Quick Guitar Tip: Improvising for Beginners

First, let’s define what “improvisation” means:

We improvise when we make up music purely from our imaginations. It is the act of simply making it up as we go along. Comedians improvise jokes, actors improvise lines and engineers improvise solutions. Each of these instances has a slightly different meaning because the context is different, but basically improvising is the act of “winging it”. We improvise when we try to invent something on the spot without a plan.

“Pick up my guitar and play. Just like yesterday. ” – Pete Townsend

The Who Hamburg 1972

Many solos that we hear on records were improvised in the recording studio on the spot. This is something that to many non-musicians seems miraculous. Many guitarists will have a general idea what they want to record, but when the red light goes on they just start playing and see where it goes. After several takes they will listen back to each solo and decide which one they like the best. That one goes on the record, and the guitarist might then memorize it to play at live shows the same way each time. Or they may not.

Joe Perry

Joe Perry of Aerosmith takes pride in saying that he never plays the same solo twice. On the other end of the spectrum, Alex Lifeson of Rush nearly always plays the recorded version of a song and solo note for note during live performances.

It is really a wonderful thing isn’t it? We can pick up a guitar and start playing notes in a certain (or even an uncertain) rhythm and like magic, music fills the air.

Improvisation Tips for Beginners

1. Put on a favorite album or song (or just pick up your guitar).
2. Find just one note that sounds good.
3. Keep playing that note over and over until it stops sounding good.
4. Try a different note.
5. Play the new note over and over again until it stops sounding good.
6. Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5.

This might sound simplistic to the point of being ridiculous, but it is the essence of improvisation. There is a lot going on here. You are choosing a note, randomly at first, listening for its effect, staying on that note or not based on how it sounds, or how it makes you feel, and then choosing another note as you seek a new sound or feeling. If the note you pick doesn’t sound good simply pick another one that sounds better.

Did you notice I’d didn’t say to think about this or that scale? That is because not everybody knows the same scales. Some of you might not know any scales whatsoever. We are all at a different level if understanding and experience when it comes to knowledge of music theory.

This exercise teaches us how to begin listening with the ear of a soloist, it also begins to eliminate the fear we naturally have of playing horrible music. Start by saying to yourself “this might sound completely awful but I don’t care.”

If you do this often enough you will eventually learn to improvise, you simply cannot fail. There is absolutely no knowledge of music theory required and the music that you will play will be as authentic as it gets.

When you do this, all of your instinctual and primal knowledge of music and rhythm will come to the surface. What you may or may not know about scales, chords and intervals will only help you on the subconscious level, where it belongs.

It’s helpful to think of tones as colors, making strokes and dashes as a painter does, true to your source of light.

Music, Across Time and Space

Image of Ancient Egyptian stringed instruments, including a lute. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Image of Ancient Egyptian stringed instruments, including a lute. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

“When you learn something from people, or from a culture, you accept it as a gift, and it is your lifelong commitment to preserve it and build on it.” – Yo Yo Ma

A few years ago I attended a cello concerto by Yo Yo Ma at Powell Hall in Saint Louis, Missouri. At the time I was studying classical guitar pretty seriously and was doing a lot of thinking about how old the music was that I was studying. Hearing and seeing Yo Yo Ma play that night was inspirational because it brought home a very real sense of timelessness. His program that night was made up of music from many different time periods, cultures and styles, yet the way he presented them made it seem as though they could have all been composed by the same composer in the same year, from the same place. I realized that he had the ability to find the essential human quality in each of the pieces he played and communicate that somehow in the way he expressed each and every note. This is testament both to the great cellist that he is and to the timelessness of the music he had chosen. His music made the time honored walls of Powell Hall ring out in sympathetic vibration with centuries of composers, performers and conductors who had gone before him.

It made me realize that when we practice music we should try to find what it is about the piece we are practicing that speaks across the generations. What is the basic, primal human feeling or emotion that the composer is trying to communicate with the composition? This can be done whether the piece was written five hundred years ago or five years ago. The impulse to create is a basic human urge and has been with us since the dawn of time. Styles may come and go, but the reason we practice has been the same all along.

We all know music fans who won’t listen to or admit to liking music that is more than a few years old. For this type of fan, music is more akin to a fashion statement than a timeless art. That’s okay. Everyone has their own reasons for being drawn to music. Those who see music as something more than disposable pop culture have no problem embracing it for its own sake and not just for whatever the latest, popular take is on it’s cultural significance.

If you choose classic material that has stood the test of time over many generations, you can dedicate your entire life to a piece and never worry that it will go out of style. This is one of the many benefits of studying classical music. The music has stood the test of time and has found a way to reach out and touch generation after generation of listeners. The great classical guitarist Andres Segovia once said about Bach’s Chacconne that “one should never attempt to perform it before the age of fifty.” That was how much respect he had for the demanding nature of the piece and the value of working an entire lifetime to perfect music that you love.

