VIDEO Answer : Solo Guitar – Improvisation?

Question by Max


I’ve watched many of your lessons. They are good tools for learning solo guitar.

I’m an advanced player. However my training and background is in classical music; not jazz. I stopped playing classical music a few years back in pursuit of my real the music that I grew up with. Mancini, Jobin, Montgomery etc.I have studied with professional jazz players so it’s not as if I have no background in theory.

I have strong playing technique. I am a soloist.I preform at at restaurants and art galleries. All of my music is chord melody. It took me a year or more to learn and play an hours worth of music. I play a lot of Brazilian stuff i.e. Jobin not Villa Lobos.I found that my tunes needed a break midway and what was lacking was a short improv section.So off I went in pursuit of learning to improvise. My goal was not to be Charlie Parker but I found out quickly that there is no middle ground to learning the fundamentals. There really is quite a bit of material to memorize and practice in order to be able to speak musically.

From my studies I found that there are several ways of playing over chord changes. One method would be using modes, the second would be the “key center” method and the third is by ear.

I use ‘All The Things You Are‘ as study tool. I break the tune down into chord groups maj,minor and dom.The chords I use are more elaborate. I use this as a basis for approaching improvising. Where I get lost is deciding what approach to take. Staying within the tonal centers ie 1,3,5,7 of a given chord sounds boring. When I take off using a mode or the appropriate scale for a chord I stumble an get lost.Is this normal? Is my thinking incorrect? I watched you two “learning licks” videos and I agree totally with you. Maybe I’m experiencing the same frustrations as I did as a child when I was learning to speak.

M-A’s Answer:

Hello Max. After giving your question(s) some thoughts, I finally decided to shoot a quick video to answer. I was inspired! (-:

So, if you’d like to further ask or comment, on the video, please feel free to do so using the comment form at the bottom of this page. Here’s the video:


Old Comments for VIDEO Answer: Solo Guitar – Improvisation?

Apr 28, 2012
by: John Riemer

Sometimes the guitar is an impediment to expression…try singing the melody with a backup track and on successive passes sing variations. Don’t be restricted by chops or lack thereof when finding the the heart of your expression. Pick up the guitar and try playing what you just sang.
Nice job on the make-do video…it was appropriate to be expedient. ]]>

Apr 28, 2012
Getting There
by: Jeff Scott

From your comment it seem that you tend to get lost if you abandon the changes. That tells me two things: First that you are not hearing the changes and second that your technique is getting in the way.
So here are a couple of suggestions.
Practice playing the Tune three times slower and then fill the voids with arpeggios or little snippets of scales.
Learn your minor 7 and major 7 arpeggios in several positions. learn your Jazz melodic minor scale and get used to using it over dominant type chords and resolving it to the home chord.
Record your chord melody playing and then use those recordings as jam tracks to improvise these things over.
lastly set your guitar down and sing an improvisation over the changes that you hear in your head.
As a classical player you know how much time it takes to get a new piece to sing (be musical)- usually a year or so. It will take that long for every tune you work on.
The good news is that progress on one tune will show up in other tunes also. ]]>

Apr 28, 2012
Letting Go !
by: Jerry Jazz

Dear M-A,

Thank you for your spontaneous video. I have been playing guitar for decades (started in Montreal) but jazz guitar for only about 5 years. My teacher (Ben Heywood, London Ontario) is providing me with a multitude of tips that I have summarized below:

1. “Let Yourself Go”

Improvisation is rarely successful in the presence of excessive stress due to performance anxiety or lack of knowledge and technical skills. It must be challenging, exciting, relaxed, and fun for the player and for the audience. To reach the needed state of relaxation, you must however possess enough musical knowledge and technical skills to have the confidence to “Let Go” – like a skilled trapeze artist. Yet trapeze artists do not perform physics calculations before taking their leap of faith. Over-thinking about musical theory only delays spontaneity, gets in the way, and it can produce an audible lag during play.

2.Tell a Story – Musical “shaping”

Every good story (and joke) has a “shape” or profile. An introductory section usually develops the characters in the plot of a story, as well as their inter-relationships. This gradually builds up and evokes reader emotion as the characters begin to then interact with each other either positively or negatively. Finally, the story reaches a climax. Subsequently, the characters begin to resolve their differences (denouement).
In music, the build up/down can occur melodically or rhythmically or both.

3. Directionality (Gravity or Lift)

You can evoke good audience reaction by playing melodic lines that have a clear semi-predictable path either downward (gravitational) or upward (uplifting) transitions between notes. These notes can embellished in a small repetitive sequence or motif or chromatic small steps.

4. Guide Tones, Arpeggios, and Scales

Theoretical over-analysis of individual chords “gums-up” the spontaneity of play needed for instant creative improvisation. It is best to view chord changes as a group with a tonal (or key) centre. Think of multiple bars as a package converging naturally to resolving stable focus. For example a “Dm7b5 – G7b9” cadence often leads to a “Cm” resolution. In this case, this chord sequence should trigger the destination thought of a Cm (harmonic) scale.

It can be helpful to associate scales with chords. There are plenty of look-up Tables and books that shown these chord-scale pairings and explain the rationale and theoretical foundation. For example a D7#11th chord can be paired up with an Am melodic scale. This provides access to a series of notes that go very well with that chord.

In summary, a good soloist must be knowledgeable enough to be confident and relaxed while improvising with a playful attitude and good taste.

J. Battista
London Ontario

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