Today we’ll be answering the question as to whether guitarists absolutely NEED to improvise or not. However, the answer may not be as straightforward as you think.
Although we may immediately conclude that being able to improvise is a good thing - a hallmark of a great guitarist, we first need to understand what exactly we mean when we refer to ‘improvisation’.
What is Improvisation?
When we guitarists think of IMPROVISATION, we immediately imagine ourselves creating melodies, licks, phrases, and pulling notes out of thin air to create music spontaneously - sometimes magically.
While this is a very common and widespread understanding of what improvisation is (it is defined as spontaneous creation after all), that is not all there is to it.
In the music-making process, we aren’t just creating notes (as in pitches), but also rhythms, articulations, variations in dynamics, timbre or sound quality, form (as in the structure of a piece of music), and much more! In this diverse ecosystem of music-making activities, all of them CAN be improvised! What are some other elements of music can we improvise? Let me know in the comments below!
Now let’s take an example - the same jazz melodic phrase can be played fast and rhythmically or in a slow free tempo. It could be played with a harsh and aggressive attack on the strings or in a gentle muted manner. And these are just the extremes! There are an infinite number of variations between them.
Note that none of those examples of improvisation had to do with changing the notes played. Improvisation is much more than that!
Us guitarists have a bad habit of pigeon-holing improvisation to specific genres:
Jazz guitarists improvise! Classical guitarists don’t - they only play from scores!
The correct way to express that sentiment (though in a very long-winded manner), is to say that jazz guitarists spontaneously create melodies and chords while classical guitarists faithfully re-create the written notation while adding their own artistic interpretation of the score, thereby IMPROVISING within what is artistically accepted in that specific genre.
Basically, improvising looks and sounds very different from genre to genre, and we need to understand what improvisation means within the musical style we are playing.
So, Do Guitarists NEED to Improvise?
Improvisation is a human artistic quality and is what separates us as human artists from our machine counterparts. What’s crucial in improvising is to understand what good quality improvising means in your specific genre.
Don’t start playing your own melodies to a Beethoven Sonata, and don’t replicate the guitar solos of a Joe Pass jazz standard. Make good music and improvise with a keen awareness of what your musical culture demands and what your audiences appreciate.
By Neil Chan