Improvisation can be a very daunting concept for beginners. If you want to play your scales faster, you can practice with a metronome. If you want to learn cooler chords, you can look them up in books (or websites). However if you want to improvise, what do you do? What can you practice? What is that “on” switch? It’s different from scales and chords because it’s almost entirely mental.
So how do you “practice” improvisation? Yes, you can practice scale patterns, but those are scale patterns. You can work on your technique, but that’s technique. Scales, chords, technique, etc, are not improvisation. They are a means of transferring your improvised ideas from your head to the audible world. You could improvise with a single note by playing that note however you like, however long you like, at whatever rhythmic pattern you like. You can create a beautiful melody off the top of your head but play it with terrible technique. Does that mean your improvisation is bad? No, that means your technique needs work.
My point is, don’t think that you can’t be “good” at improvising if you don’t know the most hip scales, or have the most amazing technique. Those concepts have their place, and can open new doors for your creative thinking, but in order to really start with improvisation, you have to use your own head.
Think before you shred
I’m absolutely serious when I say that the most useful way to polish up your improvisation is to improvise in your head all the time. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had melodies playing through my head constantly, melodies that I had made up. When I’m taking a walk, sitting on the subway, or grocery shopping, I sometimes entertain myself by thinking of a chord pattern and a melody to go along with it. Now, I’m not talking about composing symphonies or analyzing atonal theory, I’m talking about whatever comes to mind. Everyone gets songs that other people wrote stuck in their heads, why not your own material?
Here’s the catch. Try not to think too hard about it. The creative side of your brain will freeze in it’s tracks if the analytical side comes knocking. Don’t think of it as an exercise or a chore, just let it happen on it’s own. Maybe you heard a sweet bass line in a song recently, and you can’t get it out of your head? Good, keep it in your head, play around with it. Think of your own spin on it, let it repeat forever. This is your head and you can do whatever you want. Go ahead and remix some Justin Bieber, or come up with a hip hop version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. No one can hear your ideas but you, so if you think it sounds stupid, why should you care?
In your head, your fingers don’t get sore, your embouchure doesn’t weaken, and your technical ability doesn’t get in the way. Think out your wildest musical fantasies. What would you want to hear if you took a guitar solo in front of 50,000 screaming fans? A violin solo at Carnegie Hall?
For me, it’s something that I can’t help. I don’t sit down on the train and think “I’m going to write a melody in my head today”, it just happens. It’s the same as getting lost in a daydream. I’m not saying that you will have the exact same experience right away, but I’m willing to bet that if you think creatively long enough, you also won’t be able to help it.
And the reason is…what?
Think about it. Your brain is the source of all improvisation, so it only makes sense that you should start there. All the scales in the world won’t do you any good unless you have improvised music running through your head. Someone who aces AP English can still flunk out of Creative Writing. The idea is that you will eventually have thousands of new ideas flying through your head constantly, so that when it’s your turn to blow people’s faces off at a jam session, it’s just a matter of unleashing those ideas with the scales and chords you’ve been drilling.
If you have any thoughts, opinions, criticisms, or questions on the matter, feel free to comment or shoot me an e-mail. If you like where this series is going, please subscribe to keep updated. Happy thinking.