Improve Your Weaknesses As An Improviser
We are all aware that we have weaknesses as improvisers. Whether it’s our disjointed phrasing, lack of dynamics or poor knowledge of the fretboard, there is something at which we could all be better.
However, the unfortunate truth is most people are very uncomfortable addressing their flaws. Most would prefer to accentuate their strengths to their greatest extents while glossing over their shortcomings in the hopes that no one will notice. This is the fastest way to stall out your progress and find your playing in a rut.
So this begs the question how do we fix our improvisational deficiencies? How can we structure our practice time to productively improve our failings? Simply shedding tunes while thinking “get better at this” won’t do it. We need a plan to make sure our issues are given ample attention. The best strategy I’ve encountered is something I learned from reading books by Mick Goodrick and Hal Crook called “Limitation Practice”.
Limitation Practice works like this: first, pick a topic at which you want to improve. For example, let’s say you aren’t good at using the full range of your instrument to build an arc to your solos. Next, pick a harmonic setting. This could be a one chord vamp, a IIm-V7-Imaj7 progression, a blues chorus or a full tune. Just make sure you have a jam track long enough to blow on it over and over.
So now we’re going to divide the fretboard up into segments in order to force us to work in certain unfamiliar sections. We’ll set an equal time limit for how long we will spend in each section. That time limit could be measured in actual time (minutes) or musical time (measures or choruses). Suppose we decide to improvise over a blues progression. Our plan might look like this:
- Two choruses improvising between open position and the fifth fret.
- Two choruses improvising between the fifth and ninth fret.
- Two choruses improvising between the ninth and twelfth fret.
- Two choruses improvising between the twelfth and fifteenth fret.
- Two choruses improvising freely up and down the neck.
Notice that I always end each session with a period for freely improvising while still focusing on the topic. This is extremely important. Here we get to put everything we’ve worked on together in a context that better mimics an actual performance. This time is also for assessing our progress on the given topic. Are we happy with our improvement or should we run through this process again? Is this particular plan working or do we need to devise a new one?
This technique can be used to cover almost any topic. All it requires is selecting a focus, picking a harmonic setting, placing a series of limitations on what (or how) we are allowed to improvise and then setting a time limit for each. I have used this technique with beginning improvisers to get them acclimated to playing scales in various positions across the fretboard. After teaching the five CAGED shapes, I have students improvise over a major jam track for two minutes in each shape in every key. I even have a series of jam tracks on my YouTube Page that takes you through this process in each key. I call this the “twelve-minute exercise” and if we were in C the plan would look like this:
- Two-minutes in the C shape (or whatever shape is closest to the nut)
- Two-minutes in the A shape
- Two minutes in the G shape
- Two minutes in the E shape
- Two minutes in the D shape
- Two minutes to improvise freely through the major scale.
This concept isn’t just useful for fretboard knowledge or scales; we can cover more advanced and esoteric topics as well with a little ingenuity. Say you want to improve your ability to use dynamics. You could do something like this over Have You Met Miss Jones:
- One chorus playing four measure phrases at a piano volume.
- One chorus playing four measure phrases at a forte volume.
- One chorus playing four measures phrase that begin piano and end forte.
- One chorus playing four measures phrase that begin forte and end piano.
- One chorus playing four measures phrase that begin piano, build to forte and conclude piano
- One chorus playing four measures phrase that begin forte, come down to piano and build back to forte.
- One or two choruses freely experimenting with dynamics.
The amount of ways we could apply this is only limited by our imagination. I’ve personally used this approach to work on building guide tone lines, rhythmic density, phrase lengths, melodic quotation, motivic development and much more. For example, my plan to work on varying my phrase lengths might look like this:
- One chorus improvising for a measure and resting a measure.
- One chorus resting a measure then improvising a measure.
- One chorus improvising for two measures and resting for two measures.
- One chorus resting two measures then improvising two measures.
- One chorus improvising three measures and resting one measure.
- One chorus improvising one measure and resting three measures.
- Two choruses to improvise freely.
Frequently I’ll mash up two limitations to really test myself. If I want to make sure I can utilize my arpeggios all over the neck I might do something like this:
- Two choruses improvising using seventh arpeggios between open position and the fifth fret.
- Two choruses improvising using seventh arpeggios between the fifth and ninth fret.
- Two choruses improvising using seventh arpeggios between the ninth and twelfth fret.
- Two choruses improvising using seventh arpeggios between the twelfth and fifteenth fret.
- Two choruses improvising using seventh arpeggios freely up and down the neck.
It’s a Wrap
The applications of this concept are endless; Hal Crook has entire books based on the idea. The main point is we are not improvising aimlessly, but with a specific tool in mind. If you’re finding your solos to be stale and think you’ve blown every possible idea you can over All The Things You Are, try taking away some of you options rather than adding anything new. I think you’ll be surprised by your improvement. For more ideas on Limitation Practice, I recommend the books How To Improvise by Hal Crook and The Advancing Guitarist by Mick Goodrick.
About the Author
Chris Primeau is a professional guitar teacher based in Austin, Texas and a summa cum laude graduate of the Berklee College of Music. You can learn more about him and his lessons at his Austin Guitar Lessons page.