10 Quick Tips About Improvisation

hiram bullock guitar

10 quick tips and a couple of videos about the legendary art of improvising on guitar.

1. Play music, don’t play scales

If you’re still thinking in terms of scale patterns, try transferring your focus to the actual notes you’re playing. The pattern should always be a means to make music, not the music itself.

2. Information is only truly useful when it becomes second nature

Ne’er a truer word said. If I ask you to play me some licks in A minor pentatonic you could probably do it without thinking; but if I ask you to play some runs using the Lydian b7 scale in Eb then you‘d probably have to think about it. Ideally you want everything to be as second nature to you as A minor pentatonic is.

3. Relax

You’ll never play your best stuff until you feel truly relaxed on stage. If you’re nervous you’ll tense up, lose confidence and retreat to well-worn licks on very familiar territory. Once you’re relaxed on stage you’ll be playing all those unrepeatable bedroom moments.

4. Play for your audience

Remember that the majority of your audience probably isn’t guitarists, they’re people that like music; they don’t know why they like it but they do. Audiences get off on tension, release and melody; guitarists get off on technique, fast playing and an unnecessary amount of notes. Try to create a balance so that your audience doesn’t get turned off.

5. Listen to the band

Your solo will have a much better feel if you listen to what your bandmates are doing instead of just wailing over the top. In turn, they’ll listen to what you’re doing and change it up accordingly. Check out the late, great Hiram Bullock solo on this Marcus Miller track for a great example of band members listening to each other. [Starts at 1:50]

6. Use dynamics

Great explanation of soloing dynamics by John Mayer:

7. Leave space

Improvising is like having a conversation with someone, and if you don’t leave any space, you don’t give the other person (the audience) time to appreciate or digest what you’re saying.

8. It’s all about the tone

If there’s one thing that’s unforgiveable in a solo it’s having a shitty tone. Your tone has to be good otherwise you’re making yourself (and your audience) work twice as hard.

9. Take risks

Step outside your comfort zone now and again, especially if you know the tune well. Remember, the right note is always a semi-tone away.

10. Be humble

If people make a point of coming up to you after a gig to say thanks then you’re probably doing most of the above – just don’t let it go to your head. The best guitarists are some of the humblest people you’ll ever meet.

Feel free to leave your tips in the comments.


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