Not all improvisation is the same

Of course not, right? There are lame solos and brilliant ones, everyone with a better set of ears can tell the difference. But the thing is (as usual), it’s not so simple. What makes an improvisation sound good? We’ll go through some of these traits now.

Tell a story: When most beginners start to learn to improvise, they often try to impress recklessly, with throwing everything in every solo they play; everything they’ve learned up to that point of their lives. And this “everything” usually means licks; stuff they’ve lifted from someone else; either from some famous solo of a big name dude, or from a friend or a kid who comes up with some hip shit.

What are the results of such a lick-on-lick solo? Well, while this approach does not come off as something entirely lame or unmusical, it’s still lacking a couple of things. Because all these nice little licks get pushed out in the air unconnected, without much cohesion. Even if our poor friend tries to play them meaningfully, they will remain what they are: licks. Ideas of someone else who probably played them in context of something bigger.

Playing ideas like that randomly, without the original context will rarely (if ever) make sense. A meaningful solo should have an arc, from beginning to end, not at all unlike a story. Ideally, a true and honest sounding, utterly beautiful, engagingly emotion-laden, tear jerking story. Should I keep going? Nope. Anyway, that kind of leads us to another wisdom.

ImprovisationConnect your shit: Yep. It’s okay to steal licks and stuff, but after some time you’re supposed to reach a point where you can come up with your own ideas. At that point, you should not only celebrate like crazy, but also it’s time to realize that you can still go two ways: play all kinds of different ideas of your own one after the other, just like in the case of the stolen licks, or make some creative effort to try and make some sense out of the thing as a whole.

What do I mean by that? Well, I mean that you should kinda foresee what’s going to come out of your instrument next, and arrange it on the fly to fit the whole thing together as a cohesive whole. Of course in reality, it means that most of the time you will need to be tricky and make the musical parts and ideas you played later sort of refer to the parts you played previously, thus making the sought after connection.

In an interview, Pat Metheny admits that in the beginning of his career, he got literally yelled at by Gary Burton for not making those connections between the improvised musical phrases. Yeah… *sigh* such is the hard life of a musician. -.-

Anyway, just to sum it up in a nutshell: be a melodic narrator of your own story, without ever losing the plot. And that is the end of my story for today.

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