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.


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