Blues, jazz, and rock guitarists can take both themselves and their listeners into exciting and surprisingly unexpected territories with just one element. It’s an element that musicians spend years developing and perfecting, that can easily run the risk of sounding less artistic and more mechanical if not done right. It’s not uncommon and it’s not a mystery; but, it is a big element that is tremendously rewarding and can lead to lasting impact on the ears and hearts of your listeners. Today’s post is about the musical element of improvisation, which is the act of creating music solos and riffs on the fly.
Just like improvisational acting and comedic performances, musical improvisation takes a lot of courage, especially for those who are shy about being in the spotlight. This ability also requires a broad range of knowledge, playing techniques, and skill.
But, what’s often overlooked are the variables that the improviser has no control of or over—the other people in the band!
Yes, it’s very important that everyone on stage with you are synced up. It’s even more critical that you are comfortable playing with them. As you can probably see, choosing to improvise during a song can sometimes be energizing and good, and yet, under less than ideal conditions, it can be cringe-worthy and bad.
So, where do we go from here?
I hope your brainstorming wheels are turning because as a guitarist, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll dig in and enjoy improvising whole-heartedly once you find your personal preferences and “settings.” That being said, I’m going to share some steps to help you (and your band, if you have one) get started.
- You and your bandmates should begin by picking a song that’s written in the form of a lead sheet, which is music written with just the essentials, i.e., chord names written above the vocal or instrumental melody. This format leaves room for artist interpretation in the areas of chord rhythms, intros, solos, etc.
- After agreeing on a song, and thereby, finding direction so everyone’s on the same page, all band members should work on mastering the song and/or their parts individually, to the point where they feel confident with their ability to play the piece.
- For those who take on solo parts and need to improvise, the pressure may weigh a bit heavier on them. It’s not uncommon to fall victim to a case of overly rambunctious butterflies (also known as nerves), which as many musicians know, can stop a practice rehearsal in its tracks. To say that things can get a little hairy is a complete understatement! To help ease the nerves, here are a few questions that you should think about and discuss with the others, regardless of whether you take a solo or you’re playing backup:
- How long will the other player solo?
- When do I get to play the melody?
- How many times should we run through the lead sheet before ending the song?
Once you’ve mapped out how and when you will improvise, it’s time to dive in and just do it!
You might feel like a fish out of water when playing this way–heck, you and your bandmates will probably struggle to get through an entire song the first couple of times. This is OK. Don’t give up. As time goes by, the freedom to express yourself on the fly with guitar will become second nature.