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How Do I Learn to Improvise on Guitar?

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When blues and jazz first became popular over a hundred years ago, one of the things that set them apart from other styles was a radical new idea: improvisation. Singers and musicians didn’t just perform the same melodies every time, they “jazzed” or embellished them so that each performance was unique. From then on, each generation of performers studied the improvisations of their peers and those who came before, added their personal twist, and joined a chain of influences that leads right up to the present day.

After more than a century, however, there is still confusion over what it means to improvise and how you learn to do it. The Blues Guitar program here at ArtistWorks covers the subject in detail, but here’s a brief FAQ-style overview of improvising in general and blues improvising in particular.

Does improvising mean spontaneously coming up with original ideas?

No - improvising means spontaneously playing the ideas that you hear in your head, whether they are original or not (for example, when Stevie Ray Vaughan improvised slow blues solos, many of the ideas he “heard” came directly from Albert King). Improvisation takes place when your ideas and your skills come together in real time, i.e. you hear an idea and execute it without hesitation. The basic unit of musical improvisation is the phrase, so the first step in learning to improvise blues is to develop a vocabulary of blues phrases.

What is a phrase?

A phrase is a short, complete musical idea combining notes, rhythms and touch (the techniques you use to express the notes and rhythms). Blues originated as a vocal style, so blues phrases typically last for about as long as you can sing before taking a breath

How do I learn blues phrases?

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You learn to “speak blues” in the same way you first learn to get by in any new language - by copying and memorizing useful phrases. Every great blues guitarist first learned to play by copying, whether from one main influence or a wide assortment, and used that as the foundation for their own style.

Copying seems like cheating - shouldn’t I come up with my own original ideas?

Copying isn’t cheating, it’s learning how to speak the language by following the example of those who are already fluent. Hendrix was one of the most original guitar stylists in history, but he could also quote his blues influences at length - that’s how he developed the tools to express his own ideas.

Don’t I need to learn major and minor scales first?

No - just one pattern of minor pentatonic is enough to start building an effective vocabulary of blues phrases. The less notes you have to juggle, the easier it is to really listen to what you play and to keep the rhythm and touch in balance. Maintaining that balance is essential to good blues phrasing no matter how many scales you know.

But my ear is no good…I can’t hear what they’re playing… it’s too fast…

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When you first hear a foreign language it sounds like a blur, but when you learn some phrases the words start to make sense. Developing your ability to transcribe music by ear also takes practice, and the Blues Guitar program here includes lots of call-and-response exercises and solos that demonstrate and explain the techniques and concepts of phrasing. After you develop a basic stylistic vocabulary, what you hear on blues recordings sounds much more familiar (see my blog on Transcribing).

To improvise a solo, do I just play phrases over the progression?

Yes, but it’s far from random. Learning some phrases is the first step; the next step is learning how to arrange them over time. A good solo starts with a strong idea, builds through the progression, and comes to a clear conclusion - in other words, it’s a composition. Memorize vocal melodies and other players’ solos, study how the ideas flow through the changes, and use them to compose your own solos. Improvisation is the same as composing, but the time lag between idea and execution is close to zero.

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Soloing looks easy when other players do it, but I have a really hard time - does that mean I have no talent?

The false idea that it’s easy to improvise a blues solo is the source of endless frustration. It takes a lot of listening, practice and experience to learn how to arrange and execute ideas in real time and make it all sound like it just happened naturally. Experienced soloists develop a reliable repertoire of proven ideas, so a typical solo combines pre-set phrases and spontaneous ideas. Either way, if a solo sounds effortless, you can bet that a huge amount of effort went into it. As the old saying goes, “talent is 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration…”

How long does it take to become a good improviser?

How long do you plan to keep playing? Improvising is a life-long process and “good” is a constantly-moving target, but you can become a competent blues soloist fairly quickly by doing what every great blues guitarist has done: copy what works and keep using it until you have a better idea. Whether your ideas originate in your head or you steal them from somebody else, improvising all comes down to “play what you hear and hear what you play.”

Have more questions about improvising? Post them on the Blues Guitar Forum or submit a practice video for a Video Exchange!

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