Improvisation brings many surprises to your ears!
When you play music, you often hear terms like improvisation or jam… These words can be used interchangeably but basically mean the same thing. So, what are they?
What is improvisation? In music, improvisation is the activity of making music without any structure or plan in place. It is a very spontaneous performance without any specific or scripted preparation. I like to see it as the act of discovery through a creative mentality. However, through slightly random but creative means, it will eventually lead to a structured song.
In this article, we cover all the important aspects of improvisation and how it can impact you as a musician.
1. Using Improvisation For Composing Songs
Over my years of playing guitar I have come to realize that there is one fundamental reason to improvise.
Yes, it can be fun to doodle on your instrument, but it is important to understand that the main goal for improvisation. It brings your ideas to life. It is the only way to be original and feel out the notes, melodies and rhymes in front of you!
Typically, these improvisations will fundamentally be used in a composition.
This can include things like:
- Main riff and theme of the song
- Transition between the verse and the chorus
- Song structure
The truth is many bands and musicians worldwide compose songs based on improvisation. Even bands that you would never consider such as math metal.
But you are not wrong to think that certain styles rely more heavy on improvisation such as rock, metal and jazz.
Notably, in jazz, improvisation is set high. Whereby, pop music improvisation is less (especially the instrumental elements).
2. Improvisation: The Mind-Set
Improvisation is a state of mind.
You have to be in the right frame of mind in order to come up with new a unique ideas. But, there are a few things we can do to increase our creativity when improvising.
- Play around in a relaxing setting and change environments you are in – if you are relaxed your mind is generally free giving you more head space to explore musically and just be creative.
- Find inspirations & learn new styles – generally, feeling inspired by someone is great as it gives you a vision and inspirational fire you need to rockout!
- Take your time & revisit old songs – When i write a new riff, overtime i will become more familiar with the key i am playing in. This will lead me to making tweaks to it as time goes on and mold it into a better riff.
- Try to find your unique voice, avoid trying to sound exactly like your inspirations but use them as guidelines – Do not try to be exactly like your inspirational guitarist. Once you found some inspiration then go with your natural instincts. If you try to hard to sound like them it will ruin your creative flow.
- Don’t try too hard as this will cause mental blocks – Sometimes you just need to feel the sound your creating and just go with it. Do not try to make a riff something it isn’t.
- Generally have fun! – When your having fun it will be translated into the music your playing, and people listening will generally find it more enjoyable.
Practicing improvisation is one of the exercises that every musician must go through.
Improvisation’s ultimate goal is freedom in music.
Think of music as a language where you learn about elements like harmony, chords, notes, or rhythm. You need to practice until it’s rooted in your mind, so you can use it instinctively access that information.
Here we do not deny the importance of notation skills. We want to emphasize that music is art, which requires the creativity and ego of each artist. So, don’t force your music into certain frameworks.
Always let your creativity be sublimated through improvisation.
3. Tips to Extend Your Creativity
So, while in a jam session, how should you start?
The best place to start is through a beat and different chord progressions. However, it is the Lead melody i like to get really creative with. I am always on the look out for something different, colorful, catchy and somewhat technical. And yes, there is a lot of experimenting and trial and error involved.
I always usually reach my vision when creating a song and below, is how i get there…
- Be Unique – Be yourself when improvising. Allow your distinct personality to shine through in your songs. You might love playing it and gain musical independence as a result.
- Don’t Limit Yourself – always willing to try new things because, as previously stated, improvisation has no restrictions. Experiment with whatever pitches, combinations, talents, or ideas that spring to mind.
- Practice To Backing Tracks – There are many free backing tracks available on the internet, particularly on YouTube. Play along with the backing music and record yourself. This is something you should do on a regular basis.
- Listen More – Explore as many musical styles as you can. From techniques to harmony, each genre of music has its own distinct features. The more you listen, the more you will gain knowledge and expand your horizons. Jazz and blues are two forms of music that feature a lot of improvisation.
- Apply Musical Theory Into Reality – contrary to common belief, theory will help your improvisation. Music is akin to a spoken language. It is pointless to study theory if you are unable to put it into practice. Apply the same principles to learning music as you used to learn a language (discuss more in section 5).
- Sometimes use a click and mess with different tempos – A click will help you become familiar with different tempos and by speeding up or slowing down the tempo to what you usually play will take you to a whole new world.
