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How to Improve at Improvising on Guitar!

How to learn and practice any new licks you want to add to your improvisational repertoire:

Sam Powell Blues Band

Giving it some stick with the Sam Powell Blues Band (2017)

Simple Ideas - Big Results!

33 years of playing and 20+ years of teaching tell me that what comes out when we improvise is comprised only of the musical ideas we possess which have a certain level of strength or above. I call this our "improvisational vocabulary". If you're one of those who goes completely blank when called upon to improvise (or is reduced to tentatively throwing out a few scale notes) then it's likely you could use some more!

To add to our improvisational vocabulary we need to be able to move musical ideas into this arena of strength and from my experience I'd say this is something most struggle to do. In layman's terms we need to not just learn, but to *really* learn our licks!

Your secret weapon - Taplature!

Taplature forces us to fully understand any new vocabulary we want to assimilate. It's just not possible to play something while counting the beat out loud and keeping the correct foot tap unless every piece of the jigsaw is in place, both physical and mental. I've lost count of how many times I've had students become aware of the major weaknesses in their playing simply by asking them to do this with things they thought were strong!

Once this stage is reached we can then repeat things to burn them in and monitor progress. There's a point at which things begin to feel easy and until something reaches this level it's very unlikely it will come out during improvisation ,when only the strongest of our musical vocabulary appears.

Give your practice some purpose!

First understanding, then familiarity. It works for everything! We won't have to hope that our new vocabulary begins to appear in our improvisation, we'll expect it to! The examples below show one way of digging deeper inside a lick to help this process along.

Today's challenge and the concept of "displacement"

Here's an idea you can take and run with. Let's begin with a simple looking lick using the E blues scale.

As ever, the challenge posed by Taplature is to play through the bar repeatedly. counting out loud as shown, and with the correct foot tap as shown. We're in 8th notes (quavers), so rhythmically it's not especially complex, each note played on the guitar coinciding with a down or up movement of the foot. I demonstrate in the video below:

I'll leave you to decide on picking directions but it's recommended to follow the foot with the pick while initially tackling the bar, ie. if your foot is tapping down then pick down, and if your foot is coming up then pick up! This keeps what I call the "directional vocabulary" as simple as possible while you're learning the pattern.

Two for the price of one!

Well almost. Let's see what happens if we "displace" this lick by half a beat to the right. What would seem to be a tiny tweak transforms the whole bar! The note that falls off the end of the bar as we push things to the right "wraps around" to come back in at the left.

Everything that was previously played on the foot tap is now played on the offbeat (up foot), and vice-versa. One particular point of interest is that we now "finish" the lick on beat one with a hammer onto the beat. This can offer a bit of head scratching if you've never done this before. Focus on the hammering finger hitting the fretboard at the same time the foot taps down on the floor.

I begin the video below by isolating the "hammer on to the beat" so you can see up close the mechanics required. Notice how I have the pick recycling on each down foot in sync with both foot and hammering finger. Everything moves together, as it will in the full lick.

Then I play through the full displaced lick first slowly (0:22),

and then faster (1:02).

The half beat displacement means that your pick directions will need to be reconsidered; it's still recommended to follow the foot tap up and down with your pick to begin with. You'll see this actually changes things quite a lot from the first pattern!

Wow .. it's actually eight for the price of one!

Even just sticking to 8th notes (we could go a lot deeper!) there are six other places we could displace our lick to. Here's the next 8th note shift to the right.

I'll leave it to you to examine the other five possibilities. Each displacement gives the same notes a different shape/sound/feel/end result.

Make it your own!

You can take this idea and use it with any piece of musical vocabulary (guitar lick) you're interested in. By digging through in this manner you can take a lick from your favourite solo, and make it your own with a tweak here and a twist there. When you understand it fully (as described above) you can try applying it to as many different musical situations as possible. By mixing and matching your new vocabulary with your old the combinations are endless!

Approaching things this way means that we aren't just learning licks for use in one situation or solo. We're finding out how things fit together so that we can take building blocks from one piece of music and use them in any situation we choose! How does this compare to the way you've practiced up to now?


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