The Improvising Fingerstyle Guitarist by Gilbert Isbin

Improvisation in music is hard. Even harder is trying to teach someone else how to improvise. Part of what makes it so tough to learn is the student has to do most of the work on their own. A good teacher can offer guidance and direction, but figuring out how to create something special in the moment is going to be between you and your guitar.

Belgian composer and guitarist Gilbert Isbin has been teaching improvisation for fingerstyle guitar for a long time. Gilbert’s lessons on this topic can be found on Guitar Noise as far back as 2001. In that time he has honed his craft and clarified his explanations for this rarely covered topic. The result of his years of work is The Improvising Fingerstyle Guitarist, which is available from Mel Bay.

On the surface improvisation and fingerstyle guitar seem like incongruous topics. Fingerstyle techniques are usually learned through rote memorization and repetition of patterns. Most guitarists learn the same essential fingerpicking patterns. Once someone has shown you how it’s done, all that’s left to do is practice and repeat until it becomes second nature. But if everyone learns the same patterns, how do you play something that sounds all your own?

Improvisation is where most great music comes from. At the heart of improvisation is starting with something relatively straightforward that a lot of people can do, and turning it into something that only you do. The Improvising Fingerstyle Guitarist is written to help you create your own melodic lines on the spot. That means saying good-bye to memorized examples and patterns. Working through the book you learn to begin playing in the moment.

The book format is welcome for this topic. The passive method of watching videos will only scratch the surface. Improvisation requires you to spend a lot of time on the doing part. The Improvising Fingerstyle Guitarist has over a hundred examples, more than 70 with audio files. There is a real compositional quality to Gilbert’s choices. There a plenty of pleasing musical passages here, but you are pushed to create your own, not just emulate the author’s good taste.

It’s good to be able to flip back and forth though the pages and pages of examples. You’ll notice there isn’t a lot of text in the book. Next to many of the author’s musical examples are empty bars of music that say “Your Turn.” Instead of repeating phrases composed by the author you have to come up with your own improvised compositions. Only you will know if you’re doing the work or not.

The first eleven chapters stick to key of C major where there are no sharps and flats. In chapter 12 we switch gears and move on to the to A minor scale, which also has no accidentals. If you’ve made it this far you should be better equipped to memorize intervals and fly through the choices faster than the preceding chapters.

If you’re someone likely to skip over parts of a book looking for a secret shortcut, The Improvising Fingerstyle Guitarist isn’t for you. But if you’ve listened to beautiful improvised fingerstyle guitar and decided this is something for you, this is the definitive book on the topic.

There is a kindle version and paperback version available from Amazon. Audio is free to download from the Mel Bay site.