That’s what comes to mind when we think of improvisation.

We think of two old guys with hollow body guitars playing some “diddly-doo-boop” kind of lines with a clean tone, and we all know how people who aren’t fans of jazz feel about the genre…

In fairness, some of us like jazz, but more importantly we all do have to improvise at some point.

Even if you’re a tech-death guitarist you have some element of improvising when you’re writing a solo. Anyone who plays a track and starts trying out solo ideas is improvising. It is a skill that no musician can avoid, and every musician requires.

So how do we get better at it?

How do we come up with more interesting ideas?

How do we break out of our creative boxes?

Here are 3 tips to take your improvisation up a notch.

Call and Response

When creating melody or lead lines, try to think of them in terms of a call and response. Play a melody line, then think of a similar, but closing phrase to mirror it.

The first line could be a simple one that ends on a more suspenseful note, and the next phrase can finish that thought by using similar rhythm or notes, but it might end on a more closing note like the root of the chord or key, something that feels more “complete.”

The same concept could be applied to rhythm. You can play a repeating rhythm using different notes, and then increase or decrease the speed of that rhythm towards the end of a phrase to close it out.

This approach of thinking about a solo like a conversation helps create much more interesting lines that play off of each other and can be essential in breaking out of that “compartmentalized” style of solo where each lick is entirely different from the rest. You end up with much more cohesive and thought-out lines.

Play With Better Musicians

Improvising with a guitarist who is better than you has immense benefits.

When you improvise with someone two very important things happen. The first is that they will force you to play things you wouldn’t normally play for a myriad of reasons. Maybe they’re inspiring you with their creativity, maybe you’re worried about what they think so you try to keep it fresh, etc. Regardless, this is a new scenario we don’t get from the practice room or playing a live set.

The other great benefit is that when you trade off you have a chance to recreate what they just did in real time. If they play a lick you like, bookmark it in your mind and when it’s your turn to improvise try and do the same thing. You got to see them play it so you’ve got an idea of roughly where to look on the fretboard, so start exploring in that area and see what you come up with.

When you’re playing with someone you consider “better” than you it’s usually because they find sounds on the instrument that you haven’t found yet. This is your chance to find them.

Nine times out of ten you won’t play what they did note-for-note, but instead, you’ll get something similar that is unique to you and wasn’t found by simply ripping someone’s lick verbatim. You had to think creatively and use your ears to get there.

Needless to say, you can also talk to them about it. You can’t sit and chat with Steve Vai about his playing, but you can when you’re in the room with someone having a one-on-one jam session.

Record And Play It Back

If I had a nickel for every time I had to explain why all musicians should be recording themselves I’d be buying my 9th summer home right now. I’m thinking the south of France…

There are too many topics to dive into on this one, so I’ll just keep it to a short list:

– You can hear what your tendencies are (always playing licks that last 4 bars, always ending on a bend, always using the same scales, etc.) so that you can make a conscious effort to NOT do those things next time, increasing your creative options

– You can relearn a lick you may have randomly stumbled upon and loved but would’ve otherwise forgotten had you not recorded it

– You get the most honest perspective on your playing because you’re not focused on anything other than listening

– You can see your progress over time to truly hear if you’re getting better at your craft

Playing music and hearing it afterward are two completely different things, and that kind of perspective is absolutely invaluable.

Closing Thoughts

Improvisation is just one aspect of music, but fostering that skill will round you out as a musician. You’ll write more creatively, more quickly, you’ll increase your musical vocabulary, and best of all you’ll have more control over taking what’s in your head and putting it on the fretboard.