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Improvisation Should Be an Auditory Sensation!

Jordan Warford here, Editorial Manager for Guitar Tips.

It's been an extremely busy Summer here at Guitar Tips and things are just starting to heat up. I have had the pleasure of hearing back from some of you with great suggestions and ideas, which are now being implemented.

In this edition:

Over the last few months, we have been taking a closer look at how to practice arpeggios, chords and scales. This week's edition is going to use every aspect of those skills as we dig into a new frontier... Improvisation!

  Learn how the greats conquered their fretboard and played riffs in front of millions that they had never played before. You too can be this good and we're going to show you how!

In this week's Feedback Booth, we will give you an inside glimpse at what we have in store for you over the next few months as I personally answer some of the most popular questions.

We also have a brand new section of the newsletter called "The Severe Gear Premiere". It will be giving you some great gear ideas and show you how to get it through our friends at Guitar Trader. We also have a new contest to tell you about!

Whew, that was a mouth full so let's dive right in.

The Musical Organization of Improvisation.

What it's all about.

Over the last few years, improvisation (hence forth known as "Improv") has become a personal favorite that has taught me the most about my fretboard.

Before I began my journey to learn how to master my fretboard, I had little knowledge on improv and didn't understand how important it really was. What I failed to see was that all of the greats, such as Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck used imrov as an important tool.

They would start their original songs with a little lick that they found when practicing or jamming with the rest of the band. Then, they began to expand on it using different techniques and key signatures. Before they knew it, they had a hit song waiting at their fingertips.

This may be known by the common public as composition, which is writing songs. Improvisation is a form of composition, the main difference being that you don't know exactly where you're headed with the song other than the key that you're in. In other words, you don't prepare for it.

This is common place in many venues. For example, if you're going to jam with a couple of your friends, you probably won't have enough songs to fill three or four hours. So you use what you have and change it around, mix it up and add on. That's a form of improv.

Another scenario is that your band is holding a concert and thousands of people show up to see you play. Maybe you get a little tense and when you're performing a solo, you slip up. Then you jump into action and use a beautiful lick in that key and save the day!

It could go anywhere you want it to and sound completely different every time. Jazz and blues made improv famous but don't kid yourself, it's a tool that can be applied to every genre.


Where to begin when there is no start.

To be honest with you, there is no "correct way" to teach improv. Many purists would say that you need to know music and music theory, how to perform over harmonies and chords etc. This once simple idea of having fun and playing your heart out just became a lot more complicated and now there are all these strings attached.

When I read articles in famous guitar magazines, I'm often left shaking my head. They have the right concept and the music is certainly correct but the medium that they deliver it over is quite complicated and hard to understand for the general public.

When I started out, I just looked at the tabs and played them because I simply didn't know music theory to that level for guitar. It doesn't have to be like that for you to sound good!

Playing improv truly involves putting together a good balance of technique, chords, scales and emotion in a mix that reflects you. It's not that hard at all.  Basically, I have three rules that I use when playing improv. They are as follows:

  1. If it's good enough to play once, it's probably good enough to play three or four times. hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
  2. Use the techniques that you have in your toolbox and apply them in different ways.ggggg gggggggggggggggggg
  3. Put your heart into it.

Notice what I said with #2. Use what you currently have. No one ever said that you need to be professional to make up cool riffs. If you know how to do hamer ons and pull offs , then try to incorporate that. If your strength is chordal work, then improv with chords. Use your current strengths and add on as you learn more.

In doing this you not only get experience with practical applications of your skills but you also polish them and learn new things along the way. This is why improv is so helpful to a guitarist.

Over the last few articles, we've covered a range of material that is essential for improv. The most important aspect that we've covered is scales.

Taking a look at the sounds you want.

Everyone has their favourite type of music. Some of us love to play it all, while others are drawn to one particular sound. To make your guitar sing to the style that you prefer, there's some ground work to cover.

Continuing from our last scale lesson, different scales tend to be used for different types of music. However, one aspect that we didn't look at was different forms of the same scale.

I have received a lot of emails asking why I didn't include more variations on some scales and the reason is simple, too many scales at once can be confusing.

What we're going to do now is take two identical scales that are in different positions on the fretboard. This will take your knowledge a level higher as you will not see patterns when playing these scales, even though they are the same notes. The reason for this is the location of the notes on the fretboard changes.

Take this E Mixolydian scale in fourth position for example:

... Now compare the scale above to the scale below:

E Mixolydian(1st posistion)

Two completely different note sets and different root positions. This makes them similar yet gives them a different tone. Perfect for improv. You may have noticed how certain notes overlap one another, making them ideal "links" between the scales.

This not only gives you a nice working space on the fretboard with lots of options but your fingers are there in the correct spaces, only a slide away. Here is an example of the two scales in action:


The riff above uses some relatively simple techniques that spice things up. In our next edition we'll go more in depth on using these techniques.


Putting It Into Practice...

Now that we have an understanding of the frame work evolving around improv, let's see it in action. Here are some riffs that I've written for you that will give you the leading edge. Change them and make them into something that you like to listen to.

Based off of an E minor pentatonic scale:

Based off of an A natural minor scale:

Based off of a D harmonic minor scale:

A common re-occurance throughout all of these riffs are the techniques. Slides and bends are relatively simple things that truly add to a piece of music. I encourage you to learn some new scales and play around with them.

Everything listed above is written off of a scale. You may have noticed that in the D harmonic minor riff, the "5" on the G string shouldn't be there.

That's called an accidental, which is a great tool and you can do that when playing improv. You will know it's an accidental by the sign in front of the note. For example:

All of those sharps in front of the notes are examples of accidentals because there are no sharps in the key of C. More on this will covered in a future lesson.

Playing accidentals will allow you more room to use the fretboard and give you the desired sound you are looking for.


Jordan Warford
Editorial Manager
Guitar Tips Pty Ltd

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