One of the biggest obstacles to mastering a piece of music is to get bored with it before it is fully synthesized and memorized. Usually it is not that the music itself is boring. Something inspired you to want to play it in the first place right? Most likely there is a technical hurdle that is keeping you from fully realizing the piece. Often times that technical hurdle is really just a failure to understand what effect the composer was trying to communicate. Instead of giving up, ask yourself, “why did the composer include this or that type of passage in this particular spot? What is the feeling they are trying to evoke? Why is it important to the piece? If you can connect with the intention of the composer you stand a much better chance at solving whatever technical problem you may have. Examine the parts of the song where you continually get frustrated or stuck and ask this question. By overcoming one small problem, you can transform a piece from being a source of stress and fear into perhaps being your signature musical statement.

In practical terms this all means that you need not feel compelled to always be practicing new things. If you truly enjoy a piece, practice it as often as you like and know that it will become better with age. Resist the feeling to give up on it or pass over it because it has been played so many times before by so many other artists. There is a reason it has been done so often. Besides, it is much better to know a few things very well than many things poorly. Choosing time-tested music need not be limited to classical music. Enough time has gone by since the dawn of blues, jazz, rock and country music that there is now plenty of material to include in the “classic” category.

Imagine that before you die, you will get the opportunity to play one concert for the world on your way out. Ask yourself what songs would be on your list and never stop working to perfect them. Choose music that you love and that expresses all the fun and adventure that drew you to music in the first place – regardless of when or where it was composed. Be true to what inspires you musically. If you do this you can be sure that you will never tire of practicing those same old songs. You may have played a particular piece a million times but remember, much of your audience may be hearing it for the first time ever.

I have learned to embrace older forms of music by recognizing that music does not come from, or exist in, a specific time or a specific place. Music transcends not only time a space but it also transcends any particular individual’s thoughts or emotions. Like a great novel, poem or painting, music reaches out across generations and communicates things about the nature of the human heart mind and soul. Ancient music reveals the imagination as it was then, and modern interpretation brings it back to life for us in the here and now. In the hands of a true artist, a musical statement can be just as relevant now as it was then. It can last for eternity; or at least for as long as there are those who wish to listen and to care.

“To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations – such is a pleasure beyond compare.” -Kenko Yoshida

First Novel is Available


Kindle Version

OK. Here is the blog entry I meant to post earlier tonight.

This is just a quick note to let you know that I’ve just completed my first (short) novel. It’s a self-published ebook called Dream Tangle. It’s available at the Kindle and Nook eBook stores right now and will be at the Apple iBooks store in a week or so.

What’s it about? Well, here is the official blurb:

Dream Tangle

In a future where dreams are recorded as holograms and marketed like Hollywood movies, a deadly secret is exposed, and rebellious celebrity Angela Pavane must pursue hallucinogenic clues to save lives (including her own) from a mysterious, lethal poison. But she has stolen a core technology that her pursuers will kill to get back. Inspector Ray Lake and three of Angela’s friends find themselves in choppers, deserts, jungles, caves and city skies, seeking an antidote while evading a CEO/scientist and his murderous thugs.

“Dreams were once a place impenetrable to the camera eye. For a time, they were the last remnant of privacy, a dark corner reserved for our battered souls to hide. Into a world already infested with networked cameras, microphones, data tags and motion sensors, the once mysterious and sacred realm of the subconscious now lay exposed and bleeding, sacrificed on the altar of technology. “

The genre is a mix of science fiction, fantasy, crime/detective, action and thriller. It is set in the near future in the U.S. and Mexico and has some new technology at the center of it – notably the ability to record dreams. The main characters include a cellist/celebrity, a scientist/CEO) a retired detective, and a computer programmer along with his parents (a doctor and a green energy entrepreneur).

A first novel had to be somehow related to music (I can’t help it) so the main character, Angela, is a cellist. It gave me a chance to throw in some character traits that musicians could relate to, but the bulk of the story is not directly music related. It’s a quick read, about 150 pages, and kid friendly (apart from a few mild expletives). In other words, PG.

The goal was to tell a good old fashioned story with some twists, turns and surprises. I wanted it to move along quickly and have interesting characters in compelling situations. I’m a fan of snappy dialogue, action and intrigue in stories so, after the first chapter which introduces the publisher/scientist and the core technology, the dialogue and action get moving quickly.

I have been writing short stories, poems, and (starting) novels since high school, letting them mildew in faded notebooks on a bottom shelf. Before e-readers, tablets and self-publishing technologies, the prospect of getting “traditionally” published just seemed too daunting, uncertain and unachievable. This wasn’t made any easier by the fact that I worked at a major medical publishing company for several years, and discovered how authors really get their publishing contracts. Some traditions deserve to die.

Another reason for this post is that I haven’t got a single clue how to market a fiction ebook. (Wait, maybe that’s what publishers are for.) So I’m posting this with the hope that you might be interested enough to give it a try, or to let someone know about the book who you think might be interested. In addition, I’d love to hear from other writers about what strategies they have used to market a fiction ebook.

I’ll be back to writing music articles soon. Thanks for your time!


Here are the links to the Kindle and Nook versions.


Kindle Version

Nook Version

Nook Version