In the last two articles on improvising I covered the basics of music improvisation and then provided you with 6 steps to start improvising on any instrument in any genre. Improvisation is featured in virtually all styles of music but a majority of people relate it to the rock and jazz genres, so let’s look at some specific ways to kickstart your rock or jazz improvisation.
Remember that whatever the genre, an optimistic attitude is key to helping you become a successful improviser. Each success story has a beginning; so you too can start your journey to becoming a great improvisor regardless of your experience, just follow these tips and most importantly feel the music and believe in yourself.
Let’s begin, with some simple guidelines for beginning rock improvisation.
Improvising rock music
Rock music is a genre that is typically characterized by heavy drums, distorted guitars, powerful vocals and extended guitar solos. Most rock bands are made up of a vocalist, a guitarist, a drummer and a bassist. Improvisation in rock is normally focused on the lead electric guitar, but bassists and drummers can also knock out some incredible improvised solos.
So what sets rock improv apart from other genres? Here are some things to bear in mind.
Keep your rhythms simple and straight
When learning to improvise rock, always remember that the music is to a great extent driven by simple rhythms with a straight beat. When improvising rock music, you need to be more confident and precise than to be complex. As you become more confident you can experiment with more complex rhythms and techniques but begin with simple, solid rhythms.
As a simple exercise, try improvising using only the rhythm played by the drummer. You can use your favourite songs or a backing track for this. You’ll find the drum plays a simple consistent pattern bar after bar. Can you create a compelling solo using just that rhythm? Then experiment with ways to adjust that rhythm, perhaps adding or removing particular beats, to create your own improvised rhythms still true to the overall feel of the track.
→ Learn more about getting rhythm
Stick to proven scales
A common hallmark of rock solos is the use of pentatonic and “blues” scales, particularly for guitarists. This comes from the influence of blues music on early rock. The pentatonic scale is a lot simpler than other scales used in rock improvisation. To start experimenting with rock solos on your guitar put on a basic 12-bar blues backing track, and experiment with the scale’s notes along with the track.
Here’s a tutorial on how to play simple licks in minor pentatonic scales:
After coming up with a lick or two over the backing track, don’t jump into playing with new licks just yet. Instead try playing the same licks, but this time with some variations. You can create variations by changing the rhythm of the notes, changing one or two notes in the lick or by simply changing the way you ornament the notes with bends and vibrato.
→ Learn more about improvising using the minor pentatonic scale
Use simplified chords and familiar progressions
Power chords are also common in rock (and metal) genres due to their aggressive sound, especially when used with distortion effects. They are simple to play and it’s easy to understand the theory behind the chord.
A power chord is neither major nor minor because it uses just the root note and the fifth – not the third. This ambiguity between major and minor make them a popular choice to underpin solos: with the rhythm guitar playing power chords, the solo guitar is able to improvise quite freely over the top.
In rock music 4-chord songs are everywhere. This makes it important that you learn how to solo effectively over those standard chord progressions. When a song uses a more unusual progression you will often find that there is an underlying I-IV-V-vi progress it derives from, or that you can use the same kinds of techniques for its chords too. This makes soloing over 4-chord songs a great way to build a strong foundation for your rock improvisation.
→ Learn more about improvising using chord tones
In the moment but remembered forever
Just because improvisation is “in the moment” and unique, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from each solo you play. One powerful tip for improving your rock improvisation skills is to record yourself and then listen to what you have played.
Ask yourself: Which bits were good? What led you to make mistakes? Are there lessons you can use for your next solo?
Unlike genres like jazz which focus on live performance, rock music is strongly geared towards recording, which means that rock solos are actually often not improvised. The artist will have honed their solo with analysis and editing during practice until he is happy enough with it to lay it down on the album. To become a great rock soloist you should remember that a rock solo can be composed as much as it is improvised. Use your improvisation skills to create, but then use recording and your composition skills to analyse and improve it.
After a few tries you’ll probably hear yourself playing something which could pass as a basic rock solo. Nice! It doesn’t seem so intimidating now does it?
Speaking of “intimidating”, let’s move on to a genre which to outsiders can seem like the ultimate in improv intimidation… Next time we’ll look at how to get started improvising jazz.
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