Musical Improvisation tips

Improvisation is always a hot topic among musicians. 
Usually players will hear an inspired improviser and ask themselves: 
"how'd they do that?" or: "where did they get that line from?"
Well if you haven't realized by now, the answer is often as different as the improviser. 
It always cracks me up when I am backstage and hear a budding music student analyze
 the improviser's playing (at times correctly) only to hear the improviser say
"Oh really, I never thought of it that way..."
Moral: there are so many different ways to look at and explain the same thing! 
The beauty of improvisation is that its inspiration is always as individual as its master. 
Unfortunately, true improvisation cannot be taught. 
The term "improvisation" is debated in some circles, but I consider it to be unrehearsed
non-notated expressions that are performed in the context of a musical piece. 
But heck, what do I know? If it sounds good and produces the desired effect, then
 that's all that really counts in music. To me however, improvisation means "seat of the pants!" 
You are flying along "riding the wave of energy underneath you" 
creating, playing, and responding to feel as you go. 
True improvising is when you hear, feel, and produce spontaneous musical ideas. 
This cannot be taught. Much like your daily conversations cannot be taught. 
You hear what is spoken to you (or among your group), form ideas 
based on what was said...and then respond appropriately. 
I have yet to meet anyone who has scripted their entire life's conversations, 
and even if it were sad would this be? 
To have all of one's words measured and dictated is a truly uncomforting thought. 
Musical improvisation is a dialog -- a conversation with the music, your fellow musicians
 and your listeners. It is rewarding, stimulating, and liberating like any great conversation. 
I only hope that every musician can be a great improviser, 
because listeners are drawn like to a great conversationalist at a party. 
No one really knows what will be said next 
but they do know that it will be interesting and rewarding. 
It flows, so they listen. Can this be taught?...I don't think so! 
What the accomplished conversationalist or improviser has are a multitude 
of ideas on a subject (or music piece), plus the confidence and forum to express them. 
By forum, I'm speaking mainly about key musical circumstances, like style. 
Anyway, back to the original question: how'd they do that, and...can I? 
The answer is: yes, you can!
 In fact you should. There is hope for those aspiring to improvise. 
The good news is that improvisation is the result of a process, and this process can be learned. 
Notice I did not say that this an easy process. 
Be prepared to work for the duration of your music career to develop 
and improve your improvisational, as well as all other fundamental musical skills. 
This said, there are three basic steps to the process of improvisation:
1. Gather ideas: 
Like a good conversationalist, improvising well requires a base of relevant ideas on a subject. 
Musically speaking, I consider the "subject" to be the theme of the piece being 
played as composed by its underlying rhythms, harmonies and melodies. 
Generally there are three ways players gather ideas... 
    a) Learning and practicing the lines of influential musicians over chords or 
harmonic progressions transcribed to sheet music  or tabulature
This is an okay start, but not enough. You must go a step further to analyze the dynamics 
of the line and why it works, then apply this analysis to create your own lines over 
similar types of chords and progressions based on feel. 
While there are many players whom I respect immensely, the act of improvisation 
is so personal to me that I avoid copying other's improvised lines intentionally. 
Doing so has helped me to develop and retain a pretty unique style, and I am happy about this. 
It is good to have some distinction to your style, for musicians and listeners 
will seek you out for "your music". Your artistry is the draw! 
My view has always been: why have a "clone" when you can have the original. 
In terms of improvisation, I don't want anyone putting "notes on my fingerboard" 
any more than I want someone putting words in my mouth during a conversation! 
Improvisation means spontaneous creativity to me, nothing less. 
Make sure that you create, and play from the heart.  
Try to develop your own "style" to some degree, and 
do not under any circumstances let anyone take it away!
         b) By ear. "By ear" is a bit simplistic and misleading since there is a 
little more involved.  To improvise effectively on even a basic level requires 
at least some small degree of instrumental as well as aural proficiency. 
This type of proficiency is usually developed through the practice of many songs 
scales, and musical phrases such that the player develops an innate musical tendency
