The skills needed for learning improvisation on fingerstyle guitar are far less tangible than those for learning specific techniques or songs. Improvisation is a unique skill that is cultivated through prolonged listening and intentional creative practice. I know of some musicians who have played for many years, can play brilliant pieces with remarkable technique, but are stumped when it comes to improvisation - and the reason is simply because they never developed that path in their musicianship journey! Well, do you think that improvisation is an essential skill for a musician? I’d love to know your perspectives so do let me know in the comments!
With all that said, is it possible to learn improvisation in a systematic way? Well, yes and no. ‘Yes’ because I am going to outline 3 progressive steps you can take to hone your skills in improvisation. ‘No’ because these steps will never be as prescriptive as an instruction to form a specific bar chord, or play a rhythm with a specific strumming pattern.
Learning improvisation is similar to how a young child first learns a language. They learn through constant exposure, absorption, and practice. They aren’t taught the grammar of the language explicitly, but simply learn how the language works from experiencing how others use it to communicate. The same process happens when learning to improvise. So now, let’s get to the steps!
Step 1: Imitation
The first step is to listen and imitate as closely as possible how others improvise. Rather than going straight to expert guitar solos, I would recommend searching for videos of guitarists casually jamming with each other. Find out what key they are playing in, what chord progression they are using, slow down the video, and copy note-for-note what the melodic soloist is doing. Try to start with simpler chord progressions so you don’t get lost in the music too often. You’d be surprised how much material can be improvised over even a simple two-chord progression.
Next, find live performance videos that include an improvised guitar solo section and imitate them. I suggest staying away from pre-composed guitar solos, not because they aren’t good musically, but because these are usually carefully crafted over a long period of time with much precision that to improvise something to that level of sophistication on the spot is very difficult.
This process is an essential component when training to be a jazz musician, where improvisation is an integral and key aspect of the music. No matter what genre you play, you can use this process to learn the dos and don’ts of improvisation from other musicians.
Step 2: Exercises
The next step is to work on musical exercises that will lay the groundwork for spontaneous creation later on. From the recordings and videos you had been imitating in step 1, retain the basic structure such as chord progressions, meter, tempo, and key. You’ve basically got yourself a backing track. You can record this chord progression on your phone and set it in a loop, use a loop pedal, or simply play over the original video but be conscious not to be distracted by the main melody.
Now, start to play scales, intervals, and formulaic patterns over this backing track of yours. These will form the building blocks from which your improvisations will take shape. When you reach the creation stage in step 3, you’ll be blending in snippets of these exercises with the original melodies you were imitating, as well as entirely new musical material that you spontaneously create without even thinking about it. It’s going to be great fun, but it takes work!
Step 3: Creation and Evaluation
The last step is to start creating melodies in real time. Start with soloing over the same chord progressions used by the musicians you were imitating. The key here is to re-purpose the melodic patterns and rhythms used by those musicians into new musical material that is both similar and original at the same time. Make use of the scale patterns and intervals you had practised in step 2 to variate the melody. This way, you’re taking in healthy musical influences from established musicians but making it your own - the key here is to not worry about making mistakes! Challenge yourself to keep creating music for 10 minutes straight without stopping.
Once you’re comfortable with those chord progressions, start creating your own chord progressions and unique melodic patterns and rhythms. This is a lifelong process that will take time, but the rewards are incredibly satisfying.
Now the key to this step, and it won’t work if you skip this part, is to evaluate yourself. You need to record yourself improvising and get feedback on it from fellow musicians and yourself. Self-evaluation through listening to your own recordings will be extremely useful in developing an awareness of what you did well and not so well in your improvisation.
However, no amount of self-evaluation can replace the benefit of evaluation by a different set of ears. Someone else’s perspective can give you valuable feedback on what sounds good and what doesn’t without being coloured by either unhealthy pride or self-doubt.
So try your best to find fellow musicians who will be willing to take the time to evaluate your attempts at improvisation!
These 3 steps chart out your learning journey toward being an improvising guitarist. Just like how a child learns a language, it takes time and doesn’t happen overnight. What it does take, however, is consistency. You need to constantly listen, absorb, and apply. Trust me, you will see the results!
By Neil Chan
The ideas and contents of this post are inspired by the book 'Facing The Music' by Huib Schippers.