Learning to improvise music feels a lot like learning another language. It can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding and life-changing and connect you to others in a whole new way! The key is not to get discouraged and to use the right method to learn the things that mean the most to you!
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The Melodic System
The first question you have to answer is “what kind of music do I want to play?” Once you know that, I recommend a process that balances different aspects of playing to get a complete technique developed. This method also helps you balance fun stuff with the most growthful exercises so you improve while having fun! Before you read about any exercises, make sure you at least have a vague list of songs that exemplify what you want to do with your music. Whether your goal is to be the best SRV imitator or to branch of totally on your own, this system should have more than enough tools to deal with anything you run into.
The mnemonic I use goes a bit like this…
Transpose-Compose-Solos…-Jon Michael Swift
These are basically a description of lots of different things you can do to learn how to solo. They all accomplish different ends, and most all of them are necessary at one time or another. A brief explanation of each…
- Positions – These are scales; the notes that are ‘allowed.’ Knowing which notes ‘sound good’ is the foundation of your solos ‘sounding good.’ It’s also the most basic type of finger technique, so I always recommend starting with at least a little of this. As you get more advanced this will eventually become an exercise in knowing notes on the neck and knowing how to ‘break the rules’ of playing ‘right notes.’ For starters…just learn what the right notes are. I believe scales on guitar are best organized in boxes, but many systems are out there and each has pros and cons.
- Transitions – Shifts between scale positions/boxes. You can’t just play one scale all day, now can ya?
- Licks – These are the ways in which the scales get used in different styles. Most styles of melody are categorized by what is called their ‘melody type,’ which tells you not only what notes to use but how the movements between those notes tend to go. This section delves into that in detail. This applies to chords as well, which are often organized in ‘chord licks.’
- Tricks – This section involves more mathematical permutations of melodies. While the most tradition melodies in the world have certain speech-like characteristics, sticking to these can get a little boring. This section explains how to learn scale patterns, splitting melodies across octaves, how to develop improvisation riffs, and lots of other techniques that take the basic aspects of melody and make them breath a bit more.
- Arpeggios – Breaking up chords in various manners gives melodies and harmonies more shape and depth. On guitar especially they can be quite challenging, so here’s a section on different methods of playing arpeggios from broken fingerpicked chords to sweeps and other lead techniques.
- Improvise – Everything up to this point is more or less accomplished with exercises, but music happens when the exercises fall away and you just play! Every exercise should be followed with some attempt to integrate ideas into actual playing. This can be one of the more difficult phases until everything ‘clicks’ but no mater what, make sure you just jam with everything you learn. Expect it to take at least as long to integrate every technique as it took you to learn to play it initially.
- Transpose – It takes a substantial effort to learn all the permutations needed to play melodies in even one key. Luckily, once you’ve learned a lot of these techniques they can be moved to other keys quite easily given some simple transposition techniques. Learning to transpose what you’ve learned deepens your knowledge of what you learned in the past and expands its utility to new situations!
- Compose – The best creativity happens by accident, often when you are practicing. As you practice and interesting mistakes happen, start keeping a notebook on ideas you like. As you get further along, start stringing them together into larger and larger pieces that you can eventually use for performances. Having specific ideas you have written and practiced not only expands your performance repertoire, but it’s also an important step in integrating ideas that will eventually be used in improvisation.
- Solos – Most folks start out just bold-face copying their musical heroes. This is a very good thing to do and does not doom you to creative zero-hood forever! In fact, it will often get you to creative acts faster than trying to go it alone, since you develop a point of reference from which to develop your own ideas! This idea is as simple as learning what other artists play, note-for-note, and stealing ideas from it to get your hands and your brain moving faster.
The Harmonic System
I’m going to start by just focusing on chord shapes and add more stuff over time.
- Triad Chord Scales
- Open Positions Triads
- Open string boxes
- Altered bass chords
- Block 7th inversions/Jazz Chords
- Extended Tertiary/Rootless and guide-tone voicings
- Untriads – Techniques for Expanding on Chords
- Atonal Voicings
Also, I’d like to add a challenge! There is a saying when learning vocabulary that if you ‘use it three times, it’s yours forever!’ My challenge is that, any new chord you are trying to learn, try to use it in three different contexts and then move on to the next challenge! Some examples might be…
- Play it in a cover song
- Write it into a song groove and add lyrics
- Create an ambient/jam/backing track with it
- Use it to systematically develop right hand or rhythm improvisation
- Move it around and fingerpick with open strings to see if it sounds good as an open string voicing
- Arpeggiate it as part of a melodic riff in a solo
For more on this challenge check out my article on Embodiment of Theory