Tip: Improvising Better through Composing

I got the following letter not too long ago. Maybe you can identify yourself in here:

Darrin: I can plan out solos just fine but when it comes to improvising I am totally in the dark. What can I do about this?


Hi, D. Thanks for your message. This is a common problem. And it’s great that you can write or plan your solos — which is already something a lot of guitarists have no clue about, but have a great desire to do.

Improvising involves a different but related set of mental muscles from writing out solos. Improvising relies on memory of the right notes to hit, ingrained over thousands of repetitions of practice. But besides playing scales and patterns, writing out solos is excellent preparation for improvising. It gets you thinking of melody, which is what an improvising soloist thinks about.

There are lots of approaches to improvising. Many share some common elements: playing with scales that relate totally or closely to chords. William Leavitt’s Volume III of Modern Method for Guitar has info on scales that relate to chords. Not always easy to digest, but with practice it hits the target.

The basic idea is to play a scale that runs through the chord that’s playing. Simple example: C major scale over a C major chord.

Much of what you’re going to read about chord scale theory is just fine for playing the correct harmony over a chord. But rhythm can really be the key for you. If all you can find is three good notes to solo with, you might sound great if you lay those notes out in rhythmically cool ways. That’s why scatting or singing a rhythm — with no concern for pitch — is a great way to build improv chops.

So, summing it up: study “chord scale” theory. Check out Leavitt, and this is also highly recommended: Laporta’s Guide to Improvisation, published by Berklee. He’ll get you to work out the rhythm thing.

Another resource just jumped into my head, with regard to composing solos: John Abercrombie. Definitely a force in guitar improvisation and teaching the same. I believe he has at least a DVD available.

Above all, stay with it and play something over chord changes. Even if you think you suck, at least your ear is sensitive enough to make that determination. And with desire, growing understanding and practice, of course, you will cease to suck.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright © 2008 Darrin Koltow

This first appeared in the Guitar Noise News – March 15, 2007 newsletter. Reprinted with permission.