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Listen Up! The Key to Improvising

Friday, April 8, 2011
comic on guitar soloingI’ve heard it a thousand times.  “I want to improvise but I just don’t know what to play. ”  You may see guys play great solos. Occasionally you might even catch what they are doing.  But when it comes time for you to improvise a solo, nothing’s there.

When it’s time to solo your mind goes blank, and your fingers fumble awkwardly through a few patterns or mis-guided scales – meanwhile some other player takes 4 simple notes bending and twisting them into musical magic.

You’ve worked hard to hone your musical skills – your musical tools.  But now you stand in front of your shiny, well-polished musical work-bench with all of your tools of scales, patterns, and chords lined neatly up in a row still missing the one key ingredient - the one musical idea that will put all of your hard work into motion to create something magical.  You don’t lack the mechanics or the desire – you are missing the creative musical ideas in your head.

Skills, scales, and finger patterns alone are lifeless until they are lit ablaze with musical ideas.  Great music comes from hearing musical ideas in your head then having enough technique to make them come through your fingers.

So, how do we get ideas into our empty musical heads and hearts?  The answer is… listen.

Listening goes beyond just “hearing” a great solo.  Hearing requires no activity.  Listening involves engaging our mind and our curiosity to ask “Wow, that’s incredible. How is he playing that?”

Here are a few listening keys to ignite some musical ideas in you.Steve Krenz playing improv guitar

1) Stop hearing music and start listening to music. Listen to the radio or to some artist you like.  Focus intently on what they are playing.  Does anything sound familiar?  A little phrase, a little part of a scale.  Can you recognize anything that you can begin working from?

2) Pick a solo or musical idea out of what you hear and try to work it out. Find the note they start with and work the solo out one note at a time.  Yes, it’s hard, frustrating work and you will make tons of mistakes.  There may be 10 wrong choices before you finally happen upon the right next note. But don’t give up! During this frustrating process of trying to figure out what someone else played your brain is making incredible progress.  With each wrong attempt your brain quietly measures what you play versus what you desire to play.  And slowly, your brain and ear learns how to guide your choices.

3) Close your eyes, pick any note on your guitar, and begin working out how to play some familiar song. For example, take the “Happy Birthday” song.  Find any note and work out how to play it.  You will make tons of mistakes.  But slowly you will begin to make better choices and after a few minutes you will be able to play it pretty easily.  Congratulations!  You have trained your ear to create a musical idea in your head and make it come out through your fingers!

4) Listen for tone, physical techniques, and effects. Is the guitarist you are listening to sliding between notes or bending the strings?  Is he using distortion, or delay, or a wah?  Is the sound full and round like a neck pickup or a sharper tone like a bridge pickup?  As you begin actively listening for these things you will begin to hear the differences between different types of guitars, effects, and playing techniques.

So there are some quick tips for kicking up your listening game.  Listening is the gate that allows the ideas of others to get inside of your head.  Once they are inside of your head and you have worked out how to play them then they will forever be ready to be used by you in a solo.
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