“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” –Charlie Parker
As I mentioned in my first article on the Practice Triangle, improvisation is a vital skill to possess, and yet so many people spend way too little time improvising.
A personal story: When I first began playing, I was told that the great players learned by transcribing from recordings. My parents didn’t think to invest in a teacher, so I figured that I was going to be my own teacher. The thought of chords intimidated me, because they involved playing more than one note at a time; I reasoned that it must be easier to start out by learning to play simple solos. I figured BB King might be a good place to start, and scoured a greatest hits collection until I found something that seemed easy enough — the solo at 2:04 in “Why I Sing the Blues”:
I worked that solo out one note at a time until I was in lock-step with the recording. Then, I started using the recording as a backup track as I jammed, using the five or six notes I had learned (which I can now describe as belonging to the d-form of a C minor pentatonic scale). I looped that song for weeks, ignoring the vocals and guitar, pretending it was my own rhythm section. Gradually, through cautious experimentation, I managed to find a few new notes that worked (I was so blown away when I stumbled on the 6!). Eventually, I found a magazine column describing the e-form blues scale shape, which I recognized as being adjacent to where I was spending most of my time, and things just blew up after that point. I began forming an awareness of the whole fretboard, and my vocabulary was exponentially increasing.
But it all started with five notes. When my students begin improvising, I challenge them to pick only a handful of notes on two or three adjacent strings, and make what they can with them. My decision to kick off my entire music career by studying BB King was so fortunate, I don’t know how differently I’d be playing now if I hadn’t, or even if I would have gone far at all. King is a master of expressing, not impressing. If you cannot invent a simple phrase with grace and confidence, how will you aspire to more complex phrases?
Music is a language — not something language-like, but an actual language. How did you learn to speak your native language? Not through grammar lessons and vocabulary drills, as when you learn a second language, but by mimicking the sounds made by the people around you. First you practiced making the sounds, then you eventually learned that they have significance — they carry meaning, they can be altered to convey mood, they can be used to request, assert, bond, mislead.
When you first learn to improvise, you grab a few notes that don’t sound bad in a given context, and just practice using them. Without an extensive vocabulary of licks, you’ll want to focus on rhythm and texture: What rhythms can you map the notes onto? How long of a phrase can you build? When accenting a specific note, or ending a phrase on that note, how does it sound different than other note options? You’re in a very primal phase; you’re simply playing with raw materials, seeing what works.
Eventually, you’ll find that you rely on some note and rhythm patterns more than others, and reuse some quite frequently. Congratulations; you’re building a vocabulary. Along the way, you’ll start to recognize familiar notes and rhythms in other people’s solos. Now you’re starting to really speak the language.
Once you progress past baby talk, more structured learning will take you to the next level. Most hobbyist guitarists don’t get far past this point. Why not make a thorough study of the theory behind improvising? Transcribe solos that test your abilities. Investigate what distinguishes one person’s style from another. Learn commonly used licks and strive to incorporate them into your repertoire. These are your musical grammar and vocabulary lessons.
Check out these performers, whom I consider to be among the most impressive improvisors. This isn’t a comprehensive list, just a starting point for inspiration:
- Billy Gibbons: Perhaps out of place against the others in this list, but I consider his work a model of how to structure a rock solo. One phrase always leading to the next, telling a cohesive story — a “whole chorus” improvisor.
- Sonny Rollins: He never fails to impress me with how freely he plays. Like someone speaking verbally, he sometimes follows a strict narrative, sometimes interrupts himself with a side thought. In the link I gave, you’ll also have the pleasure of hearing another master, Jim Hall.
- Chick Corea: Another performer who seems to exhibit absolute freedom. Every idea he plays is new to me. Amazing from one second to the next.
- Pat Metheny: This is one of the most lyrical performers I have heard. As both a composer and improvisor, he invents phrases I’d give anything to have invented myself.
- John Coltrane: The most obvious choice. It wouldn’t be controversial to claim that he’s the most gifted performer of the last century, and one of the greatest in human history.
Jamie Aebersold is a well-known Jazz publisher and pedagogue who provides learning materials at his site, jazzbooks.com. Check out the “Free Jazz” section for free resources that are packed with information and ideas for practice.
If you’re just beginning to learn to improvise, then try starting the way I did. I’ll give you four notes from the A Minor Pentatonic scale: those on the fifth and seventh frets of the third and fourth strings. Now take those and see what you can make of them while playing over this track: