One topic I get lots of questions on is around improvising on the guitar. How does it work? Do you really just make it up on the spot? How do you know where to start? and the list goes on and on. I thought I’d take a few minutes and make an analogy that will hopefully help put things into perspective and help some of you connect the dots on the topic of improvising on the guitar (or any other instrument).
Music is a language (no really!)
I’m sure you’ve heard many of the phrases around the topic of music being “conversational” or musicians “communicating” with each other and maybe didn’t give it a lot of thought, but the big secret in improvising is understanding that learning to play music is exactly the same as learning a second language. I should re-emphasize the word EXACTLY. It’s no different than learning to speak English, Japanese, Spanish, or any other language.
When we are toddlers and learning to speak our first words, we only know a few words, “mommy”, “daddy”, “ball”, etc. Even though it’s crude, it can still be effective. When a toddler points at their cup and says “drink”, we know what they want with a single word, it’s not elegant, but they’ve got their point across.
Now let’s compare that to a new guitar player that wants to learn how improvise. One of the first things that you’ll learn are “licks”. So what the heck is a lick anyway? A lick is a few notes that are put together from a scale that make up a little phrase. Think of a lick as a word. Just like toddlers start learning words, new guitar players start learning licks. Where do you learn them? The best place to learn licks is from your favorite guitar players, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
A scale is the alphabet
Over the years I’ve received several emails from people that read something like this, “ok, I’ve learned how to play the minor pentatonic scale but I don’t know what to do with it.. I find myself just going up and down the scale when I solo and everything sounds the same”. Can any of you identify with that? If we compare the minor pentatonic scale (or any scale for that matter) to the English alphabet, then when you play up and down a scale, it would be the same as saying, “H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P…. P, O, N, M, L, K, J, I, H”, repeating it over and over again. Obviously you wouldn’t be communicating anything if you did that, you’d only be letting people know that you are familiar with the alphabet. Just like the alphabet provides the boundaries for how words can be created, scales provide the boundaries for the notes that we can play within a key. This gets back to my point that you HAVE to put those notes together into phrases or licks to start communicating “words”.
Licks can be powerful communication tools
Just like the fact that a toddler saying “drink” can be effective in getting a point across, so can a simple lick. B.B. King was always the master at creating a simple (sounding) lick and making it convey powerful emotion in the way that he would bend the string, strike it with his right hand, apply his signature vibrato, and so forth. Just remember, the point isn’t necessarily to play fast, heavy, loud, or even all over the neck of the guitar, the point is to communicate with the audience and to convey an emotion. That takes a lot of pressure off in knowing that you don’t have to be Stevie Ray Vaughan to sound really good in a jam session and to stir emotions. Some of the best jams happen when someone breaks things down to a few notes and a basic melody.
Solos are sentences
So if the alphabet is a scale, and a word is a lick, then what is a sentence? A solo is a series of licks that are arranged in a way of communicating an entire phrase. So instead of saying, “drink” you are now saying something like, “I would like a glass of water with some ice, please!”. You’ve now arranged several words together into a sentence to convey a point in a more articulate way. Remember, you can still be emotional with just the single word, “drink!”, but if you’d like to convey emotion in an articulate way, you would add more words and create a sentence.
We all improvise, every time we speak
Have you ever considered what an incredible art form it is to speak? Speaking is improvising. Creating phrases and arranging words on the fly, no rehearsal required, you do it every day without even thinking about it. Some of us are more articulate than others when we speak. Some of us have funny “isms” that we work into our sentences. Some of us have strong accents or even phrases that are local to our region. Music works the same way. Once you’re comfortable with playing licks (you don’t need many to get started), you can start experimenting with them, playing them slowly, rearranging them, and you’ll start to realize that in a fairly short amount of time you’ll be able to improvise and convey an emotion through your fingers.
“How do I get started?”
The very first thing I would recommend is to become familiar with the minor pentatonic and major pentatonic scales. Why those 2? The pentatonic scales are simplified versions of the major scale. The major scale has 7 notes – do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti (you don’t count “do” again because it’s a repeat, just an octave higher). The major pentatonic scale, however, has only 5 notes (penta = 5). I find it’s easier to start there and eliminate options to start understanding how the whole thing works. Several artists have made entire careers out of the major and minor pentatonic scales!
Once you understand those 2 scales, then you need to learn how to find the key that a song is in. I have a video in the “Blues Lead Course” that is available for Premium members that explains this more in detail, but essentially you are looking for the “root” fret by playing notes up the neck of the guitar on the 1 string (high E) until you lock in on the root fret. Once you figure out the root fret, you now have your boundaries (alphabet) established. You can now start playing licks (words) from within that key. Start with one or two, don’t overwhelm yourself, just try to convey an emotion, try to make your fingers sing with a few simple notes or licks. If you can do this, you have unlocked the mystery of improvising and made it farther than most. Some people struggle for years never understanding this basic concept.
Getting “unstuck” is as simple as getting inspired
I know a lot of you understand all of this and you have applied everything but still feel like you’re stuck. Getting unstuck is as simple as getting inspired. That’s really it. I create new guitar lessons every Friday that are created with the purpose of inspiring, motivating, and informing you to help you get “unstuck”. Even if you don’t like the particular style or song, you should try to learn it, because without fail, you WILL learn something new that you can use. I’ve been playing guitar over 25 years and every time I sit down to learn something I hear another guitar player doing I learn something. Be a sponge, soak it all up and a small percentage will leak into your playing and improvising. The part that leaks out will be yours, the stuff that YOU liked and cared enough about to use it when communicating with your fingers.
The Blues Lead Course that’s available to Premium Members is a great starting place for all of this because I created over 40 different licks that you can use to get things started. I also include 3 different jam tracks played in 3 different keys so that you can see how these licks are applied. Learn more about Premium Membership.