As I sit here and type, it's near pure improvisation. These may be words I have typed before, but certainly not in this order. I might pause every now and then and pick and choose between synonyms, but that’s a minor point. It’s off the cuff, and basically fresh, clichés like “off the cuff” notwithstanding.
If I should choose to hum a tune I’ve never heard, or to imagine a instrumental break that goes along with a particular melody or chord progression, this too is a piece of cake. I’ve had music going on in my brain ever since my I first heard my mother play a polka on her accordion, and that means since before I was born.
When I’m in a conversation, I’m even more free-wheeling, because I’ve talked many more words than I’ve ever typed, and there’s no pausing to wonder about how something is spelled, or wince over my tendonitis. Talking and humming are my real gem examples for improvisation; I only included typing to show there multiple things I can do basically without any effort at composition.
Okay, now I’m going to pick up my guitar. I’ve played the guitar for 36 years, and yet not for 1/10,000th the amount of time I’ve spent speaking, or walking, or humming to myself. That lack of immersion in the instrument is why I can’t improvise on the guitar to the extent I would like. Heck, I can’t improvise *at all*.
But I want to, and I’ve come to a point where I’d be willing to cheat. I know there are shortcuts having to do with scales, and even simpler systems that have to do with what beginning guitar students call “boxes” on the fretboard. I rebelled against these two for all these decades because I didn’t want to play what I think are syncopated scales or regurgitate unimaginative riffs that are strongly suggested to the user of these “boxes”. At the same time, I cannot become a 24-hour guitar picker for the next 5 years.
So, I’m coming to you for whatever suggestions you may have. How many different paths to improvisation are there? Do they all involve reading music? Do they all involve practicing scales I can then morph into something “original”.
Here’s where I’m at. I took 4 years of involuntary accordion lessons as a small child. The teacher was a witch of a woman, and I quit the moment I was able to convince my mother to let me stop going into that Montrose, Colorado torture pit. I subsequently forgot everything I knew about reading music, and I’d rather not relearn it. It seems after all these centuries; someone would have come up with a system of musical notation that makes sense. I’ll do it if I have to, but I’m looking for options here.
I know the structure of certain chords quite well, and I do improvise in a way by wandering around in them, and going up or down a couple of notes in my transition from one chord to another. I think this may actually be the key I am looking for – to just keep playing and work more and more on new fills and transitions until I start to spontaneously play things I’ve never played before. Again, that may take too much time, and it’s important for my life to have balance.
One problem I have is imagining the sound a note is going to have before I go to play it. The fourth and fifth intervals are easy, because the guitar is tuned around those, but if I reach for a note one or two or three frets higher, I really don’t know what it’s going to sound like. That is a problem. There is a website where you can train your ear, starting with the primary note of a scale, and I think it’s useful, but what if you’re in the middle of a scale? Does ear training help you go from a third to a seventh? I don’t know.
The only thing I don’t want to hear is “If you haven’t figured it out by now, you never will.” I’ve heard that several times, and each time it has seemed ever more unhelpful than the last. There is a very similar platitude uttered by some jazz fans when asked to describe jazz: “If you don’t just ‘know’, you’ll never get it.” I know that is nonsense, because Leonard Bernstein recorded a wonderful lecture called “What Is Jazz”. It went into syncopation, blues scales, call-and-response, quarter tones, the works. It totally de-mystified the subject.
What I’m looking for is as similar lecture or series of exercises entitled “How to Improvise”. That would be really slick.
I’ll take it in little bits and pieces in your responses, too. Any help and advice is appreciated.