How to Improvise Guitar Like a Pro
Imagine you’re at a large gathering of people waiting for a band to come in and perform. The band cancels at the last minute leaving everyone disappointed and bored. The gathering needs some live music and you’re the only person there who can play the guitar. An acoustic guitar is available but you have no songs ready and nothing prepared. Would you be able to entertain the audience and keep them engaged for an hour without preparations, without a repertoire, and nothing but an acoustic guitar?
If you aren’t already familiar with what I’m about to tell you, there is a very good chance that your answer to that question would be a resounding “no.” And, if that’s true, I can guess that you’ve encountered more than a little bit of frustration in the realm of guitar improvisation.
So what can you do about that?
If you’ve gotten into improvisation to any serious degree, I’m sure you’re quite familiar with the following terms: scales, runs, phrasing, progressions, etc.
All of the things I mentioned above definitely occur in some form or another in a great guitar improvisation session. They are also important concepts to have a firm grasp on. However, if you believe that it’s the knowledge surrounding these terms and classifications that allows for better improvisation, you’d be wrong. The reality is that all of these terms and classifications are nothing more than a barely adequate map of how our minds perceive patterns in sound and music.
While the labels help us to learn basic musical concepts and build on conceptual ideas (which leads to progress in how we can express ourselves through music), they can also be a massive limitation. One of the most potentially destructive aspects of this limitation is how it can limit our perception of what music is and, likewise, how we approach it.
So, for a moment, forget about scales, chords, arpeggios, etc. and pick up your acoustic guitar. If you’re properly inspired and you start to play around, you will eventually hit on some amazing sounds. Everything you’re doing there can be dissected and classified into scales, arpeggios, etc. However, it’s the action of practicing improvising on the guitar without concern for these limitations that allow you to start thinking of the instrument in terms of how it sounds instead of the “clinical” designations that we apply to those sounds.
Okay then, what is the real secret behind great guitar improvisation?
The answer to that can be summed up in two words: emotion and expression
Because we all have both inborn and conditioned appreciations for music, by simply “fooling around” on your guitar, you will eventually find yourself hitting on things that are very pleasing to the ear – just by virtue of following where your “ear” takes you. Think of it this way: if your “ear” is the ultimate judge of what is good in music then it should also be the ultimate guide in the creation of that music.
In this case, your “ear” is the part of you that is emotionally connecting to what you are playing. You’re not just hearing it, but you’re hearing it in such a way that makes you feel good. The more you practice finding things to play that make you feel different ways, the more complex your ability to express emotions through the guitar becomes.
It’s the emotional content of the music you’re playing that really grabs people’s attention and keeps it. That’s the real reason why you can run into songs or musical passages that you want to play back over and over again and never forget. By harnessing this for improvisation, the same thing can be true for anything you play on the guitar off the top of your head.
It’s not about complexity or virtuosity, it’s purely about feeling.
If you got up in front of that hypothetical audience and did nothing but shredding through scales and blasting through sweep patterns, the audience would be amazed for a few moments but it would lose interest quickly. Virtuosity can play a major role in expression, however, without emotional content, it’s reduced to the equivalent of watching someone expertly twirling drumsticks. That’s definitely cool to watch but it gets old pretty fast.
Let’s look at it from a slightly different angle. What is the most fundamental reason of why people listen to music? It changes the way they feel in a positive way.
So how do you improvise in a way that is authentically expressive and causes a sympathetic and positive emotional reaction in other people?
If you really want to know what sets apart a great improviser from a mediocre one, it all boils down to who has spent more time cultivating their ability to freely express emotions on the guitar in real time.
It’s possible to practice soloing over a backing track for hours a day without making any significant progress in that direction. However, if you follow this advice, the next time you practice soloing over a backing track, your improvisation will have that much more emotional content in it.
The real trick here is to regularly spend time on your guitar, by yourself, without worrying about scales or chord progressions. You have to learn to “listen” to your subconscious mind and let it dictate what the music will sound like. Let your fingers move up and down the fretboard where they will. Eventually you’ll reach a point where you hear the note that is “supposed to” come next and you’ll have to feel around for it to find it. And, after you’ve been doing this long enough, your fingers will know exactly where to go to find the note you need.
At that point, no note that you play while improvising will be arbitrary. Even though you’re making it up on the spot, it will sound like a composed and emotionally engaging piece of music. Again, it doesn’t have to be complicated. All that’s important is how expressive it is. It can become more complicated later.
Do this for 10 minutes a day for the next 30 days and then go to the next local blues jam and be amazed at how much your soloing has been transformed.
A guitarist that truly knows their instrument can easily entertain an audience without any preparation by simply playing what they feel.
Dan Mumm is a Metal Method instructor and shred master. Check out Dan’s lessons here.