Improvisation Series – Part 1

Open cardboard box on green screen

Improvisation Series – Part 1

So I’ve decided to put together a series here on a method that will help you to truly master improvisation on the guitar.  I spoke a bit about this method in a previous e-mail and it seemed like it was a subject a lot of you are especially interested in.  It’s possible I might make a lesson or course on this method later, but this series will be entirely free.  


The goal here is to show you the tricks of connecting your ear to the guitar so you don’t have to rely on memorized licks or patterns to improvise.  This frees you up to really be expressive and play the most dynamic and musical melodies and passages over any given chord progression.  It’s also the best way to be able to improvise on the guitar without any accompaniment.  If you follow this method and stick with it, all you’ll need to entertain an audience is an acoustic guitar and some inspiration.  


You can jam along with backing tracks or with a band all you want and it’s true that you can get very good at improvisation doing only that.  However, because of the limitations of only practicing and learning to improvise in the context of a structured song and with the pressure of needing to come up with ideas in real time (or rather never being able to break out of scales, box patterns and licks), you will miss out on some of the most profound aspects of improvisation.  


If all you ever intend to do is improvise with a band, don’t be so quick to assume that this doesn’t apply to you.  What you can learn from the methods I will show you will absolutely be applicable to improvising with a band and writing music for a band in ways that will astonish and stump your fellow band mates.  The methods I will show you in this series will help you to understand what sets apart the greatest improvisers from the average jammer.


This is literally and figuratively about thinking outside of the box and taking on an approach that will allow you to intuitively learn things about music and the almost linguistic aspects of how notes relate to one another in melody, harmony, across time, within a key, etc.  This is also all about gaining an intuitive understanding of where to go on the neck to achieve notes that you’re hearing in your mind in real time.  

Reading that, you may be imagining yourself having to learn a bunch of music theory – that is NOT the case.  In fact, this method is all about training and utilizing your ear through almost nothing but improvising itself.   I will definitely be giving you some free tabs and suggestions for things to learn and practice as part of this series; however, these will be relatively basic and will make up an amazingly small part of this method.  


In fact, this method is mostly about learning how to use what you already know – and that is true for anyone, even if it’s your very first day on the guitar.   This is because the bulk of the knowledge you want to be able to access comes from all the music you’ve heard throughout your life.  This method is all about learning how to tap into what you personally like most about that music and utilize those basic elements for improvisation.  Once you “connect your ear to the guitar,” this process happens automatically.  


Okay, so getting started with something you can apply today, here is something that is both simple and truly foundational to improvisation.  


All you need to do right now is spend a little extra time learning a melody on your guitar by ear as part of your normal practice routine.  This should be a different melody every day.  If you’re new to this, I recommend starting with fairly simple melodies (Mary had a Little Lamb is not too simple for starting out).  To put this in more specific terms, the goal here is to find the notes of the melody in a single position on the guitar without using tabs or sheet music.  Do this for a different melody each day. 


It’s not necessary to be performance ready with the melodies you learn.  All that matters is that you are able to find all the notes purely by ear and play them in the correct order.  


If your ear isn’t connected to the guitar at all yet, this will mean simply guessing around at first to find the notes.  Don’t be discouraged by that at all.  It may take you awhile at first to find even the first note, but the more you do it, the quicker you’ll find them.  Eventually, you’ll recognize how each note in the melody is relative to the first note you play and that will assist you in finding each subsequent note faster and faster over time.   


It’s very important that you take absolutely no shortcuts with this.  Don’t even look up what key the melody is in.  Simply use your ear and find it.  Every wrong note you hit on the way is a critical part of connecting your ear to the guitar.  


If you’re serious about following this method, get started on this exercise right away.  While this may seem trivial to you now, keep in mind that this skill is necessary for being able to truly improvise on the guitar by ear – which is what improvisation is really all about.  


Next week we will be doing an actual improvisation exercise and I promise it will be that much more enjoyable after putting the time in on step one! 


Dan Mumm

Dan Mumm is a Metal Method instructor and shred master.  Check out Dan’s lessons here.