When I propose to my beginner students that they try out improvising, most give me a funny look. It’s something like, “You’ve got to be kidding me, I can’t even play for more than a minute without dropping my pick in the soundhole.” I’d like to say it’s a “Master Yoda, I am not yet prepared to face Lord Vader” look, but I drop my own pick in the soundhole often enough to dispel any illusions of Jedi powers. I can’t even get my girlfriend’s dogs to sit.
Even so, I’m a decent improviser. You can be too. It takes years to sound really good, but you can sound pretty good right away. Let’s go!
Grab your guitar and play these three notes (click here if you need help reading tablature). Play the note on the 5th fret with your first (index) finger, and the notes on the 8th fret with your fourth (wimpy) finger:
If you’ve seen Ray, the movie that came out recently about Ray Charles, these notes might ring a bell. There’s this scene where a young Ray wanders in to a bar to listen to an old man playing the piano. The old man sits him down and shows him three notes, and then they jam. We’re going to do the same thing. (I realize doing this over the internet is an extremely non-blues thing to do, but you can make up for it by calling your boss and telling him/her you quit. There. Now you have the blues.)
Before we jam, practice playing these three notes by repeating this pattern about ten times:
Now download my 12 Bar Blues in A Jam Track. It’s a recording of 12-bar blues, a common chord progression used in blues songs.
Once you’ve got the jam track playing, start playing those three notes, in any order you like, along with the music. Don’t worry about sounding good, focus on playing in rhythm with the music. You could try playing a note every time you hear the guitar strummed, or play a note every time the strumming pattern repeats. Or your could stand on your head and cluck like a chicken. There are no rules!
Here are two guidelines for making your improvisation sound even better than it does now:
- Vary your rhythm Sometimes play fast, sometimes let a note ring for a while.
- Vary your volume Let some notes whisper and other notes scream.
Incidentally, those three notes the old man taught to Ray, and I taught to you, belong to the A minor pentatonic scale. That means it’s in the key of “A,” it’s got a special “minor” note in it that makes the scale sound sad, and it’s a five-note scale. “Penta” means five, as in The Pentagram, where the U.S. Department of Defense is. What’s that? It’s called the Pentagon? Oh yeah, I always get my symbols of evil mixed up.
I chose to teach you how to improvise using this scale because no matter what note you hit, it sounds good. If you hit a note that matches the rhythm guitar chord, great. If you hit a note that clashes, it just sounds like you’ve REALLY got the blues. Just make your best blues face…
…and keep playing!
Here are all the notes of the A minor pentatonic scale found on the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th frets. You’ll notice there are a lot more than five notes. It’s because they repeat in higher octaves. If this doesn’t make sense, don’t worry about it right now.
Try adding a few more nearby notes from this scale to the notes you already know, and play with the Jam Track some more. Keep adding notes until you’re using all the notes in the pattern.
Sooner or later, you’re going to want to learn some licks, which are tried-and-true little sequences of notes that you can memorize and weave into your improvising. I’ll share some of my favorites with you soon.