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Improvisation
and the Flatpicked Guitar

By Joel Mabus

 

One could write volumes on the subject of improvisation, but I’ll do what I can to boil down the topic to one page.  The fact of the matter is – long hours of practice and playing is how you really learn to improvise.  But there are a few tips and tricks that might help the less-practiced player get to the next level.

 

There are six big factors to master in order to
improvise like a pro:

 

1.        Know the melody. 
It really helps to know how to play a basic version of the melody.  Sometimes you can gloss over the details of a tune and still sound like you know what you are doing. But if you at least have a sense of the melody, you can use it as a touchstone. It will keep your improvisation sounding like a version of the song you intend to play, instead of like a set of random thoughts.

2.        Know the chords.
Knowing the chords means knowing the harmonic structure of the tune.  It gives you a frame of reference to experiment within.  Sometimes a difficult passage can be best read by just playing the chord changes over it.  Or you might have a favorite “G lick,” for example. It’s a good bet that you can substitute it for another passage when the chord played is a “G.”

3.        Know the beat. 
Not just rhythm and tempo, but cultivate the knack of knowing how many beats are in a passage.  I don’t mean counting, but intuiting.  If a phrase goes: “da-da da-da da-da (pause) da-da da-da dum,” you should be able to concoct another phrase that fills that number of beats in a similar way without having to count, “one & two & three & rest, five & six & seven, rest.”
Also pay attention to accents, and the “swing” of the beat, if there is one. Should the accent be ON the beat, or on the backbeat? Learn to sense the “groove” and how to stay there.

4.        Know the scale.
If your tune is in “A” major, you better know where the notes are on your fingerboard that make up an “A” scale.  I mean really know them.  Forwards and backwards.  In ascending thirds and fifths.  Inside and out.  I don’t mean you have to know every fingering all over the neck (though that would be nice), but know at least an octave or two really well. Being comfortable with the scale lets you experiment with confidence when taking the melody to new places.

5.        Know the style.
Immerse yourself in the idiom.  The first time you try to play the blues, you won’t sound very convincing.  But after you learn a few dozen blues standards, you’ll start to get the hang of what “fits” and what doesn’t.  Same is true for any other style: country, bluegrass, Celtic, etc.  In fact, each of these styles really has several sub-genres within it.  A bluegrass ballad is treated differently than a breakdown. And bluegrass gospel is a whole different sound. Until you find your own “voice” in a style, you can go a long way by mimicking the sounds of the masters.  It will get you in the game, anyway.

6.        Quote.
A time-honored musical trick is to quote a passage from another song.  Nearly every great jazz player does this at least ten times a set.  It can be clever or it can be overdone.  Like everything else, it becomes a matter of taste.

 

About Licks:
A lot of hot bluegrass flatpickers are known as “lick” players. (This is true in other styles such as hard rock or urban blues.) What this means is that they have developed a vocabulary of interchangeable licks, or “riffs.”  They have a trunk-full of  “G,” “C” and “D” licks ready to go. When a song is in the key of G, they need only plug and play – string together their hottest licks as the appropriate chord goes by. It won’t sound much like the tune, but it is musically correct.   This is successful only if the melody has already been well stated.  A barrage of licks might be welcome relief as the third verse break in “Wabash Cannonball,” but the same break would be a baffling intro to the song.  The listener has to hear the melody first before you can deconstruct it.  The same is true for jazz and most other styles based on song structure.

 

Repetition is a powerful tool.  Sometimes in a search for a string of notes that cascade up, down, around and back, we might overlook the incisiveness of one note – or one short phrase -- repeated several times.  This is true in any style of music, but especially so in flatpicked guitar.  Sometimes less is indeed more.

 

Finally, let me draw an analogy.  Improvising a tune is like telling a joke.  You don’t tell a joke exactly in the same words in which you first heard it.  No, you put it in your own words.  You might add or subtract details, depending on your mood.  You might tailor the vocabulary for your listener.  You might tell it in dialect – or not.  You might make it brief or extend it as far as you can. Every time you tell it, you make it fresh by changing it just the least little bit. But for all the customizing, the joke is still the same joke. It is not a brand new one. Likewise when improvising on a song, you have an envelope which contains the melody.  You can “push” that envelope in a number of ways, but if you break the boundary you will no longer be playing a version of the same song, but composing a new one.

 

Knowing the boundaries and playing by the rules are always tough constraints for the eager novice, but usually make for the most satisfying music.

 

 

©Joel Mabus 2001

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