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Improv 101

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Guitar Inprov. 101
by Shawn Bradshaw

Before getting started with learning how to improvise, learn the scale to the right. For this lesson you will be playing the scale with your first finger at the 5th fret. That would make this an A minor pentatonic (all of the squares would be an A). Think of the scale as the alphabet in a new language. The next step in learning to speak this language is to learn a couple of key words or phrases. e.g. (where's the restroom)

 

A minor pentatonic

A minor pentatonic scale chart

see scales primer for how to read this chart

The following are the your first phrases in this new language. Memorize them so that you do not have to look at the screen to play them.

Lick #1

lick #1 tablature

Lick #2

lick #2 tablature

the first two notes are played by barring your first finger across strings 1 and 2 at the fifth fret.

Practice the following three steps exactly. They may seem very restrictive, but be as creative as you can with the options that I give you. Remember that improvising, and practicing improvisation are two different things. These are some basic steps to get the most out of your vocabulary in your new language. Use the MIDI file to the right as a background to practice with.
Basic Blues
in the key of A

Play MIDI file

1. Play lick #1 along with the Blues MIDI file below. Play using any rhythm that you feel fits the music, but play only the notes of the lick in the order that they are written. Then do the same with lick #2. Make sure that you end your phrase on the last note of the lick. Listen to the example to the right. It's a MIDI file and lacks a little soul...but you'll get the idea.

 

Play MIDI file

2. Once you feel comfortable with playing the lick as written, try playing any note more than once. Still only use the notes of the lick in the order that they are written. Listen to the example to the right.

 

Play MIDI file

3. Next you can repeat any part of the lick. Think of the lick as a journey to the destination of the last note. You can repeat parts of the journey, but just remember that your ultimate goal is to reach that last note. So do not play the notes of the lick backwards yet because your goal is not the first note, it's the last one. Listen to the example to the right.

 

Play MIDI file

Put all of these things together and you will be surprised just how much music can come out of just a couple of small ideas.

Be as creative as possible within these limitations. Remember that you are practicing improvisation. When you are practicing, you are working on a specific idea. The idea here is to play only two licks in as many different variations as possible. Even when you feel that you have exhausted every possibility, keep going.

Once you have practiced the steps above, make sure that you spend some time just exploring the minor pentatonic scale on your own. Try adding notes to the two basic licks. If it doesn't sound good try not to play it again. If it does sound good, try to remember what you did.

The next step will be to learn more licks and mutate them in the same way. There is definitely more to learning how to improvise than learning a bunch of licks, but this is a good place to start.



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