How to use ‘limitation games’ to improve your improvisation

Limitation - Guitar Noise 1024x585

For many writers, nothing is scarier than an empty, white page. The idea that you could write anything is simply overwhelming. Often things are much easier when you are given a writing prompt, such as:

You lost your sight – along with everyone else on Earth – in The Great Blinding. Two years later, without warning, your sight returns. As you look around, you realize that every available wall, floor and surface has been painted with the same message – Don’t Tell Them You Can See.

(From this post on r/writingprompts)

Now, that gets your imagination running, doesn’t it? It’s one of the many ways in which creativity is counter intuitive: by limiting our options, we actually become more creative! This logic applies to music as well. By playing ‘limitation games’, we can train our creativity and improve our improvisation. In this article I will show you how.

Why should you use limitation to learn improvisation?

Improvisation is fun to do and fun to learn. It’s a ‘conversational’ way of making music that allows you to express yourself in the moment. It’s also a great way to train your ears. A challenge for many players though, is that we’re like kids in a candy store. We like to learn a lot of new licks, techniques or some music theory, but that doesn’t always help us to learn to play intuitively or to tell a story in our improvisation. Sometimes all the things we (half) know can be overwhelming and make it hard to remain playful. It’s also easy to fall into the trap of letting your muscle memory take over, where you just play the things you know well, but bypass your creativity.

Limitation exercises are an excellent way to avoid all of this. They might sound restrictive, until you think of them more as ‘creativity games’. By limiting our options, we can no longer play everything we know. It forces us to rely less on our muscle memory and to find solutions that we might not use every day. In other words, they help us to tap into our musical imagination and be creative! And that helps us a lot to tell a musical story.

So, let’s take a look at three example exercises to do just that.

1 – Stick to a Single String

A simple way to limit yourself, is to improvise on only one string. You can even use just one finger. This makes it impossible to rely on any ‘tricks’ or ‘licks’ you know and have no choice but to play using your ears and musical intuition. The beauty of this exercise is that it forces us to play really simple melodies and to somehow make them work. So play along with your favorite songs or backing tracks and give it a go. Once you feel you can tell a story on one string, why not try two?

2 – Phrase like a blues tune

Just like language, music consists of phrases. It has questions, answers, punctuations, and breaks to take a breath. If you speak without phrasing, it becomes hard to follow you and understand what you’re saying. The same is true for music: without phrasing, the audience will have a hard time hearing the story in your solo.

You can practice playing clear phrases by pre-determining where and ‘how’ you will play your phrases. A great way of doing that is by imitating blues lyrics. In blues, the first phrase is a question or statement (‘my man don’t love me, treats me oh so mean’). The next is the same question or statement, often with some slight variation (‘my man don’t love me, treats me awfully’). The last phrase functions as an answer or conclusion (‘he’s the lowest man that i’ve ever seen’). In a twelve bar blues, we can emulate that in our solo by playing a phrase on the first four bars, the same one with small variations on the next four bars, and something different on the last four bars.

Don’t forget to leave plenty of space to breathe, both for you and the audience. The silence might feel uncomfortable at first, because you might feel it’s your ‘job’ to play something at all times. I remember being afraid that it might seem like I didn’t know what to play when I played nothing. But as I soon learned: pauses sound great. They give the notes that you do play much more impact and make it much easier for your audience to follow your solo.

This exercise will help give you a feel for playing logical and clear phrases and tell a story. You can limit yourself even more by limiting the notes you’re allowed to play. You should be able to do this exercise with no more than three notes. You could also combine this with the first exercise and stick to just one string.

3 – Stick to one idea

To tell a story in your solo, you need to be able to develop an idea. You can practice this by sticking to an idea much longer that you normally would. Start by picking that idea. This can be anything:

  • a rhythmic pattern
  • a series of three or four notes
  • an interval, such as a perfect fifth

Next, your job is to play a solo that sticks to that one idea. That might involve you making notes shorter or longer. You might change a melody to fit the chord changes. You can work the idea up or down the neck. Or you can keep changing only the first or the last note. Whatever you do, try to be disciplined and somehow relate what you play to your original idea. In other words, really squeeze everything you can out of that one idea. When we’re not practicing, most of us will usually introduce another idea a lot faster. But if you listen to strong melodies, you’ll notice they involve plenty of repetition or development of a single idea. So why not try to emulate that?

…and many more exercises

The examples above are all ways to narrow down your options. By confronting yourself with limitations, your mind goes into problem-solving mode and interesting things start to happen. What’s great about these limitation exercises is that they can help you develop any aspect of your playing that you’d like to improve or become more creative at. All you need to do is create your own exercise. Not happy about your rhythmic vocabulary? Think of a rhythmic pattern you like to add to your playing and start improvising only using that pattern. Or limit yourself to two or three notes and try to play to make your solo interesting through rhythmic patterns alone. In short, by creating your own ‘creativity games’ you can tailor this approach to whatever you need to become a better improviser.