"feel", or "ear". The "ear" that I'm speaking of is not so much "relative pitch" 
(where the player can naturally identify the interval relationships between notes sounded)
or even "absolute pitch" (ability to identify the tones sounded by pitch and name). 
While these  are great tools for any player, I'm really speaking of "ear" 
in describing one's natural melodic ability. Their sense of musicality. 
Some individuals can hear music and begin to improvise immediately. 
They seem to have the gift where musical ideas just flow freely without inhibition. 
Do yourself a favor and try not to be fooled. 
When others make it look easy, it is usually because they worked incredibly 
hard to make it seem so. If it appears that you are not blessed with the gift of "ear"...and things 
come hard, do not quit. You may as well realize that a successful musical career has many costs. 
Hours of long, hard work are among them. 
Develop your "ear" for improvisation by improvising. 
Wherever and whenever you hear music, try to improvise over it. 
Start by humming or singing basic, simple melodic lines that fit how the music makes you feel. 
Don't be afraid to let your ideas come out. 
They don't have to be fast, complex, loud or even good right now. 
As you develop your sense of "ear" and musicality, better ideas will come. 
Take practice time daily to play improvised lines that you hum on your guitar. 
The goal is to develop both a good "ear" and the instrumental coordination needed to improvise music. 
"Sing" through you instrument, and "feel" the notes that you play. 
Once you develop these capabilities your confidence and playing will excel, 
and your improvisations will soar.
c) Scale studies. A greater number of musicians are experimenting with scales as a basis 
for improvisational and compositional ideas. The thought is to take a particular scale and try 
to find interesting musical ideas by creating melodies and harmonies using the scale. 
One might experiment by taking a favorite line, riff, chord, or progression from a known scale 
and apply it using the interval sequencing that the experimental scale is built upon. 
There is gold in this approach! I really enjoy using scales studies to create generate fresh
new ideas and sounds for compositions and especially improvisation. 
To me it is exciting just to discover the musical potential of 
different scales because so many great lines and sounds have come 
from my experiments, and I'm far from through! 
If you find that you lack ideas or inspiration, find a scale and experiment. 
Listen to the interval qualities and relationships...then use your ear to 
create some cool melodies and harmonies. 
Scale studies and experiments will open both your ears and mind musically for sure. 
One of the best ways to develop "your style" is from ideas resulting from creative scale experiments. 
Try this method, it will change your musical life forever! 
My own experimentation and work with scale studies were 
the genesis for the M.A.M.I. Musical Scale Atlas Reference Texts. 
I needed a system to help me analyze and understand how to apply the 
hundreds of scales that peaked my curiosity. 
Then use them in musical ways (along with their modes, chords and potential harmonies). 
M.A.M.I. does this, and it also includes fingerboard note and interval charts for each scale as well. 
It is a totally unique system, and the ideal tool for improvisational scale studies. 
Be sure to check out the free sample to see why it has become the modern day musician's 
and instructor's "must-have" reference.
                   and visit our entire website including free 135 page samples.                   
2. Practice applying those ideas: Okay, here I go harping on practice again. 
Sometimes becoming a better musician can be frustrating because 
there is so much practice involved, and in so many different areas. 
Unfortunately even though we are in the 21st century, there is still no way to get around this reality. 
The key is to make the process interesting, challenging and fun. 
Use care not to always practice the same things in the same ways or you will limit 
your development, not to mention become bored pretty quickly. 
Once you discover creative material for improvisation, practice your ideas sincerely. 
Pay special attention to the timing, rhythm, dynamics, and phrasing of your lines 
as these elements all contribute toward its effectiveness. 
Be sure to purchase, and always keep a tape recorder running while practicing.  
It also helps to have a ready supply of musical backing tracks in different styles  
to serve as harmonic and rhythmic guides for your improvisations as well. 
It is possible to purchase backing track CD's or better yet, you can go a step further
using a number of different software packages available on the market. 
Unless you already possess a relatively advanced degree of skill 
it is best to develop your ideas and fluidity at home (or some safe confine) for now. 
