What is the Key to Learning How to Improvise on Guitar?
What is the Key to Learning How To Improvise?
by Justin Johnson
I was once asked, “Hey Justin, what’s the secret to ripping on guitar solos without any practice? You know… like… I don’t need to know how to play Jazz, I just want to rip out crazy solos on my songs without having to spend a bunch of time working on it.” My first thought was that this person was lazy, and wants something that doesn’t come easy. I mean, it takes years to become fluid on guitar, and even more years to make it look easy enough for people to think they can do it without practice. But it got me thinking… “What is the key to learning how to rip a crazy solo?”
The key for me comes not in the practice necessarily, but in how you approach your practice. I have learned that there are two types of practice… 1) Technique Practice and 2) Performance Practice. I don’t think you can advance quickly or completely without both of these.
When I say, “Technique Practice,” I am talking about the kind of practice where your goal is to break down the fine points of your technique, in order to refine your motions, strengthen good muscle memory, improve rhythm, develop new scale and chord patterns, develop inflections (such as tremolo, string bends, pick attacks, palm muting, etc.), and basically practice the nuances that will improve the sound quality, clarity, and articulation of your playing. While you are practicing technique, don’t get sidetracked and start breaking into your favorite song. There is always a temptation to give up the frustrating practice, and bust into “Crazy Train,” just to remind yourself that the guitar is fun… but remember, the fun part is even more fun if you are getting better in the process!
I read a great analogy for technique practice that has to do with baseball. When you watch a baseball team practice, they don’t just practice playing baseball games over and over again; they drill technique. First you might practice running, then you practice throwing, then catching pop flies, then hitting. The point is that if you practice catching pop flies 1000 times, then when you are in a game-time situation, and someone hits a pop fly, you are going to instinctively get into position, watch the ball, catch it, and throw it to the right base. Why? Because you practiced the technique enough times that it became second nature!
Remember this… you will never purposely play something while improvising that you didn’t practice. Practice the techniques that you want to be able to showcase during your solos, and that is what will come out when you get under the spotlight.
Now that you have gotten some good techniques worked out, some scales under your fingers, some riffs in your pocket, and some chord voicings memorized, it’s time to put the brush to the canvas! It’s not time to take it to the stage, just yet… it’s time to practice taking it to the stage. This is an important distinction. I have seen so many musicians practice scales and exercises for hours and hours and yet they never practice applying their scales and exercises. Then, when they go on stage to perform, they end up playing scales and exercises instead of music.
This performance practice is vital to making music, and absolutely essential to learning how to improvise. Performance practice is the practice that puts you on the spot, and makes you have to play the whole song from start to finish… if you miss a chord, you play through it… if you hit a wrong note, you keep going… if you forget the lyrics, then mumble your way through. These are the things that arise when you practice performing that you never had to deal with when you were practicing technique.
When you are practicing improvising, then practice with somebody. If nobody is around, then practice to a rhythm track. listen to yourself as you improvise, and record yourself if possible. Try to tell a story with your improvisations. Choose a few notes out of your scales, and confine yourself to small “boxes” within that scale. Use that “box” to improvise. This will help you expand your usable vocabulary during improvisational situations. Whatever you do, don’t just run up and down scale patterns and exercises during your performance practice. This is the time that you should be learning how to move your listener emotionally, and how to play seamlessly with a band or ensemble. If you make mistakes, take note of them, and then you will know what techniques to practice later… but don’t try to drill those techniques when you should be practicing performing.
The best way to avoid humiliating yourself on stage is to practice your “performing” out of public sight. In other words, “make your mistakes at home.”
There is an answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article, “How do you rip crazy guitar solos without practicing?” The answer is that you practice technique for hours, then practice applying those techniques in a performance setting, then take note of where you need improvement, then practice those techniques for hours, then repeat those steps several hundred times. After that, you go on stage, rip a crazy solo, and let everyone think you never had to practice!
I have found that rhythm tracks are a great way to get quality performance practice if you aren’t able to get together with other musicians to jam. Plus, it gives you the freedom to make mistakes without the feeling of people looking over your shoulder or criticizing you when you are just getting started with improvisation. I have included several Rhythm Track videos in this article to give you the opportunity to get some performance practice at home. These tracks are all in the key of G, and scale diagrams and patterns have been given in the videos for the G Blues Scale for the 3- & 4-String guitar in Open G Tuning. These tracks are just as effective if you are playing the 6-string, or if you are in a different tuning.
If you want to learn about other techniques for soloing over these rhythm tracks, then don’t forget to check out the other articles here at RootsMusicSchool.org. If you want to learn more scales, scale patters, chord voicings for the 3-string and 4-string guitar, then check out my new book: “Roots Music According to Justin Johnson: Comprehensive Reference of Scales & Chords for 3-String & 4-String Guitar”
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