I believe that true guitar mastery can be directly judged by a player’s ability to improvise. You can learn all the technique you want, know all the theory, be able to play any song beautifully -no matter how technically difficult- with all its dynamic subtleties, and to me you’d be merely good. But to be great, in my mind, requires you to be able to play something original, something from the bottom of your heart. And what better way to do this than to make it all up on the spot? This requires true mastery of one’s instrument.
The essence of improvisation is to be able to take a musical idea from your head and translate it accurately and instantly to the fretboard. It sounds simple, but it is far from easy. It takes years to become truly proficient at this. True mastery comes from knowing your instrument well enough so that musical ideas can flow freely, without being hindered by lack of technique or not knowing your way around the fretboard.
So how do we go about mastering improvisation? How do we master our fretboard?
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Listen to your `inner jukebox’
First and foremost, improvisation requires you to have a musical idea in your head. Without the idea, there’s nothing to play. We all have an inner jukebox. That bit in our brains that can `hear’ songs or bits of music. If you have ever had a song stuck in your head, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. That’s when your inner jukebox is being annoying. But it can also help you. Your inner jukebox is the source of your musical ideas. All you have to do is listen to it.
How do we connect to it? Here’s a simple exercise for doing melodic improvisation with your inner jukebox. Listen to a song, preferably one that you (would) love to improvise over. At the bit where you’d start your solo, just imagine the solo in your head. Listen to the music and let the ideas come to you. Each chord or bar can provide you with a new idea. Imagine you are playing the solo, or even better, hum it out loud if you can. Can you do it? Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could instantly translate this solo to your guitar?
If you didn’t `hear’ much then maybe you’re forcing it. Let the ideas come to you. If you’re just starting out, or are exploring a new musical genre, immerse yourself in the music. Listen to as many songs and artists as you can get hold of, but most of all, enjoy listening to them. You are `practising’ or training your inner jukebox.
It is possible to improvise without listening to your inner jukebox. You can let your fingers run over some scale, or play some chops or licks that you have been practising until you could play them automatically. This is called noodling and many players do this, whether it is intentional or because they don’t know how to tune into their inner jukebox. Have you ever tried to make something up without having any inspiration? Me too. We all noodle. And sometimes it can sound quite nice. But it is not real improvisation.
In a way, tuning into and listening to your inner jukebox is the easy bit of improvisation. All that is required on your behalf is to listen to a lot of songs you like and let your mind sort out the rest. In the next post, I talk about learning to actually play what you can hear with your mind. This is the bit that takes hours and hours of practice. There is no magic bullet, but I can at least tell you what has worked for me.
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