By eliminating the variables that a live backing band can create (not to mention the impatience factor) 
it becomes easier to hone in on specific ideas and experiment without haste. 
Plus it is easier to duplicate the sessions as necessary until your ideas are fluid, refined, and spontaneous. 
Once you begin to "think on your feet" musically and your improvisations begin 
to "sing", live playing won't be far away. If you find yourself getting stuck while practicing 
the process of improvisation to the point where the ideas or phrasing just will not flow smoothly...
then for crying out loud, it is time for the blues! 
Whoa...wait, before you get too depressed and trash your guitar...I'm talking about playing the Blues. 
Without equal, no music lends itself to pure and sincere improvisation than the Blues. 
Keep a basic 12-bar Blues backing track or sequence handy, regardless of the ultimate musical style 
that you intend to study and perform. 
As contradictory as this sounds, let the Blues serve as your "emergency improvisational anti-depressant". 
Play a track and just let the flow of the music get into your head at first. 
Begin the process by creating simple lines, paying close attention to timing and phrasing. 
Use the space that Blues music affords to emphasize improvisational elements such as repetition
volume dynamics, and even silence. Try to build ascending as well as 
descending lines to create musical tension and release. Be "real" and be patient. 
Sincerity is key. Feel the music, then try to play what you feel.
The key to improvisation is to play meaningful creative ideas in expressions that 
support your interpretation  of the main musical theme. 
Regardless of the style(s) of music that your choose to play, practice building your base of ideas 
and developing the instrumental skills needed to make those ideas flow like a good conversationalist at a party. 
Don't expect miracles--have faith, strive for consistent progress...and never, ever, give up learning the instrument.
3. Develop confidence and find a forum:  
You're starting to get into the swing of things. Your practice sessions are going fairly well, meaning that 
every now and then a gem comes out of the instrument that is good enough to actually please you. 
Unfortunately still, more often than not the process is pretty difficult. 
For every one gem of improvisation, you come up with about three ideas that are lacking. 
This is a scary time for every musician: 
because it means that you are almost ready for "your public". 
Before I go much further, let me remind you of one important fact: no one is perfect! 
Certainly not any improvising musician, no matter how accomplished. 
With true improvisation there are going to be great ideas 
and days, and not-so-great ideas and days. The reason why we practice the improvisation process 
is to generate ideas, refine them, and develop the instrumental facility to execute these ideas with fluidity. 
By doing so, we raise our ratio of good playing to bad over time. 
Don't wait to become perfect before you get out and share your music. 
You could end up on your third incarnation before this happens. Once you begin to raise the ratio 
of good playing to about 1 to 1 and better, have confidence in your ideas and skill set. 
You've worked hard to get this far, and intend to keep improving. 
Don't deprive yourself any longer...get out and play with other live. 
Take your musical ideas and go out and converse. 
Play with other and have fun! 
Find the music woodsheds ("sheds") in your area and get to know the "regulars". 
One really strong advantage to being in music school is that finding "sheds" are pretty easy. 
Musical friendships and groups form from the very first moments on campus. 
Ask about the styles and tunes that are usually performed 
and whether they allow the recording of sessions. 
Listen to a couple of sets first to get the feel for the participants 
as well as their ability levels, then squeeze into a tune. 
Relax and don't overplay. Take your time and add ideas that fit into the tune being played
just like when joining a party conversation. There are few better joys than to play 
good tunes with other musicians, especially when there is an opportunity to add 
your own style and ideas into the mix through improvisation. 
Record as much as possible, and be sure to spend plenty of time listening to 
and evaluating what is heard. Is your sound good? How well do your ideas fit? 
Are the lines and phrasing fluid? 
It does take work, but becoming an good instrumental "conversationalist" is one of the most 
valuable skills that a musician can possess. You will find that very few things are more 
rewarding in life than sharing one's own style and ideas among an appreciative audience!   

(click here for next page)

more on the M.A.M.I. Scale Atlas concept

see what they have said...

get your free 135 page M.A.M.I. Scale Atlas sample plus ordering info

(click here for the MAMI Index page)