THE JAZZ BOX
We cop our favorite licks. We devour great
recordings tracing the history of jazz guitar. We try to articulate and understand
the question: How do you improvise?
Here are some thoughts on improvising
that we students of jazz guitar (it’s a life-long pursuit, you know) might do well to
consider along the way.
Wait your turn. Comp unto others as you
would have them comp unto you. When it is
your turn, let the other players interject something between phrases. Then respond.
25 Ways to Improve Your Improv
what’s down that road. Find some new ideas
along the way.
Practice. Above all else, this is what makes
the rest of the list possible. There is no
replacement for learning scales, listening to
the relationship they have with chords, and
committing all of that to muscle memory.
Get your chops in order.
Admire public speakers. Especially when
they are speaking without notes. Which ones
have fun banter going on with people? Notice
their sense of dynamics, the rise and fall of
their voice, the authority and confidence with
which they speak, the humor, the gentleness
or strength. They energize or soothe, inspire
or comfort. We know when they’re sincere and
when they are not. Play like that.
Tell it! Tell it! Tell it! Repetition is effective
and exciting when you find something to hang
onto. The Giants win the pennant! The Giants
win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!
Stick to the topic. Soloing over changes is
very much like answering questions after a
prepared speech. It’s best to know the topic
thoroughly. Learn the melody. Learn the chord
changes. Be able to say a lot about those
things in your own way.
Relax. In order to be in the moment and
fully experience the musical conversation
that is taking place, it’s important to be
comfortable and worry-free.
Listen. Ear training is essential to playing,
just as listening is essential to speaking. Fine
tune it by singing solfège and memorizing
intervals. Recognize what you hear and be
able to use it in your own way.
Study. When you really know your topic,
you can speak freely on it. Learn theory
and harmony. Transcribe solos you like and
Consider language. Appreciate the improvising skills you have and use every day in
conversation with others.
Limit. Just for practice, try making random
measures off-limits as you solo. It’s hard to
lay-out during your favorite part of the progression, but it’s a great exercise in restraint
and phrasing awareness.
Be aware of melody. Be an instant composer. Create a melody that has a shape; that
is singable. Make melody your top priority
in your playing, as opposed to just finding
Communicate. Be honest. It will be different
every day. Express yourself.
Read. Great storytellers are masterful at
developing an idea.
Love your tone. It’s very distracting to play
when we think it doesn’t sound good. Practice
getting your sound in every environment.
Play with dynamics. It is said that if you want
to get someone’s attention, whisper. Think
about someone who whines on loudly at you
for way too long. Now think about someone
who has a range of loud and soft, appropriately matching the mood. Leave some headroom
for when you get excited. Keep it on the quiet
side, then let it build. The band will follow you,
so will your listeners.
Enjoy comedy. Comedians will say something funny. Later, they’ll allude to it and it’s
even funnier. We get the joke because we
were in on it the first time. Come back to
reference something in your solo that will
give you and your listeners a spark of recognition and even a chuckle.
Tell a story. Give it a beginning, a middle,
and an ending.
Be polite. Performing is not the time to practice. If the band leader takes a nice concise,
one-chorus solo, better bring yours in for a
landing after one chorus, too, even though
you’d love another shot at it.
Forget manners. Performing is no time to
hold back. Get loud and sweaty. Get an idea
going that transcends chord changes and
run fast and long. Take it to the stratosphere
where there are no rules.
Go with it. When the unexpected note
happens, make it good. Take a left and see
Quote and reference. If you hear a quote
coming that fits the chords, by all means throw
it in. No need to force a joke out of it, but if
something clever happens four bars later, go
ahead and zing away. Play the quote again
over the “wrong” changes, for example, and it
will be hilarious.
Pretend you’re at the gig. When practicing,
imagine being on stage, the room, the crowd,
the band, all in great detail. Solo like you
really mean it and it really matters.
Pretend you’re home. When you’re at the gig,
imagine the comforts of home and just play.
Be where you are. Notice what’s going on
in the room and have fun playing with that.
Embrace the unpredictable, spontaneous
nature of improvisation in every way, not
Speak up. Act “as if.” Who cares what you
play while you practice? Just try things out.
Pretend you’re as great as your soloing
heroes. Jump in and try it on, see what it feels
like. In the process, you will be playing freely
and ecstatically and that is a great big part of
the fun. Then, see #1.
Jane Miller is a guitarist, composer, and arranger
with roots in both jazz and folk. In addition to leading her own jazz instrumental quartet, she is in a
working chamber jazz trio with saxophonist Cercie
Miller and bassist David Clark. The Jane Miller Group
has released three CDs on Jane’s label, Pink Bubble
Records. Jane joined the Guitar Department faculty at
Berklee College of Music in 1994. janemillergroup.com