What is improvisation? how improvising the guitar actually works? Improvisation is the act of playing the instrument freely without any particular tabs or initial preparation, only from the power of your mind and memory, it can be played solely as solo guitar, without any instrument being played in the background, OR with some background melody and drums for you to follow along. So in order to improvise well on the guitar, or any other instrument on that matter, you have to be more of an advanced player. Improvisation requires the following:
- Know your instrument well – physically (your hands and fingers can move accurately and fast enough to reach the desired notes, for an advanced guitarist), and mentally.
- Can play comfortably – you can grab the guitar and play some songs and exercises easily.
- Know some drills, licks, tricks, and scale-specific patterns, can easily memorize them and are able to incorporate them (not COPY) wisely into your play.
- you do NOT have to be an expert, advanced is sufficient.
- Learn chord progression theory. Some say it's optional, some say mandatory. In my opinion, if you have the opportunity to explore this subject, then do it. It doesn't hurt to learn it, and it will certainly help in other areas of playing as well, besides improvisation. For example if your goal is to become a Blues guitarist, then at some point of your training, you WILL encounter chord progression, because it's one of the most essential subjects for melody and rhythm Blues.
- And most importantly – you've got to know the Scales! Scales are very important overall and you can find more information on the subject here.
- Without all of the above, forget about Improvisation and get back to practicing. Seriously.
Proper Improvisation requires all of the above points, you need a strong memory muscle, good understanding of the musical scales (or at least those relevant to your favorite genre, such as the Pentatonic scale for rock and blues), and have played enough songs and drills to be able to integrate “part” of them, as they are or with a slight variation, into your improvisation. A lot of the licks you hear from someone improvising, is a common lick that have been played previously somewhere, but with a little variation added to it, or maybe on a different key, and if you do have that strong foundation on music theory and the scale, you will be able to:
- Create your own licks and tricks to incorporate into your various improvisations
- Wisely incorporate current popular licks into your improvisation
- Create all kinds of variations and transpositions of popular most used licks or even your own.
So as a beginner, I want you to focus more on the basic drills and getting to know your guitar, and with time and proper training, you will be able to improvise more easily. Jamming on the guitar with a background melody is also a type of improvisation, check the Important Links section and find the backing tracks article where I concentrate recommended and best websites that provide jamming and guitar backing tracks for different genres, styles and keys.
Here is John Petrucci of Dream Theater, one of the greatest rock/metal guitarists of our time, playing purple rain solo on the guitar, while adding his own improvisations (pieces of notes of his own in between the initial original melody of the song) throughout the whole duration of the song. Truly amazing to witness:
This is a great example of a solo and improvisation by a truly very talented professional guitarist, and one of my all time influences, being done with additional music in the background. Usually the music or the melody in the background, unlike in this special example here, is simply chords play or a combination of rhyming notes on a specific scale.
On the other hand, one of the most classical and famous solo guitar improvisation in probably the whole rock history, and I'm not 100% sure that it is an “improvisation” by definition, but nevertheless you will get the point, and it is well worth mentioning here anyways, is the Eruption solo guitar by Eddie Van Halen, it never gets old or boring, watch here:
Other artists worth mentioning here, that I recommend checking out are:
Steve Ray Vaughan (considered by many the greatest guitarist of our time)
Another great “instructional” video I was able to find, that is relevant to improvisation, is by Joe Satriani on how to build melody, and you can watch it here:
These techniques, while being great on building and developing melodies, they are also techniques and tips that you can use to further enhance your improvisation skills. Keep them in mind!
Enjoy and have fun! getting to know few of the greats on playing the guitar is also, an important step ahead of you. It is part of your “music education”. Feel free to discover many more and remember those who touches your soul the most and keep them in mind. You learn more from those who you enjoy listening to.