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Why learning more scales won’t help you with your improvisation skills?

guitar improvisationLots of guitarists want to improve their improvisation skills.

But most of them are not getting any better at it because they don’t understand how to do that.

Slowly they start to believe that they don’t have what it takes to become good at improvisation. Usually they end up saying that they don’t have enough talent.

But very often the problem is not in the people, but in the method they use.

With poor methods you cannot get great results.

Learning to improvise the wrong way …

Being able to freely improvise on the guitar can be very rewarding and fun activity, but learning to improvise is usually not much fun. And not because improvisation is that difficult (which it can be) but because improvisation is in most cases taught very poorly.

I was taught that I can learn to improvise by learning scales. And since my teacher was more experienced player than I, I believed him.

So I started to learn every scale in every position all over the neck. I learned melodic patterns and sequences. It took a lot of time and patience to do that but the results were poor. When I was trying to improvise over simple chord progression, it sounded as if I was practicing scales. Just terrible.

I knew that something was wrong with that approach, but it took me years to find out what.

I see this problem all over the web these days. Almost every advice on improvisation comes from scales and arpeggios standpoint. In other words, if you want to learn how to improvise, learn more scales and arpeggios and melodic patterns. That’s it. Take this scale, play it over this chord and now you are improvising.

But there is a problem with this approach . . .

Scales are just material from which you can build your musical ideas. It doesn’t matter how many of them you learn, if you don’t know how to use them. Learning something and learning to use something is not the same thing but two separate worlds.

Learning more scales won’t help you with your improvisation skills. You will just end up with more material that you don’t know how to use.

Guitar improvisation the right way…

Here is a simple solution to the improvisation problem. If you want to learn how to improvise on guitar, learn to play simple melodies. Simple melodies are the key to more complex improvisation concepts.

If you don’t know how to play a simple melody over some basic chord progression, how can you learn to play more complex stuff?

Take your favorite song and transcribe the main vocal melody. Learn how to play it on the guitar. Record a chord progression of that song and play the melody over it. Embellish the melody with slides, bends, vibrato etc. Change it rhythmically, add some notes or take some notes out. Change the key, change tempo and change musical style.

Learn how great melodies are constructed. Learn how to emulate them on guitar. Explore how great singers create melodies, learn from other instruments / saxophone, violin, …/ Please just don’t practice another bunch of useless scales.

If you take your time and learn few melodies over different chord progressions, slowly you’ll start to hear simple melodies over any chord progression that you play over. Melodies will create a basic structure upon which you can build more sophisticated ideas. This is where the real improvisation begins …

Photo by: mooney47

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Watching music won’t make you great

Are you watching guitar lessons on youtube? Do you use only tabs and music notation for learning?

That’s good, but it’s not enough if you want to become the best that you can be. You are missing the most important part of music. You are not listening.

It is hard to imagine, but there was a time when there was no youtube. If you wanted to learn something, you had to listen. That’s how all the great players learned to play.

After years of struggling I realized that only by developing great ears you can become great musician.

My story

For a long time I was learning just from videos, tabs, books and charts. I was playing scales and modes, I was playing all those arpeggios but I had no idea how to use them. I was playing chord inversions all over the neck, trying to remember them, but I wasn’t successful. One day I realized that something must be wrong. I was spending many hours with guitar, but I wasn’t getting any better. I was confused. So many scales, so many arpeggios, so many chords – how can I learn all this stuff?  It was just impossible. And then I realized …

I am not listening to music. I am learning stuff just because it is written in the book. There is no real connection between me and music. I have no idea how it should sound, I just know how to play those numbers.

It was a big day for me. I realized that my knowledge has to come from real music not from books. Books and videos are great, but recordings are the real deal. You cannot get closer to your guitar heroes than by listening to their recordings.

Watching music won’t make you great. You have to listen. Very carefully. Stop watching. Start listening.

Learning from videos and tabs is great if you want to learn something really fast. It is good for hobby players, but it is not good enough for serious musicians. You won’t become great musician by watching videos. You won’t become great by learning from tabs.

I don’t know about you, but for me it is hard to learn from tabs if I don’t know musical background of people who are creating them. I cannot trust somebody who I don’t know so I rather started to trust my ears. I know that I will make a lot of mistakes and I also know that it doesn’t matter. It is for sure that I will learn much more just by learning through my ears.

I think there is no choice. You have to listen if you really want to get somewhere. I know it is the harder way to learn, but benefits are awesome. Your musical imagination will grow. Your timing will get better. And most important, you are learning from great players.

Recordings of your favorite players are your university

You don’t want to miss the opportunity to learn from the best. You have to listen to those recordings and learn from them. It is your chance to get very close to the players that you admire. Sit down, put on headphones and listen. Vibrato, bending, pull offs, slides, chord progressions. It is all there. When Steve Vai was transcribing Frank Zappa’s music, he spent 10-12 hours a day listening to one minute of music. Can you imagine how good his ears are? Continue Reading →

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