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Lewis Turner - Back To Basics Part 13: Improvising Through Different Keys Using Pentatonics

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 37 **

In the last guitar lesson we looked at understanding how to use and visualise pentatonic scales when playing guitar solos over chord changes. I gave two examples to work on, a minor blues, and a minor 3rd movement. Hopefully you have been trying the guitar exercises and getting to grips with this method of fretboard visualisation and chord – scale relationships. In this guitar lesson we are going to look at taking all this theoretical information and turning it into actual music! Please have a look at the video where I discuss and demo different musical ways of improvising through a minor 3rd movement, also please check out the accompanying TAB that is a transcription of my guitar improvisation at the end. So I don’t repeat what I talk about in the video I would like to use this written part of my column to discuss some basic ideas about what makes a good guitar improvisation and how to approach it.

A good improvisation should be like a good book, it should have a strong beginning, middle and end, telling a good story along the way. If you are given a while to improvise then take your time, if you blow your best lick within the first 10 seconds of a 3 minute improv then you are going to have nowhere to go! You should aim to take the listener on a journey telling a story through your playing. Consider the fact that most people listening won't be guitarists or have any musical knowledge in general. Therefore, they couldn’t care less what techniques/scales etc. you are using they just want to hear good music. Try to make the improv build in intensity by using a mixture of dynamics and space. Listen to a good Jazz group play and you will notice how at the start of someone's solo the whole band will drop down dynamically leaving the soloist to take control. If everyone is listening to each other then the whole improv will become an ensemble movement with a gradual build to its final climax. Even if you are just playing to a backing track at home you can still develop your dynamic and contour control, by starting with very little and gradually building.

Try giving yourself a set amount of time or bars to improvise in so your aren't just noodling for 10 minutes. Record yourself and ask; “Did that tell a story”? “Did it build in intensity and dynamics”? “Was it musical throughout”? I like to use the analogy of language, we talk in sentences and paragraphs and hopefully when we talk there is a train of thought to it. If I was talking about the cost of a new car and then suddenly changed to my theory on black holes in the middle of the sentence, a) you would think I was a little mental, and b) the two things aren't related and so make little sense together. Apply this to your improv, and think about playing in sentences and paragraphs. A sentence might be a short 3-4 note phrase with a pause before the next short phrase that answers the previous, a Paragraph might be a longer run. Try to make your solo coherent if you start with a short quiet phrase then immediately follow it with a 3 octave sweep pick tapped arpeggio then you will be creating the musical equivalent of my conversation analogy above, it doesn’t make sense and you will have lost the listener’s interest.

These are good things to start thinking about when you are playing; there are many more but this is a good starting point. The long goal is to know your fretboard well enough so you no longer have to think about it, or be dictated by things like chord changes. Much like talking, you know all the words (scales, chords etc.) and you no longer have to think about what is coming out of your mouth as you speak, it just flows (good improvisation). Good improvisation is as much about a good mental state as it is knowing your instrument, really try to be in the moment when you improvise and listen to what you are playing, at the end of it you should be able to remember the very first thing you played, because if you can't then the listener has no chance. Don’t just mindlessly noodle when practising improv set goals and limits and most importantly experiment, the practice room is the place to try all the new stuff that you aren't sure will work. Most importantly enjoy and play with passion and conviction! Check out the following players who I consider great improvisers: (note they are not all guitarists, don’t just listen to guitarists!!)

Scott Henderson

Joshua Redman

Allen Hinds

Robben Ford

John Scofield

Miles Davis

Bill Evans

Next time we will be taking a sidestep away from scales and theory, to start looking at developing technical ability.


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