Learning How To Improvise
Just as learning how to play an instrument is a long-term project, so is learning how to solo or improvise. Practicing your technique, listening to and transcribing the music you like and learning a bit of music theory are the keys to becoming a good soloist. Here is a quick summary:
Scales and arpeggios are the basis for all solos. Learning them will open all kinds of creative doors. The most important scales to learn at first are the major, natural minor and minor pentatonic scales, not necessarily in that order. Practice all your scales and arpeggios with a metronome, this way, you will be able to accurately monitor your progress. Practice your scales in all octaves and positions on your instrument. Using the cycle of fifths to practice is a great way to learn your scales in all twelve keys. If you are already familiar with the major, natural minor and minor pentatonic scales, there are many more advanced scales to tackle such as the harmonic, melodic and jazz minor scales, the seven modes, the diminished and augmented scales... just to name a few!
A fun and effective way to learn and practice your scales is to try playing them with a backing track. There are tons of great backing tracks in all keys and in a variety of styles on YouTube. Try searching something like “backing track in E” for example and you’ll find a ton of them. Once you have memorized the pattern of a particular scale, try breaking it down and experimenting with it over the backing track. Use your ear and try to find notes that you think sound good with the chords you hear in the backing track. Make mistakes, hit “wrong notes” - it is okay. That’s how you learn.
Listening and Transcribing
How do you learn to play like your favorite musician? You listen to them! Who are your favorite musicians? Get as many of their recordings as possible. Listen to them carefully. Analyze them. Read about them in books, magazines and on the Net. Then, when you are ready, transcribe them. Transcribing is the key to sounding great. Transcribing is basically learning a solo, either by ear or from musical notation or tablature, memorizing it, then eventually adding it to your own repertoire.
Try this four-step process for learning a solo: Step one is to learn and memorize the solo. Try learning the solo by ear. If you are struggling, try to find tabs for it or a YouTube tutorial (or consult a teacher ;) ). Once you have learned the solo, practice it on your own with a metronome until you have it up to tempo. You can also slow the original recording down either by using software or adjusting the speed setting on the YouTube video and gradually increasing the speed. Step two is to practice the solo with the original recording at full tempo. Step three is to find a backing track for the solo and try playing along with it. The final step is to play the solo with another musician or live band.
You can transcribe whole solos or you can transcribe small sections or licks that you really like. You can practice these solos in different positions on your instrument and in all twelve keys. Don’t worry, just because you learn other people’s solos, it doesn’t mean you will sound like you are copying them. The more you learn and play, the more you will start to develop your own style. Music is said to be like a language and each style of music is its own dialect. If you don’t learn the existing language, you will never be able to speak it, not to mention create with it!
Learning about harmony is a very important part of becoming a good soloist. When you transcribe a solo, you should always learn the chords that the solo is played over. Each chord is part of a specific key and each key has its own particular scales and arpeggios. Learning which scales go with which chords and how these chords are constructed is a big part of advanced improvising.
Learning how to improvise can seem like a daunting task. It is definitely a bit scary at first. You have to get comfortable with the idea of jumping into the void. In a sense, I think it is very similar to learning how to speak. Don't we in fact improvise all the time when we converse? We don't necessarily know what we are going to say to a given person in a given situation but if we know the language and we converse often, we can usually successfully communicate our thoughts. To be able to do this on an instrument is really the ultimate goal.