December 12, 2023

how to improvise

Improvisation is that magic moment when you can transmit what you feel or think through your musical instrument. Improvisation is a moment of conversation between you and other musicians, it is free style, there aren’t any rules or patterns to follow – it is all about going with the flow of your feelings and expressing them through your guitar.

We have received many emails asking about how to improvise. First I have to say that improvisation is not an easy thing when you do not have the right weapons, that being basic knowledge of music theory the most essential element for a successful improvisation; call it knowing scales, major and minor chords, sixth chords, pentatonic scales, etc. The more theory and knowledge you have the easier everything will be, so in a few words, for being able to improvise you need to study a lot to get to a point where you feel really comfortable playing your guitar.

Wouldn’t it be great if you can go to a Jam session in a pub near you, grab a guitar and jam along with other musicians? That is all about improvisation, so yeah it is a challenge, a big one but once you get it you will feel so good… jammin and improvising are probably some of the most rewarding moments of music.

So if you think you would like to give it a go to improvise on something, a great thing to do would be to use some backing tracks or get a CD of drumbeats. If you have the Jamorama course, you can start improvising with the Jam Tracks we provide you, they are great to start with as you will know all the chords used and this will make it easier.

Now, the secret question, what to improvise? The answer is also secret, how are you feeling today? Emotions are always a great start for improvising and they will be reflected on what you are playing.

Another thing that is totally related with the knowledge of music, is being able to identify different rhythms. Identifying the rhythm will help you to get involved in the music piece easily. So keep in mind that knowing music styles will help you a lot to know what to play – is it a funk song, latin, rock, metal, blues, etc.

Mixing ideas from different songs are always a hit! Are you improvising with chords that are the same to another popular song you know? Well, mix that lick into the improvisation. If you are playing in front of a crowd, they will love to hear something they know played in a different version or beat.

Some very important things to keep in mind:

  1. Make sure what you play sounds good for the piece you are playing. It is good to incorporate different styles of music when improvising but please make sure it fits with whatever the rest of the musicians are playing.
  2. Use your emotions. Try not to think too much about what to play, simply et the feelings do the job.
  3. Do not stop. Did you hit the wrong note or string, don’t worry. Do it again and everyone will think it was intentional. Remember that any dud note is only one fret away from being a good one. Move up or down one fret to resolve the tension you’ve just created.
  4. Learn some basic licks or patterns to play. It could happen that nothing flows when it comes to improvise, so always have something to play. Create some cool sounding patterns or licks when practicing at home and take them with you all the time, this will be your arsenal or tool-box of tricks.
  5. Simplicity is good. Speed doesn’t mean anything, shredding is not what is all about, unless you are only playing speed metal or something like that but most of the time a smooth and slow lick expresses much much more than thousands of notes per second.
  6. Have fun. People love watching musicians having fun doing their thing. Relax and put that nervous energy into your playing.

I really hope some of these tips are good help to get you improvising. Let me know how are you getting on with that and what is causing you more trouble.

To help get you in an improvisational mood, here are some quotable quotes:

Improvisation: The art of thinking and performing music simultaneously. – Grove Dictionary of Music (1954)
Learn everything, then forget it all. – Charlie Parker
“Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn(guitar).” – Charlie Parker
Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there. – Miles Davis
I’ll play it first and tell you what it’s called later. – Miles Davis
The idea of a mistake is beside the point, for once anything happens it authentically is. – John Cage

If you hit a wrong note, then make it right by what you play afterwards. – Joe Pass

Good luck with your improvisation and remember, HAVE FUN!!!

Learn more about Luis Tovar on his Google profile.

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