Trying to improvise as a musician is overwhelming – or it’s boring. There are two approaches to improvisations musicians typically choose. One gives them so many options they don’t know what to play, and the other gives them so fixed a structure that they end up playing like a robot. Either way, the result rarely sounds musical. Fortunately there is an easy and effective way to learn to improvise musically.

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Here’s the problem: if you or I sit down at a piano (for example) we might have the technical competence to play any combination of notes we can think of. You could choose any major or minor chord, pick any notes from any scale. The options for improvisation with 88 keys and ten fingers are overwhelming. Even on instruments which have a narrower range of options, the “you can play any possible note” mindset is intimidating.

So we don’t approach improvisation like that.

Instead, we choose a key. That gives us a smaller set of notes to work with. It also gives us a set of chords that will work well, such as I-IV-V-vi progressions.

Now our fingers have far fewer options and we can feel much more confident in which notes we choose but the improvisation can still be creative and interesting.

Choosing a key like this is adding a constraint to your improvisation, limiting the number of possibilities available to you – yet it actually frees you up to improvise more easily.

In this article I’m going to suggest you take things a step further. Add more rules – and so gain even more freedom in improvisation.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but it really works.

We’ll look in a bit more detail at this dilemma of improvisation, and then the “more constraints” approach before digging into some practical examples you can apply in your own improvisation practice.

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The Improvisation Dilemma: “All or Nothing”

Perhaps the biggest problem musicians have with improvisation is this issue of the “rules” for improvising. For many people (guitarists in particular) they quickly end up feeling trapped between two options:

Option 1: Ultimate Freedom

“Play whatever notes you like!”

“Just use your instinct!”

“If you’ve got a gift for music you’ll make great choices automatically!”

Sorry to put it bluntly – but this is ridiculous.

Yes, it is possible to improvise with no thought, relying on instinct. But that instinct (in 99% of cases) has been honed through active, thoughtful practice and training. So this is the end goal – not a beginner method.

If you try just blindly improvising with total freedom over which notes to pick, you’ll probably end up frustrated (and feeling a bit embarrassed) because you thought it was all meant to just come “naturally”.

This leads people to…

Option 2: Follow the rules

“Just use the notes of this scale and keep to basic rhythms.”

“Learn these riffs and licks in different keys and just play those as your solos.”

“Play these notes here and those ones there.”

This approach is particularly common with guitarists, who learn which fretboard pattern (i.e. scale) to use for their solos and then just meander up and down that pattern and call it improvisation.

You also see this approach in jazz instructional books like the ABRSM Jazz Piano series, where each bar of the “solo” section of the piece has a few suggested notes pencilled in and you are meant to improvise using those notes in that bar.

This great advantage of this approach is: you won’t sound terrible. You’re mostly protected from the danger of playing “wrong” notes by restricting which ones you are “allowed” to use. That can be liberating. Throw in a few expressive twists like pitch bends or more interesting rhythms and it can actually sound pretty good!

But it’s not very fun or satisfying for the player. It always feels more like you’re a robot than a musician.

Auto-generated guitar solo from some (actually quite cool) academic research

So what’s the solution? How can you have the confidence and safety of Option 2 with the true musical expression of Option 1?

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Embrace constraints

If you’ve been using Option 2 and felt your solos getting stale, you’ve probably felt limited by the rules you’re following. Maybe it’s time for a new fretboard pattern, or perhaps you should start randomly introducing accidentals to the scale?

Unfortunately going that route tends to land you in Option 1 (too much freedom) or back in Option 2 again (just with different rules to strictly follow).

Surprisingly, the real way to escape Option 2 isn’t to add more freedom: it’s to add more constraints.

You see, the problem with Option 2 is that it typically still gives you too much freedom. You’re protected from playing “wrong” notes but you still have total freedom about which notes to play from the set you’ve chosen (normally 5-8 notes across a few octaves) and the rhythms to use. As a result you actually end up with the curse of Option 1 within the framework of Option 2: you still have no real idea how to play a musically effective solo!

So how does adding more constraints help you? Surely that would just make you more robotic-sounding, wouldn’t it?

In fact, it doesn’t. By constraining yourself in varied and creative ways you actually give your inner musician a more reasonable task. Instead of being faced with a large set of notes and total rhythmic freedom, you narrow it down to the point where the options aren’t overwhelming – and your natural musicality can start to come out.

Let’s look at an example.

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Example: Constrain yourself to just a few notes

It may sound crazy, but the solo you played last week using all the notes of the minor pentatonic spread across three octaves, with pitch bends and vibrato and clever use of wah-wah effects? It might have sounded a whole lot better to your audience if you’d used just three notes and no embellishments.

Next time you improvise, try using just three notes from the scale – or even two, as recently recommended in our Jazz Experts Improvisation Guide.

Note: If you play a percussive instrument, or you feel this doesn’t apply, keep reading! The concept will still work for your instrument. In fact there’s even a demonstration on drums below.

It’s generally best to start with the first (i.e. bottom) notes of the scale. So for example if you’re starting from a C Major scale, use C, D and (optionally)