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Tom Quayle Modern Guitar Part 11: Improving Your Improvisational Level Of Technique

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 36 **

Hi guys and welcome to my guitar lesson column for Guitar Interactive issue 36. For quite a while now we’ve been looking at very specific theory and harmony based ideas that you can incorporate into your writing and guitar improvisation. These have very much been grounded in guitar scale and arpeggio understanding or taking harmonic concepts and applying them to chord progressions or one chord vamps. For this guitar lesson we’re going to be taking an altogether different approach and looking at a much more conceptual idea related to an issue that I see time and time again with guitar players from all sorts of genres and styles.

You may have noticed that you can very often experience a big difference between how you feel about your technical level depending on whether you are playing a pre-determined and practised phrase/lick compared to when you are improvising something. Most people find that their level of pre-prepared technique is usually much higher than when they improvise something, where there is far more room for errors and tension to creep in as the phrases you are playing are less consistent. When you improvise, your technique has to be developed in a slightly different way to when you play set licks or phrases, as you must have a technique that can adapt in real time to the lines that you are improvising and be able to manipulate your knowledge of scales and arpeggios in creative and interesting ways.

But how do you develop this level of improvisational technique? If you think about the difference between improvisational technical ability and predetermined improvisational ability, the main difference is that in the former you must not only have high levels of technique but also be able to make note choices and direction choices quickly and efficiently as part of the technical ability. The way you normally practice technique is to start off slowly and build up your technique through the repetition of licks, scales or exercises, gradually increases the speed and removing the tension from your body. It’s no different with improvisational technique except that you must also practice very slowly making conscious note choices that fit the harmony you are playing over. This might sound like a small difference, but in practice the fact that you have to make these note choices as opposed to playing a pre-prepared phrase makes a big difference to the efficiency of your technique.

The way to be efficient with this kind of practice is to take a particular technique, often in my case legato but it could be sweep picking, alternate picking, tapping or any other technique, and practice so slowly, making conscious note choices and direction choices with your lines so that you are one hundred percent in control of your technique and you are working at the speed that your brain wants to work at in order to be able to make those conscious decisions whilst improvising. The real key to making this kind of practice effective is to be sure that your technique at this slow pace is IDENTICAL to the technique you’ll be using when playing faster with higher tempos or subdivisions. When I have students do this in lessons with me they will often subtly change their technique when playing slowly such as squeezing harder, apply a small amount of vibrato or trying to play lines that would simply be impossible to execute at higher subdivisions or tempos. You are simulating the act of utilising your technique improvisationally but at a speed that allows you to be totally in control of your note choice and allows your brain to stay one step ahead. Try to keep the lines you improvise at this slow, slow speed (and I mean slow) sensible so that they represent something that you might have a chance to play at higher speeds. In other words, no massive interval skips if it’s not appropriate for the technique.

After a lot of this kind of practice not only will your technical ability increase, but your ability to think ahead and shape your line using that technique will also improve and the speed of your thought processes will increase. These elements, that are unique to improvisational technique, will allow you to get more parity between your technical skills whilst playing both predetermined and improvised phrases and solos.

As ever, watch the video for some examples and I wish you the best of luck with your technical adventures and improvisations. Until next time have fun!

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