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Wikipedia defines improvisation thus:

"Improvisation is the practice of acting, singing, talking and reacting, of making and creating, in the moment and in response to the stimulus of one's immediate environment and inner feelings. This can result in the invention of new thought patterns, new practices, new structures or symbols, and/or new ways to act." What a great definition!

Many musical purists, especially jazz players, feel that improvisation is the highest form of the art. I agree. Think for a second just what you're trying to do - you're composing a melody to a chord progression that you know, exploring uncharted musical territory with your bandmates, to see where it leads. You have to bear in mind scales, modes, chord substitutions, passing tones, syncopation, dynamics - every facet of a tune. This is a whole different intention than playing someone else's notes as perfectly as possible.

To me, improvisation has one unique characteristic that differentiates it from all other musical forms - when you begin an improvisation, you never know where it's going to go, or even how well it's going to come together. That's because, unless you perform alone, improvisation is not a solo endeavor. In fact, it becomes a language with which you communicate with the others in your group. In an experienced group with no major personality clashes, most musicians consider part of their goal to help their mates sound as good as possible (read the quote from Dizzy Gillespie at the top of this site's first page!).

In its most profound embodiment, improvisation becomes a group gestalt experience, in which communication between band members is almost telepathic. I've had two groups where I was able to experience this; it is so magical and mystical as to possess, for many of us, a strong spiritual component. If you have yet to experience this, you're in for one of the greatest experiences a musician can have.

Before you can even contemplate the study of improvisation, it's important to acquire what I call musical fluency with your instrument. What's that? Just like fluency in a language, when you're fluent on your instrument, you can play any tune that enters your head. A tune forms in your mind, you play it on your instrument without thinking about it. This is such an important skill to develop, and to spend some time thinking carefully about what the concept means, that there is a short but separate page on this goal, called Musical Fluency.

Incidentally, after massive Googling and using every search engine I could try, I find that the term "musical fluency", as it is defined here, is unprecedented. However, the standard definition is interesting:

1. able to speak or write smoothly, easily, or readily;
2. easy; graceful;
3. capable of flowing; fluid.

So it not only means ease of execution, but implies a flowing, graceful delivery. The skill of playing what we hear in our heads is, obviously, not part of the standard definition, but my feeling is that it's just about ideal. This is the time to get in on the ground floor!

The paradox is that, while in the heat of improvising, you can't start analyzing or thinking about what you're doing intellectually. If you play golf, tennis, etc., you know what a disaster occurs when you start consciously thinking about your swing mechanics right in the midst of a swing.

In fact, here's a short interview with Joe Pass, one of the great jazz improvisors of the 20th century, who talks about his approach to improvisation, the importance of listening to your bandmates, and other wisdom. To repeat an oft-quoted remark by Joe,

"When you practice, study the hell out of all of those scales, chords, substitution rules, arpeggios, and everything else; but when it's time to improvise live, forget all of that shit and play!"

Of course, a moment's thought shows this not to be a paradox at all. The idea is to play every scale, mode, etc., especially in a certain key if you're feeling stuck in a certain tune. By lots of intense, focused practice, the feeling of playing the various sequences you've been practicing will be right there, and it will feel that the "available space" in which to improvise has expanded (this is how it feels to me).

If you hear a 12-bar blues progression, or some other chord progression you know very well, you can likely hum or whistle a little made-up tune to go along with the chords. When you do that, you're improvising. Fluency on your instrument means that you can play that little tune you were humming on your axe, with no thought at all. As soon as a tune enters your mind, you want to be able to play it with total ease.

It is not that hard to achieve musical fluency! Just stay with it, don't expect overnight results, and recognize it as a valuable investment that will pay off in ways you can't yet appreciate!

Attaining Musical Fluency (for a more detailed discussion of this concept, please see the page of the same name)
    So, how do you go about gaining musical fluency on your guitar? It's actually easier than it sounds, although it is not straightforward. The first stepping stone is to be able to sing or hum with your guitar while you play. I'm sure you've heard George Benson or other guitarists do this, although Benson made it popular with his covers of "On Broadway" and others.

Quite a few sites feature methods to make this easier, including offerings from Guitar Noise, Wikihow,, and But remember - you can't take a serious shot at improvisation without being musically fluent. You just can't. It would be like trying to sing when you can't carry a tune at all.

A very good "first step" in pursuing fluency is to play an insultingly simple little pentatonic riff - say, the notes C, Eb, F, G, F, Eb, C (key of C). Nice and slow. Then hum along with it. Do it for awhile. Do it so long that it gets annoying. Then pick an unrelated riff, same key. Repeat. Keep repeating until you're improvising simple phrases while humming along with them. Keep progressing.

