In this article I’ll try to give you a few tips on how to be better at improvising. First of all, what actually is improvisation? Some people think (I used to be one of them) that improvising is making up what you play on the spot. This is only partially true. Improvising is actually using the things you know in a way that suits current musical situation. That means using the phrases, licks, etc. that you’ve already learned and connecting them together, so they form musical sentences that fit a certain musical situation.
Firstly, you should learn a few phrases, if you haven’t already. Blues phrases would probably be the best to start with. Be sure that you really understand what they are. Know the key of the phrases, know which shape of pentatonic scale is it sitting in and learn how to move them to different keys, because it’s hard to imagine that you’ll always be improvising in the same key.
It’s always useful (if not necessary) to master at least a few of the most common elements of phrasing, like bending, vibrato, slides, hammer on/pull offs, etc. When these elements of phrasing are natural to you, you can apply them everywhere within a certain phrase easily. Before you know it, a certain phrase will sound different, fresh, yours. But phrasing is a different topic, so well concentrate on some other things right now.
When you know a few phrases, learn how to play each phrase starting from every beat and off-beat in a bar, without changing its original rhythmic form. This way, you’ll learn, how different notes of the phrase land on different beats and how this changes the feeling of the phrase. Just to understand what I mean: Play a sequence of 4 eight-notes repeatedly. Now each time you start playing, start with a different note on the 1st beat. Like this: You have notes 1, 2, 3 and 4. Now start the sequence with the first note on the first beat – 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4,… After that, start with the 2nd note on the 1st beat – 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1,… Next time start with the 3rd note on the first beat – 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2,… And then start with the 4th note on the first beat – 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3,… Have you noticed how the feeling of the sequence has changed, even though you’ve played the same notes in the same rhythm?
Ok, now you know how to move the phrases to different keys and to different places within the bar. Now it’s time for the real business. Try to change the rhythm of the notes in the phrase. It’s very important to play each phrase in many different situations. A funk shuffle backing track will inspire you to change the rhythm in a different way, than a slow minor blues one. Develop a groove, play with rhythms. Rhythm is actually what makes 90% of solos what they are, not the actual notes. Try to make your phrases as rhythmically interesting as possible.
Connect different phrases as if they were one longer phrase. Even when you have phrases that are played far apart on the guitar neck, how will you come from one to another? Do you know any sequence that might connect the two? Maybe a slide from nowhere would do?
Also, there’s a saying that notes are as important as space and silence between them. Use pauses; they give your playing and your instrument a sense of a living being. Singers have to breathe, you can imitate breathing with pauses, so it becomes more natural. Also, this one is a really good advice. When you’re thinking of where to go next, don’t hold a note. Make a pause. You can hold a note, but in order to make it sound as if you weren’t lost, you’d have to use a vibrato or something on it. Many guitarists have a problem of being quiet, as if everything’s ok as long as there is sound coming out of an amplifier. That’s completely wrong. It’s easier and better to slide the note off, take a breath and continue when you’re ready. This way the music will breathe, and you won’t sound like you don’t know what you’re doing. Even if you don’t know many phrases and haven’t developed your technique to a pro level, it’s good to know what not to do to sound like an amateur.
This article was written by Nejc Vidmar, a professional guitar teacher from Slovenia. He’s met many students, who didn’t sound musical while improvising, and helped them to sound more professional, even if their playing or knowledge wasn’t on a professional level yet.