5 August 2009

Guitar Improvisation: A Kick Start Guide

Here's a selection of activities you can perform to get started with guitar improvisation. This is in response to a question recently left by a reader who commented,

"On a side note, could you recommend what is best to open up to guitar more, instead of just reading and playing tabs? I am not very confident with solos, and improvising is something I really want to nail but I find myself just going up and down through scales, not really knowing what to do or which note to hit next."
There are many different ways to get your creative juices going and go beyond playing up and down scales. Try some of the suggestions below to discover which ones suit you.

1 - Experiment with jam tracks

Get some jam tracks and play whatever your can over them. If you can only play the scales up and down then start with that.

Listen to the way the notes sound over the backing track. Gradually experiment different ways of playing the scale notes and use your ears to choose what sounds good to you.

2 - Start with blues soloing

The 12 bar blues progression is standardised. This makes it easier to memorize so you'll know where you are in the progression and learn to anticipate the chord changes.

There are also fewer wrong notes in the blues. If you play a "wrong" note of the scale you won't cause too much damage. You can even get bonus points if you learn to play the wrong notes well enough.

3 - Make up licks in advance

Making up decent licks at the same time as playing is probably too many things to do at once when you begin. You can make things easier for your brain if you create some licks on paper first.

Write out a few one or two bar licks, then learn to play them by heart. Now play them over a jam track and alternate your prepared licks with an improvised response. Create the response by modifying the original lick in some way.

4 - Work three or four notes at a time

Instead of a whole scale pick only three or four notes to focus on. Make up licks and improvise with these notes and learn to get as much as you can out of them.

5 - Use a licks dictionary

Shop for a dictionary of licks in the style you want to play. This will give you more lick ideas to use in the exercises above. You can also analyse the licks to learn how they have been created. What scales are used? Which notes end phrases? How are long and short notes used?

6 - Start with melodies

An alternative to a licks dictionary is to learn melodies to some simple songs. Nursery rhymes or songs you know really well are good material for this (try to discover the melodies by ear if you can).

Play the melody and then play a variation, adding your own personal inspirations around it. You can also pick phrases of one to four bars in length from the melody and work with those in the same way as the licks you make up on paper.

7 - Learn from your heroes

Copy some licks from players you admire or want to emulate. You don't have to learn whole solos note for note, simply pick a few phrases from a tab or songbook. Then make up similar phrases of your own by changing a note here or there, modifying the rhythm or emphasis.

8 - Use chord notes

Make up some licks using notes from the chords of the progression you improvise over. You'll find this gives you some new sounds and makes a change from playing the same scale.

Experiment with one or more of these approaches and you should find yourself going beyond playing up and down scales. Learn to build interesting licks and string them together and you'll soon be building pleasing solos.


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freddy1955 said...

Where could I find a licks dictionary?

Gary Fletcher said...

Hi Freddy,

Easiest way is to visit Amazon or Musicroom.com and type "rock licks", "blues licks" or similar depending on the style you want. There are some good titles from Wolf Marshall, 101 Must Know licks I think.


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