The most common mistake guitarists new to this idea make is not to go through the slow building phase described above. They figure it's so simple that anyone can do it, so they figure they'll blow it off until it gets challenging. I won't waste the space explaining why this is such a terrible philosophy; please just do it as suggested if you want anything resembling a foundation upon which to build your expanding improvisational possibilities.

Formal Instruction & Organizations to Foster Improvisation
    Many opportunities exist to learn the principals of improvisation via formal coursework and/or individual lessons:

"AIM is a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing local awareness of improvised music, through presenting performances, running an e-mail list, and this website. We are based in the Triangle area of North Carolina."
this site, maintained by one busy person, features loads of chord and scale charts and many other devices to help you drill essential areas of improvisation
the main page to Cyberfret's dozens of excellent pointers on improvisation. This is one set of lessons you don't want to miss.
"In the educational arena, ISIM promotes the creation of pedagogical materials that foster the development of improvising skills."
much free stuff on the site, but the course isn't! But, at $34, it's not much money for a detailed, professional course of instruction
one of the really excellent sites; features not only links to lots of jazz standards but has about the best explanation of what's involved in improvisation that I've ever seen.
a nice collection of monographs by a music teacher, including how to improvise tonal music, two great improv. primers, and an introduction to comping bass lines.
Jazz Improvisation Course from Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, this site features several great articles on jazz rhythm, jazz melody, and jazz harmony. Many links to other similar sites make this worth studying.
actually a large series of pdf files on many aspects of improvisation - extremely good.
a site by a classical guitar student who's discovered jazz - not much information, but there are a few nuggets.
School for Improvisational Music "The School for Improvisational Music (SIM) is a core group of professional musician/teachers committed to creating a school for emerging performers who want to pursue a serious study of improvised music. "

Practicing Improvisation
    Improvisation is probably the most difficult concept to describe accurately, particularly to a musician who has yet to start studying this aspect of music. It's even more challenging to construct a curriculum that will successfully pass on the skills needed for improvisation. So how do you do it?

I have yet to discover a teaching method for improvisation that's generally applicable to all students. It's such a personal, emotionally-linked skill that I don't feel it can be taught to a person with absolutely zero aptitude for it. Such folks, usually those who can't carry a tune, usually can't think far enough ahead to improvise.

As opposed to the cautions I gave against trying to practice with other musicians, improvisation is something you can practice alone or with others, but the real rush of true improvisational interplay with a group is a feeling you must experience, if you can.

So what's the real key to great improvisation? Creativity!! Creativity and, as much as possible, simplicity. There are several proven aids to achieve creativity in the Practice section. But, as with all of these new techniques and advances, the bottom line is practice. Practice alone to polish your fluency and play with lots of different musicians, to start to learn the nonverbal communication that goes on between improvising musicians.

If you play long enough with a group you really click with, you'll occasionally achieve moments of what feel like telepathy - where every person up there is on the same cosmic page, so that you all can sense the direction and changing dynamics of the improvised melody simultaneously. THAT is what makes it all worthwhile!!

Minimizing Your Limitations
     Ask any improvising musician: The biggest impediment to great improvisation is the fear of doing anything that will be so wrong that it will be obvious to everyone, regardless of how far away they are or their level of musical sophistication. It's very easy to slide into familiar formations, riffs, chord substitutions, etc., even when you know you're not playing very creatively.

So how do you break out of this rut? I have quite a few suggestions in the "Practice" section, all designed to help increase your awareness of just how banal you start sounding after awhile. Most such techniques have you improvising for a very long time over a simple, known progression or to a progression using chords you don't know cold. Personally, I think the first method is faster and more effective.

Occasionally, a musician will claim that using some kind of psychogenic chemical helps them play more originally. This is particularly true for "consciousness-expanding" chemicals from pot to LSD. Anyone who *still* thinks this is true needs to do this experiment:

Get everyone in the band pretty high (or low, or whatever effect you've decided is so helpful), turn on the tape recorder, and do a half hour or so of jamming to a familiar song - preferably one of the band's standards. Jam for a long time on at least one tune. Go to bed and forget about the tape. Next morning, when your mind is more or less in its normal state, listen to the tape. That's all it will take, and your band mates will promise to each other never to play in public when high.

     I have quite a few books that are very helpful in learning improvisation; these are listed in the library. Have fun, and GOOD LUCK!

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