- Change Rhythm and Time Signatures – by playing around with different time signatures can also stimulate new ideas.
- Try different techniques and be playful – Try repeating certain notes, varying note values, changing note direction, skipping strings, and using articulation (bending, vibrato, etc.). Any technique could be applied to improvisation to make it more musical. You could use bending, sliding, tapping, sweep picking, harmonics, or anything. Let’s get fun and create something unexpected.
Not everything will be good. But hopefully you will take away something new a unique that you created. You can take improvisation to many levels. I would spend hours playing around with a riff i originally improvised to make it sound even better.
4. Improvising Rhythm & Lead Guitar?
Usually, when it comes to guitar playing you can improvise both rhythm and lead guitar. This will typically be riffs or guitar solos.
- Improvising Lead Guitar
- Improvising Rhythm Guitar
When improvising riffs this will usually done from customizing a riff you have previously learnt from an artist that influences you. When improvising guitar solos it will come from reusing licks whilst playing over a backing track or in a band setting.
5. Improvising & Theory
Before you can improvise on the guitar you will need to know some basic music theory.
Improvisation requires a long and effective practicing process whether your learning to phrase notes and chords or basic chord shapes. Every musical skill and knowledge you have can be applied to improvise music. You need to make them an instinct that can come out when needed (appropriate mood / background music).
You should learn some of the following basics, and build it into your music flow when improvising.
If you are looking for new sounds then there is a whole bundle of chords you can learn and just experiment with, and bringing into your current style.
- Pentatonic/blues scales:Learn how to play pentatonic and blues scales with 5 shapes on the keyboard. Learning and practice will take a long time, but it will really pay off. These two scales are the foundation of most solos in blues, rock, country, and even metal music. After you’ve mastered the scales, learn how to use them to improvise.
- Major scales: In addition to pentatonic scales, major scales are also a significant scale. Likewise, learn to play major scales in any position on the fretboard. Once you have comprehended each shape, begin to connect them together so that you can play all the frets. Experiment and try different combinations. Good things take time, so be patient to practice!
Arpeggios are chords that are split into individual notes for the play. Arpeggios usually consist of 3 notes (triads) as the main note/root (Tonic), 3rd note, and 5th note. The 7th, 9th, or 13th notes of a chord have also been added to create specific chord types’ colors. Arpeggios practice helps the right fingers to move flexibly, easily, and accurately. The important thing is to practice the right position, right posture, right method.
Melodic patterns mean playing note combinations to make the scales sound less like theories and more like music. Playing melodic patterns makes it easy to grasp notes in a scale without the dullness of simply spreading scales backward or forwards. Learning and practicing them can be intellectual but challenging. Some melodic patterns that you should try out:
3rds = 1-3, 2-4, 3-5, 4-6, 5-7, 6-8, 7-9, 8-10, 9-11, etc. (If in C major scale, the corresponding notes are: C-E, D-F, E-G, F-A, G-B, A-C, B-D, C-E, D-F, etc.)
Similarly, we will have 4ths (1-4, 5-8, 7-10, etc.), 5ths (2-6, 3-7, 9-13, etc.), or 6ths (4-9, 8 -13, 9-14, etc.)
Modes, or sometimes church modes, are a series of seven musical scales with seven separate tonal qualities and characteristics. They are all types of the diatonic scale, which means they have seven notes and have two semitones (half-step) and five tones (whole-step).
These 7 modes can also be broken down into major modes and minor modes. Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian are three major modes. The remaining four modes – Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian – are minor. The modes are divided into major and minor categories thanks to the position of the 3rd note relative to the tonic in their scale.
When improvising you are telling a story. There will be parts of that story you like, and don’t like. And so as a musician we takes the bits we do like and use them as a highlight.
All you need to do is bring your creative mindset to create something new. With improvisation, you don’t need to follow any law – because simply no law exists. Trust your ears. Build on what’s going on, try any combination of notes on the scale, and try any articulation.
Improvisation is not about memorizing licks or solos from your favorite song and playing them randomly on an accompaniment. Being able to really improvise means being able to come up with interesting ideas from the moment music is played. This sounds like a headache for new guitar players, and yes, it’s not easy at all. However, don’t panic. Like everything else in the world, you will achieve it if you keep your mind on it.
Hopefully, this article has partially answered your questions about improvisation and has given you useful instructions for practicing improvisation. Have fun with guitar improvisation!