arpeggios. If you can play your way around the fretboard using chord tones as quick as you can find the common chords then you’re always going to be able to play something that, at the very least, fits the music. If you combine this with a well trained ear and a fair bit of experience with arpeggios then the ability to improvise on the fly over various chord progressions starts to become a lot easier.
The sub title of this article was something like “how do I know what to play over what chord” and I still haven’t answered the question, why? Because it’s just not that simple. There’s no one paragraph or simple explanation that can possibly answer the question. I don’t want to just end with “practice” or “experience” even though they are correct answers. The practice sessions on this site have only just got started but they are designed to build your knowledge in steps while working towards the goals of what we have been talking about here. The following summarises some of the things you need to learn to get you on your way to becoming a confident improviser.
- Technique. There’s no mystery surrounding technique but it’s important that you practice it and do not over rate your own ability. It’s very common to NOT be as good as you think you are!
- Learn the fretboard notes
- Learn how to find chord tones
- Use chord tones to make your solo’s sound professional and reflect the chord changes
- Learn to end your phrases on good tones
- Know how to find the song’s key and easily spot if it moves out of key
- Learn to spot the difference between a key change and a temporary key shift
- Know when to use different scale choices
- Using different scale techniques to sound like a pro and not an amateur, i.e. avoiding predictable sequential stepping back and forth through scale patterns
The practice sessions have only just started but this is what you should expect to learn from them as they progress.
All the answers to this article will lie in those sessions. If you have any specific questions that you want answered right now then ask away! 🙂