Improve Your Improvising – August 2013

What Is Improvising?

Welcome to the second article about improving your improvisation. Today we are going to consider the most fundamental question we can ask about this topic – What is improvisation?

Clearly, there is no simple answer, rather there are a multitude of musical experiences with some common elements which fall under this banner to a greater or lesser extent. Some of these experiences might include:-

– ‘Playing the changes’ in jazz

– Jamming with friends

– Stringing together a series of pre-learnt licks to form a solo

– Using a set of prescribed notes, rhythms and other musical directions to create an ad hoc part in an ensemble

– Slight off-the-cuff variations in rhythm, embellishments and emphasis whilst playing a rock rhythm part

– Developing a written melody throughout the course of a piece using spontaneous variations

– Creating a freely shifting musical landscape focusing on sound rather than notes or rhythm

– Playing a solo which complements the song perfectly

This is in no sense an exhaustive list, just a few examples of musical situations which may or may not be what improvisation means to any given musician. As has already been mentioned however, there are common threads running through all of these examples:-

– Spontaneity

– Respecting the musical context

– Combining instantaneous and pre-organised elements

– Personal choice / free expression

– Listening and responding appropriately

Whilst these may be present in almost all improvising, specific knowledge and skills are required for particular settings. e.g.:-

– Jazz standards: understanding functional harmony, good knowledge of scales and arpeggios, jazz ‘language’ (i.e. licks, clichés), good ear for complex harmony

– Solos in pop songs: clear and unambiguous harmony, concise development of ideas, strong sense of direction, contributing to the flow and arrangement of the song as a whole

– Free improvisation ensemble: full control of a wide variety of sounds and techniques on your instrument, fearless approach to creating dense and complex sounds, complimenting a constantly shifting array of sounds from other ensemble members

Of course, none of the individual items in these lists are mutually exclusive. There is a lot of overlap between different styles and contexts but each situation does have unique demands on the improviser. Although they share the same basic elements described above, obviously, soloing in a blues band requires very different skills and knowledge to that of improvising developments on a Baroque theme.

We will return to this question regularly over the coming months but for now we will begin looking at the musical context in which many guitarists first encounter improvisation – blues.

We will start simply and add refinements as we progress. The most common, basic approach to improvising on a blues song (standard 12-bar blues) is to use notes from the minor pentatonic scale in the same key. i.e. 12-bar blues in A with A minor pentatonic scale.

The following examples are all given in the key of A and are designed to be accessible by players relatively new to the instrument and improvising. Feel free to substitute different keys, scale positions, tempos, feels, chord sequences etc. These exercises can benefit players of all levels as long as they are adjusted to an appropriate level of difficulty. (NB: This is a truism about almost all instrumental exercises and the ability to adapt anything to focus it on your weaknesses is an invaluable skill to develop).

Here are the basic elements you need to start this exercise:-

12-Bar Blues in A:-

Image of Guitar Tab for a 12 Bar Blues in A


Image of a guitar chord box showing the chord of A Image of a guitar chord box showing the chord of DImage of a guitar chord box showing the chord of E





A minor pentatonic scale:-

Image of A minor Pentatonic Guitar Scale

The first exercise is simply to improvise using the notes of the scale whilst listening to the chords of the 12-bar blues cycle round and round. If you need advice on how to start improvising with the scale notes or ideas about how to create a backing track to improvise over, please have a look at the previous article (July 2013). The following video demonstrates playing the chords of the 12-bar blues and recording them using a looper. It then goes on to give an example improvisation using some of the lessons from last month’s article.

Feel free to use any techniques you know e.g. string bends, glissando, vibrato, pull-offs etc. (Some of these are used in the video) As I stressed last month (and will every month) it is very important to listen closely to the sound created by what you are playing against the backing chords. This is especially important with particularly prominent notes such as long, held notes and notes on the first beat of the bar as these will have a much stronger effect than notes played quickly between two others in the middle of the bar.

Target Notes

We are now going to begin looking at target notes. This is the idea that you aim to play certain notes at given moments in the chord sequence and connect them together with anything you like. A very simple example would be playing the note ‘A’ at the same time that the chord changes to ‘A’. This is a very important notion in much improvisation as it allows you to decide whether to create ‘consonance’ (a harmonious, stable, resolved sound) or ‘dissonance’ (a tense, unstable, clashing sound). More detailed discussion of this subject over the following months.

Getting back to the blues – the last exercise this month is to target the ‘root notes’ of the chords whilst improvising over the 12-bar blues sequence. The root notes are simply the notes which give the chords their names i.e. ‘A’ chord – root note=’A’, ‘D’ chord – root note=’D’ etc. The exercise will therefore entail improvising as in the previous exercise but at the moment at which the chord changes from ‘A’ to ‘D’ you will play the note ‘D’. As the ‘D’ changes back to ‘A’ you will play the note ‘A’ and so on. As these notes are obviously crucial to the relevant chords the effect of this targeting will be to create a consonance (see above) or strong sound each time these notes are correctly hit.

Here is the scale as above with the root notes of the three chords marked:-

Image of A minor Pentatonic Root Notes

Learn the position of these notes in the scale and improvise over the chord sequence. At each point where the chords change play the relevant root note at the same time as the new chord begins. The first video demonstrates this with the chords and scale given above, the second is the same exercise using a jazz 12-bar blues chord sequence in the key of B.

As mentioned in last month’s article, this type of exercise involving following certain rules is very important for developing improvisation skills however, by their very nature they will tend to sound somewhat contrived. This is alright as they are only exercises for practice, when you are improvising in a real-life context these rules can be put aside and natural sounding playing resumed.

Next month we will continue to look at target notes and move on to targeting notes other than the root. Come back on the 1st September for more on improving your improvising.

Jamie Howell has been performing and teaching for over 20 years. He studied jazz at Leeds College of Music and has been running his own jazz, funk and rock bands ever since. He has taught privately and in various institutions and has a special interest in improvisation.

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