Improvising on the Guitar

In the early stages of playing guitar you will be focused on learning the "mechanics" of playing. How to form chords, develop picking techniques, learning scales and riffs and all the basics. The "meat and potatoes" of guitar.
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Copy Others

Then, as your skills increase and the basics become second nature, your focus begins to shift to "emulating" other players. Copying songs, chord progressions, licks and riffs that other guitarists play.

Eventually all the "emulated" material becomes slowly ingrained into your own playing. The licks, riffs,  scales, modes and chords that were initially copied, are re-born and begin to emerge into what becomes your own unique "style".

The absolute "nirvana" for a guitar player is to reach the apex of emulating and cross the threshold into improvising. To reach that point where you can speak creatively in your own voice.

From Copying to Improvising

Crossing that threshold, however, is not like crossing a state line where one minute you are in this state, and the next minute you are in another. The line from emulating to improvising is a blurred, gradual process and one that you may not even realize you are crossing at the time.

But crossing that line is what we all, as musicians, strive to achieve. To finally reach that point were we can sit down with a group of our peers and make a musical contribution to the whole.
65 d5 2 picWhat can a beginning guitarist do to start working toward crossing that line? First and foremost, focus with laser vision on emulating others. Copy every note, lick, riff and chord of the artists that inspire you.

It may sound contradictory, but the road to playing and improvising in your own style is paved by relentlessly copying the style of others.

Jam with Recordings

Once you have copied a lot of licks and riffs, a good first step is to play along with recordings of songs that interest you and just "jam" with them. Figure out what key they are in and play along using things you have copied in the past.

Play along with no thought as to right or wrong, turn off the "internal editor" and just play for the fun of it. Amazingly, when you allow yourself to just play without over-thinking things, some really cool things can happen.

If you allow yourself to play along, just like you were in the studio or on stage with the artist, and simply "feel" the music, before too long new ideas can hit you and suddenly you hear yourself playing  things that you never have before. Almost out of nowhere, new licks and riffs roll off your finger tips.

Whether you realize it or not, you are now crossing that line. You are improvising.

In an earlier article we discussed allowing yourself to enter periods of "Doodle Time" (see "Practicing on Guitar"). Doodle time is nothing more than free form playing, with no rules and no thinking. Just allowing whatever wants to come out of your fingers to come out, with no concern for right or wrong.
lessons 1In a sense, improvisation is controlled "Doodle Time". Controlled only to the extent that you are doodling within the parameters of whatever key the song is being played in.

In addition to playing along with your favorite songs there are various jam along materials available. Many are genre specific so you can find jam along CDs and tracks for rock, blues, country styles and more.

As much as you can advance your improvisational skills by playing along with recordings or jam tracks, there is absoultely no substitute for actually getting out and playing with other musicians.

Jam with Others

The sense of camaraderie and satisfaction of sitting down with a group and creating music is like no other, and this is where your improvisational skills will have a chance to shine and flourish. There are times when "magic" hits and you experience a "high" that is unequalled by any drug.
lesson 2I have always found that when improvising with a group on stage, that I play must best stuff when I don't think about what I am doing. When I can just let myself "feel" the music.

Feel - Don't "Think"

Conversely, there are shows when I am thinking about what I am going to play next, planning on what licks would sound cool - and invariably, that's when I play my worst stuff. It sounds, to me, contrived.

It is my sincerest belief that "thinking" is the enemy of "creating". You can't "plan" on creating something. Creation is something that happens by "allowing" it to happen. It can't be forced.

So if learning to improvise on guitar is a goals of yours, start by copying others, then play along with the recordings of artists that inspire you, then get with a group of other like minded musicians and let it happen. You won't regret a minute of it.

Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions!

Keith Dean

keith01 lowKeith Dean is founder of and a 30 year veteran of stage and studio. He toured extensively as a road musician throughout the US and Europe, was a former lead guitarist for Jason Aldean, and has shared stages with Little Big Town, Wild Rose, Winger, Confederate Railroad and more. He is a published songwriter, owned and operated a successful music store, and has instructed numerous students in guitar.

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