How do musicians create such intricate lines of music on the guitar? It seems to be completely made up on the spot but in actual fact improvisation is composed ideas from the past being re-organised to a particular musical situation. If you ever talk to a great improvising guitarist they will find it hard to quickly describe what they just did in an improvisation. This is because ideas can come from so long ago or after subconsciously hearing a song on the radio that morning.
Improvisation boils down to a player who has a vocabulary and an understanding of the instances in which the phrase or ideas can be used when improvising. If you study a particular guitarist for long enough or listen to them a lot, you will start to hear their characteristics coming out in your own playing. If you listen to a few different players and study their music then you can create interesting hybrids of styles. Take for instance Marilyn Manson’s guitarist John 5 and his interesting mix of metal and country guitar.
Improvisation can be viewed like speech where if you think about how all the words you say in conversation are not rehearsed. It is only because of our grasp of the language that we are able to manipulate phrases we commonly use to suit the situation. If you talk to a person who is attempting to learn English as their foreign language you will notice they don’t have this flow straight away and can sound very rehearsed in conversation. After years of hearing the English language in use they become more fluent just like the guitarist who develops a vocabulary of licks, riffs, chords and chord progressions.
The way we interact with the music we improvise to can also be compared to a conversation we have with someone. In conversation you wouldn’t just talk at someone for 30 seconds before they even fit a word in, you leave space for their thoughts to be voiced and then reply or expand on the subject in hand. You may talk with more emotion to someone you know well for example excitement may be expressed by a raised pitch in your voice or talking faster with laughing at times. This can be related to improvisation in the sense that our phrases played on the guitar don’t have to be completely steady and don’t have to stay at one volume, we may play really soft or really hard at time to express an emotion.
Someone who when in conversation commonly changes subject may not have enough knowledge to voice an opinion on the subject, so they may change subject subtly to avoid embarrassment. As guitarists we may change subject (phrasing ideas) when we exhaust our vocabulary in an improvisation and this is completely fine as long as we learn how to make that transition smoothly.
If you are interested in learning more with us then please see Be The Guitarist for a complete guide to chords, scales, modes and arpeggios plus understanding the guitar in greater detail. Everything included in the eBook will develop your ability to improvise freely on the guitar.
I hope you enjoyed your lesson,