Improvisation: Part 1

One of the first guitar teachers I ever had was John Tapscott. John was one of the biggest influences on me as far as deciding to make music my profession, and also helping me get a sense of artistic identity. John turned me on to the concept of improvising almost straight away. Just sitting there jamming on a blues progression and playing things totally off the cuff…it was very addictive.

As I grew older, much of the music I was listening to was partly based on this concept. I would be listening to people like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. These people who I have just mentioned have had a huge amount of influence on me musically, and that influence is still a big part of my approach to music many years later. All of them play with a tremendous amount of energy and fire and that’s something I caught on to early on when I was listening to them. They played everything with so much conviction and authority, and you just knew it was totally coming from the heart.

When I was just starting to learn how to improvise, my harmonic resources were pretty much limited to using minor pentatonic scales, and major scales….and my ears. Ultimately, I wasn’t too concerned about how every one of my notes functioned against the chord at hand…I was more concerned about tone, feel, and attitude…and looking cool while doing it. I never felt any inhibitions as a player to try and play beyond what I knew even if it meant sounding like I was falling down the stairs musically.

When I went to Berklee, I like every other student was immersed in learning music theory. We studied chord scales, tensions, upper structures, multi tonic systems, phrasing, polyrhythms, mechanical voicings….blah, blah, blah. Everything had a name for it and I think most of us felt a little overwhelmed with how much there was to know. There’s an expression I’ve heard many times that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. What slowly started to happen to me was that fear started to creep into my spirit. Fear of playing a wrong note, fear of losing the form of a tune while performing, or fear of sounding “unhip”. Performing for other people was a lot more intimidating all of a sudden, and on top of that…because there were so many incredible musicians (teachers and students) in that environment….it just compounded that feeling of intimidation. It felt like you were being laughed at.

While I was there, I was suddenly surrounded with more jazz music than ever before. At first, I had no desire to associate myself in any way with that kind of music. I remember hearing John Scofield play for the first time a couple of years before I went to Berklee. I thought he was just awful….I thought he sounded like he was playing out of tune, and that his technique wasn’t very good cuz’ he didn’t tap or use a whammy bar….lol. What I discovered was, these “jazz players” had an intimate relationship with melody and harmony that I just didn’t have.

As I listened more and learned more, I decided to study as much as I could with jazz instructors. I read books, learned standards, did tons of listening, played in small jazz combo ensembles, and basically tried to be a sponge with all my teachers and take in as much of their knowledge as I could. I would never be short on questions to ask my teachers, and they never belittled me or withheld their knowledge. They were all very unselfish people and were always happy to share their knowledge with their students. This has certainly influenced me as a teacher.

My goal at the time was not to learn to become a bebop player per se, but rather add on to what I was already doing as a rock improviser. Sooner or later you grow tired with playing the same licks over and over again, and I thought this would be the best way to progress.

My goal with this section is not to talk about mechanics of improvisation. There’s literally a sea of resources out there via private instructors, schools, books, play along CDs and videos that cover a lot of the mechanics of improvising. My goal here is simply to offer some words of encouragement to students who are going through the same frustrations that I did (and still do) as a player.

  • First off, I would recommend that you decide right now that you don’t need to be the best player in the world. .Aim to be the best player you can be. Not everyone will be the best, but we all have the ability to get better.
  • Never lose sight of why you’re learning theory and technique in the first place. Hopefully you’re doing it because you truly want to be a better player, and because you are truly committed to your craft. I say this because in an academic environment, learning new stuff can become something you’re “supposed to do” rather than something you want to do. Practicing can become a chore all of a sudden, rather than a labour of love.
  • I used to worry about never becoming unique as a player. A friend of mine who was actually studying to become a pastor talked about that very subject with me one day, as he felt the same way in his profession. At first he felt he had to be able to compete with the likes of a Billy Graham or whoever. What he told me is that he realized no one will ever do it quite like you will (I’m using the editorial you here) When I thought about that…I knew he was right. Everyone is different….you don’t have to work at it….that’s just how it is.
  • Don’t be afraid to go for it when you’re performing/improvising. Taking the biggest risks has the potential for the biggest rewards.
  • You will make a mistake….and lots of them. You don’t suck if you mess up….you’re learning…just learn to not make the same mistake twice. Every great player who is anybody has made more mistakes than you….that’s why they’re so great. Think of Babe Ruth…do you know how many times that guy struck out?
  • Many people are talented…but many of them will give up. The people who are successful are the ones who are persistent. They’re not afraid of making a mistake or being rejected, and they don’t quit.
  • Try not to be jealous of the achievements, abilities or success of other people. Ultimately it’s a waste of mental energy, and nothing good will come of it. Learn to acknowledge people for their achievements…learn from them and their mistakes.
  • Repetition is the mother of skill. I bet if you asked someone like Keith Jarrett or Miles Davis how many times they have played a blues….it would be in the thousands.
  • If possible, be consistent in your practice routine. Work on something until it becomes part of you. The tendency with a lot of students (including myself) is that they want to learn everything all at once and they’re very quick to move on to a new concept without fully incorporating the previous one. Rome wasn’t built in a day ya’ know. I heard that Coltrane was working on Giant Steps for about a year before he started to play it.
  • Even if you feel like your playing is not improving…keep at it. Progress usually happens in small increments and it’s hard to see it as it’s happening. It’s like watching a tree grow. I guarantee if you record your playing now, and compare it with a recording of yourself a year later, you’ll notice a huge difference.
  • I’ve been in a few situations where my group is opening for some seriously high caliber musicians. There’s always a tendency to want to show that you can hang with the big boys and you feel like you need to play a perfect show. I’ve found this to be counter productive because once you start having unrealistic expectations of the outcome, you’ll end up stifling creativity and you’ll probably be really bummed if they don’t happen. Improvisation is about being in the moment…not playing with an agenda. You can’t force yourself to play a certain way unless the music offers you the opportunity.
  • It’s not a competition to be better than everyone else. If you’re going to compete…compete against yourself. My goal as a performer is to play a better show than my last one. Someday, I’m going to kick my own ass!
  • Always welcome the opportunity to play with people that are better than you. As a matter of fact, I only call people that are better than me for my own gigs. That’s one of the best ways to get better is to be around people that will push you musically.

I have to say, that I really do love jazz music now. My list of influences has expanded to people like Keith Jarrett, Mike Stern, Pat Metheny, Medeski Martin Wood and John Scofield. Not to mention I love the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and many others. If I had the choice of going to music school to study, versus just pursuing a music career without any extensive training, I would still choose to go to school. Knowing more about music and becoming more intimate with it has really helped elevate my enjoyment of it. It’s taken a long time for the enjoyment part to return because it really felt like it went away for a while when I was at school. It’s like seeing an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time.



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