Does your improvisation on the guitar sound like a scale going up and down, or even worse, random notes with no sense of cohesion?
If you already know what it takes to improvise on the guitar, but feel stuck rehashing the same ideas, the following exercises are designed to get you thinking in different ways. Ways that lead to new ideas and different outcomes.
If you have never improvised on guitar before, I suggest that you go through this lesson first, get the hang of guitar improvisation, and come back to these guitar improvisation exercises later to broaden your horizons.
Exercise 1: Intervallic Leaps
When we start improvising, it seems natural to play notes that are close to each other in the scale pattern that we are using.
This is not a bad thing, and playing notes that move by step (one or two frets) is necessary to keep cohesion in the music. Notes that are close to the tonic are also important at the start of an improvisation, since they help establish the tonic note.
However, if we always play notes that move by step, our solos will lack variety (unless this is compensated for by something else, such as rhythm, which we’ll explore in exercise two).
In this exercise, you are given an introduction to a guitar lick using the A minor pentatonic scale, to which you have to come up with five different endings.
However, for the first note of each ending (the first note of bar 2), you are restricted from move by step, either forward or backward.
Thus, the first note of the second bar in each of your endings is going to be a wide interval. The rest of the intervals can be narrow or wide, but that one note will force you to start thinking in terms of wider intervals than the ones you’re probably using right now.
Exercise 2: Rhythmic Variation
In the previous exercise, we focused on the pitch of the notes. In this one, we’ll focus on the other main element of melody: rhythm, the duration of the notes in relation to each other.
Here you are given a series of notes of the same duration. Your task is to change the duration of the notes to create rhythmic interest.
You are given an example of how to do this, following which you should come up with two variations.
The purpose of this exercise is to get you to understand how changing the rhythm can change the whole melody, even if you’re using the same notes and in the same order.
You’ll notice that your two variations, together with my example, are actually three different melodies.
Note: Since you’ll be changing the note durations, what you create can be longer or shorter than four bars. For instance, in the given example, the melody is three bars long.
Exercise 3: Phrasing techniques
In this exercise, you are given a melody that sounds OK but can sound much better if phrasing techniques are applied.
Your job is to apply phrasing techniques where you feel appropriate.
The techniques you should use are, namely,
- String bending: If two notes are a tone away from each other (ex: the last note of Bar 1 and the first note of Bar 2), you can bend the first note into the second with a full bend instead of picking them both. Since the given melody is in the minor pentatonic, semitones are not present, so half bends are not an option here.
- Vibrato: Apply vibrato mainly to long notes.
- Hammer ons and pull-offs: Learn more about this technique here.
Exercise 4: Call and response (two bars)
In the following three exercises, you are given half a melody (the call), which you should answer with another half (the response) that fits.
Your task is to make sure that what you come up with is actually an answering phrase, not something completely random that uses the same scale.
Now, you may be asking: How will I know if what I come up with is the “real” answer?
As with anything related to composing, songwriting, or improvising music, the final judge is your ear.
If you hear a satisfactory reply, then it is. If you don’t, it isn’t.
Exercise 5: Call and response (four bars)
This exercise is like the previous, but this time you’re given a two-bar melody to be answered by another two bars.
Exercise 6: Call and response (eight bars)
Another call-and-response exercise, this time you are asked to answer the first four bars to create an eight-bar melody.
Exercise 7: Free flow
In every exercise given so far, you had one or more restrictions, rhythmic or melodic.
You either had to answer a given tune, use given notes, use wide intervals, etc.
Restrictions are a great exercise for improvisation since they force you to focus on what you need to improve.
However, the goal of these restrictions is to fix or improve something so that when you’re improvising, you can play without restrictions.
Thus, in the last exercise, you’re going to do the opposite of the other exercises and improvise without restrictions.
All you have to do is follow these instructions:
- Choose the scale pattern you know best (for most of you, this is going to be the minor pentatonic, the one we have used in these exercises. It is important that you use a scale pattern you already know well because we don’t want the scale to be a restriction, but the opposite: a familiar pattern you use so that your mind can be free to create).
- Choose a note to start from (usually the tonic note, e.g., A in A minor).
- Play whatever comes to your mind for a long period of time (5 minutes or more). The reason you should spend some time doing this is that as the minutes pass, your brain will start getting bored with the same ideas and will start to come up with new ones. I use this brain hack when I find myself running out of ideas.
- Free flow doesn’t mean noodling aimlessly. To be effective in your practice, you should be focused on creating beautiful tunes.
- You will make mistakes. A ton of them. Some melodies will fall flat. Others will sound stupid. Sometimes you’ll mess up the rhythm. But as long as you are focused on what you’re doing, the mistakes themselves are part of the learning process. Your mind is registering what doesn’t work, what makes a melody fall flat or sound stupid, and what messes up a rhythm.
Conclusion: On scales and broadening horizons
In each of these guitar improvisation exercises, the only scale that has been used is the A minor pentatonic.
The reason for this is that it’s the most commonly used scale and the one everyone learns first.
I wanted you to use a scale you are familiar with so that you can focus on the intended outcome of each exercise.
However, if you only use pentatonic scales to improvise, another way of thinking outside the box is by starting to use other scales such as the blues scale, the minor natural (my favorite for improvisation purposes), and the harmonic minor scale.
These scales have something that pentatonic scales don’t: notes that move by one semitone (one fret). These notes are a very good source for creating emotion in music, and once you’re fluent in improvising with pentatonic scales, adding other scales to your palette will broaden your horizons even further.
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