Some Thoughts on Improvisation

Literally, volumes have been written on the subject of improvisation. These are some of my thoughts on what I find to be one of the most pleasurable and satisfying aspects of playing music.

Be Musical:

Being musical is a very difficult statement to try to quantify for everyone. The reason of course is that there are so many different types and styles of music that it is almost impossible to make a definitive statement about what being musical means. But regardless of style, when I think of being musical, I think of the following as tools one can use very effectively to become more musical in their approach. In the coming months, we will offer some lessons on all of these points.

1) Listen to the song

The song’s the thing. So many players just listen to themselves that they forget that what they play must fit into the framework of the song. Listen to the other players. Think about what you can do musically to enhance the song and compliment their playing. Follow your rhythm section. Work WITH them. If you listen to the greatest bands, you will find that each song has flow and purpose. The musicians have developed synergies with one another that are to be found in every song. Great players know this. Great players listen to one another.

2) Think dynamics

Just because its time for your solo does not mean you should just turn up your volume and wail away. Let volume be another tool. Play ..  soft..hard     loud..quiet     high..low     saturated.. lean. Create spaces. The notes you don’t play are just as important as those you do play. Artists know of this as negative space. Listen to Larry Carlton. One of his many great abilities is his mastery of dynamics.

3) Develop musical ideas

Rather than just playing up and down a scale or playing all of those standard licks, come up with a hook, a small melody. Even 2 notes. Develop it. Keep coming back to it. It’s like taking the listener (and yourself by the way) on a journey that weaves in and out of its original starting place. It will cause you to be more intentional in your playing rather than just aimlessly executing a series of notes that say so much less. I like to think about it as telling a story with the notes.

4) Think tension and release

Music is very much about tension and release. Do you remember the first time you listened to a diminished chord? If you are like me, you might have said .. yikes .. that’s a weird and ugly sounding chord. By itself, to my ear, it is. But, (depending on the progression) the diminished chord moves beautifully to a Minor 7 or Major 7 or any number of chords that are easier on the ear. Tension .. release. When played together, these chords make for very interesting musical statements smoothly leading the ear from one place to the next. The same is true in improvisation. Go out there .. play a wrong note. By wrong I mean a note that is dissonant and clashes with the song. Then play it again and resolve it to a note that is more melodic. This is actually a great trick if you make a mistake while soloing, play that mistake again and what you are doing is being musical IF you resolve it properly. (I have often not, but hey .. one learns by ones mistakes). Do this often enough and you will find yourself actually looking for those tense notes that resolve nicely. You will find this to have enormous impact on your playing ability and also on the amount of freedom you have on your instrument as you will no longer think about those notes as mistakes but rather as opportunities to make an interesting musical statement.

Listen to Pat Metheny. I can’t say enough about Pat Metheny. It is my opinion that years from now, musicians, not just guitar players, will look back at much of his work and consider it genius.


Technique is a wonderful tool. Speed, used effectively, can be hypnotizing. There are some marvelous examples of guitar players with great technique who are also very musical. John McLaughlin, Steve Morse & Al DiMeloa (especially his earlier work) are just a few names that come to mind. These players by and large take technique to the limit yet have the ability to remain interesting and musical. On the other hand, there are many incredible technical players out there who in my opinion have allowed their great technique to compromise their musical output. You listen to one song and are amazed. Then the next is just more of what you just heard in the first song. A constant barrage of notes with little thought given to melody, dynamics and the whole concept of tension and release.

Don’t get me wrong. Great technique is a good thing. Just don’t expect technique to make you more musical. Use it as a tool to achieve more complex musical elements. Consider this. Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven are considered by many to be the greatest improvisers of all time. All three had incredible technique but all three achieved levels of musicality not realized by many other human beings. They were always musical.


By choices I mean having an ever expanding musical vocabulary and being able to play that vocabulary on different parts of the neck. Having command of a large number of scales and chords is very empowering to your ability to improvise. Think about this. If you are like many guitar players, the first scale you started soloing with was a pentatonic scale probably in the key of A. When your solo would come, you would play up and down that scale and soon find that you were running out of idea. I remember the thought of playing a 30 second solo to be very intimidating. Then, you learn a new scale that works against the same chord progression. Now you have 2 choices, 2 colors to paint with if you will. The more choices you have, the more freedom you have and the more confident you become as a player.

Freedom on the instrument is a marvelous feeling and it comes with practice and the willingness to reach into the uncharted waters of your playing experience.

(This document is a work in progress and I would love to hear your feedback or any suggestions on the
subject that you think would be of use to guitar players seeking to become more adept improvisers.)


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  1. Sonny is my favorite on the show. This is by far my favorite show on television! Thanks for your post, it was awesome reading it!

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