Being able to confidently improvise is a skill many aspiring musicians should learn. It means you can play at jam nights, write your own music, transcribe solos, master technique, train your ear and so on! Improvisation is a skill that takes a lot of time to learn and develop on guitar. Before we proceed with the 5 key hacks, you’ll need to have a good grasp on how the guitar neck works. Read our blog – “Mastering the fretboard in 5 minutes” and then return to this article afterward.
Find the key signature
Before you can begin playing anything, you need to find out what key the song or chord progression is in. If you’re playing with someone you can simply ask them what key is this in, or you can develop aural skills that will allow you to figure this out yourself. Developing aural skills is incredibly useful for working out riffs, licks and chord progressions quickly. It’s also great for transposing parts. Transposing means changing the original key signature of a part, and altering it to a different key. This is essential when working with singers, as they all have a different vocal range.
The next step is to decide which scale you’re going use, which will form the foundations of your improvising process. The two most important scales to learn as a guitarist are the pentatonic minor and pentatonic major. There are many other important scales such as the major scale, blues scale, natural minor and so on. But these two scales will be your go to choice 9/10. The pentatonic minor is best utilised when you know the various extensions of the scale. Make an effort of learning scales note for note so you don’t have to think about where to put your fingers when improvising! One piece of advice I always give my students is to learn the sliding major pentatonic scale. This is because it allows full coverage of the neck across all six strings, and has great technique implementation.
Phrasing is what sets apart an amateur guitarist from a pro. You need to learn how to utilise your scale shapes, and make your guitar sound like it’s telling a story. This is all possible through phrasing as you can articulate your note values, lengths and insert pauses. A quick way to get the ball rolling with phrasing is to think of it like structuring a sentence. You deliver the sentence with punctuation to make it easier to understand, and to allow enhanced expression with the reader/listener. With guitar this could be as simple as playing a set of notes, and then leaving a pause to create tension. Odd groupings are a good place to start. Try playing three note phrases and let the third note of the phrase resonate to create space and intrigue. The process of musical phrasing is an act of call and response. You want to keep the listener hooked as to where the music is going next. That’s the power of phrasing!
Technique is the very reason most people want to learn guitar, whether they’re aware of it or not. Chances are you’ve seen Eddie Van Halen tapping ferociously on the neck, Hendrix playing fast legato licks behind his head or Slash bending notes far enough to make any grown man cry. Technique is what will make your improvising come alive. Imagine you’re a painter, but the only colours you have are black and white. Technique means a painter can use any colour he or she desires, to put their own twist on what could be just another painting. For a guitarist these colours are: bending, hammer on’s, pull off’s, grace notes, sustain, vibrato, slide, legato and much much more…
Break out of the box
At some point you’ll plateau. It may be years down the line, but eventually every guitarist hits the road of improvisational boredom, believe it or not. When you’ve been playing the same pentatonic shapes over and over, you’ve just about exploited every possible combination that these scales can offer. This is when you know, it’s time to break out of the box. This means taking the pentatonic shackles off and improvising in a completely different way. I’m talking about chord scale relationships. The pentatonic shapes are a great guideline for playing over a chord progression. It means you can’t go wrong because the notes are always in the right key. The chord scale relationship differs from this approach by targeting each chord of the progression individually, as opposed to thinking of the sequence as one continuous unit. This unlocks many possibilities as you can think of what scales, modes and arpeggios will work best with an individual chord and truly make your improvising sound virtuosic. This is a very long road to travel, but very rewarding in return. Masters of this type of playing are Jimi Hendrix, John Mayer and Mateus Asato to name but a few.
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