6 Improvisations Games for Absolute Beginners
Almost every advanced guitarist likes to improvise and create music. However, this can seem like an unobtainable goal for beginners who need to focus so intensely on “right” and “wrong” notes, fingers, frets, and strings. Or, at least, one to put aside for a long time until they master the instrument.
All music students can and should start improvising as soon as possible. This skill can and should be developed far earlier than beginning guitarists realize.
Most teachers and methods start teaching improvising using “Chord Tone Soloing.” This method requires students to learn a bit of theory and then tells them to play a specific note at a specific time. Slowly, the number of notes is expanded so that students can choose.
I dislike this method as it creates another opportunity for self-conscious beginner students to criticize themselves for “wrong” choices.
Instead of teaching improvisation as just another method of playing what’s “wrong” and what’s “right,” I teach my students to improvise using open-ended games that ease students into making independent decisions without focusing on “right” and “wrong.” By keeping these games open-ended (meaning that there is no “right” answer), my students develop improvisation skills that utilize their deep and underappreciated innate musicality (developed through years of listening to music).
These games start with tiny choices so that even those incredibly uncomfortable with independent choices can participate. As they develop, the choices get larger.
You will get the most out of these exercises by playing them over a Drone Tone. A drone is simply a note that drones along, continuing forever. To get oriented, pull up a website with a drone tone and have it play the scale’s root note (or “name note.” i.e., A major scale = Play a drone A note). By doing this, you’ll get used to playing with a drone and develop a fundamental understanding of the harmonic interactions between notes. That means you’ll begin to understand which notes sound fantastic together.
If you’re interested in improvisation, you may have heard of playing with a backing track to develop similar skills. Playing with a drone is the same idea but boiled down to its simplest essence.
Once you’ve played the scale, continue with the following games. All of them benefit from using a drone; as with the scale, set the drone tone to play the root note of your scale.
Pulsed Drone Scale
These two games prepare students for improvisation by developing musical flexibility. They are also preparatory rhythm-reading exercises. Get a drone tool, a metronome, and a 6-sided die. Turn on the metronome and drone (adjust the drone as necessary).
- Long Tones Variation: Roll the Dice. Your roll is how many beats (or metronome clicks) each note of the scale gets. For example, if you roll a 2, you would hold each note of your scale for two clicks (also known as a half-note) before playing the following note in the scale.
- Subdivision Variation: Roll the Dice. Your roll is how many notes you must fit between each metronome click (adjust the metronome speed if necessary). For example, you must fit three notes between each metronome click (a triplet) if your roll is a three.
Donut Dough (Do, Not Do)
This game is the first game that introduces actual choice. It involves a simple, repeating pattern of two notes. Get your drone going and alternate between playing “do” and playing any other note in the scale (“not do”). For example, one might play do fa do re do ti do so do la.
Murmuring is a game of alternating between two notes in the scale. If you play it over a drone, you’ll begin to understand how the movement between notes can create and release musical tension.
This game is also one of alternation and repetition. First, find any two adjacent notes in the scale. Alternate between them with a steady rhythm for a while. Then, pick another pair of adjacent notes and alternate between them for a while. Continue picking different notes to switch between. Each time you play a different note pair, you can alternate between them faster or slower. You can also start an alternating pair slowly and speed it up (or the opposite).
When multiple players and/or a looper pedal are used, this game creates a cacophonous mess of musical texture.
Play It Again, Sam:
This and the next few games help develop your musical memory. This one is pretty straightforward.
Play a small musical snippet. Then, play it back as precisely as possible (hint: make your musical snippet small enough that you only need one try to repeat it). As your abilities develop, see how many of the elements of musicality (dynamics, vibrato, tempo variations, etc.) you can precisely recreate.
- Variation Variation: When repeating, change 1 note or musical element
- Theme and Variations Variation: Repeat many times, each time changing a new note or musical element. Repetitions can be done so that each repetition only has 1 note different than the original “theme,” or it can be “stacked” so that each repetition keeps the already-changed notes and adds another new note.
This game develops your musical memory. (Reminder: Use a drone!)
Play a few notes. How many isn’t incredibly important, as long as you’re sure you can repeat it exactly. Next, repeat it exactly and add one new note at the end. Keep going until you forget what you played. See how many notes you can play!
- Front Loaders Variation: This time, add one note to the beginning of the phrase rather than the end.
Sandwich is a game of repetition and musical memory that incorporates a musical journey. It is the first game with a recognizable “form” that helps students develop bigger-picture thinking. While developing that “big picture” goal is one of the goals of this exercise, don’t worry about it too much. The primary goal is to continue to develop your musical memory.
This game could be considered a variation of Play It Again, Sam. Create and play a small snippet of music. We’ll call it Snippet A. Then, play a different small snippet of music (snippet B). Then, play snippet A again as precisely as possible. To help ensure accuracy, start small. If necessary, you can use a piece of music you already know for snippet B. As you get more comfortable, increase the lengths of the snippets.
These improvisations games will help you develop the courage to explore and discover your understanding of note relationships (without memorizing theory or note names). Yes, theory is critical, and note-reading is an essential skill. However, for beginners who want to improvise, these games provide a way forward without the foreboding barrier of yet-more memorization.
Remember that you will get the most out of these exercises by playing over a drone. I recommend changing the drone tone as you get more comfortable with these exercises. You can use any note in the scale as the drone tone (a suggested order would be 1, 6, 5,4, and then whatever you want. (Do, La, So, Fa)). You can even use chromatic notes from outside the scale. And, as always, have fun!
Kale Good teaches guitar in Philadelphia. He specializes in teaching children, using the Suzuki method, and Adult Classical Students. Kale likes to use non-jazz improvisation in his classes as a means of expanding creativity, improvisation, and adaptability. He believes these traits lead to more musically fulfilling experiences. You can read more of his insights at GoodMusicAcademy.com.