Why is improvising so hard?

Guitar Noises #10: July 9, 2021

Hello! Welcome to another edition of Guitar Noises, a newsletter about learning guitar online. This is issue #10 and I’d like to send a BIG thank you to everyone who has been here since the start. For anyone just joining us, you can check out the archives for all the topics I’ve written about so far.

Ok! Now for this week’s Guitar Noises:

Why is improvising so hard?

Learning how to improvise is the most important challenge in your musical development. Just like in life, you can’t control all situations. You can only control how you react to them. If you can jam, play along, or make up something cool - all other names for improvising - you can play anywhere with anyone.

Learning how to improvise should be your long term musical goal.

Part of what makes improvisation so hard to learn is the student has to do most of the work on their own. A good teacher can offer guidance and direction, but figuring out how to create something special in the moment is going to be between you and your guitar.

Believing in yourself isn’t enough. You need to learn the language you’re trying speak. Memorizing scales is a crucial step for guitarists. But improvisation isn’t any good if you’re just regurgitating scale-like passages.

When you’re improvising you are playing in the moment. You aren’t just making stuff up. You are composing at a high speed. To get better at improvising you don’t practice improvising. You practice composing. As you get better at it, you can speed it up.

When practicing guitar you are supposed to be thinking all the time. But when you’re playing guitar you shouldn’t be thinking too much about anything. Thinking will only slow you down and block your flow.

A good way to know how well it’s going is to record yourself playing. A simple video on your phone will suffice. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable when we hear our own voices. Seeing videos of ourselves playing can bring similarly uncomfortable feelings. But listen to your musical creations. As a listener it’s easier to detect what isn’t working and see how something might be improved.

Every musician can learn to improvise. Here are a few places to look to help you get further along.

Why is Improvising So hard? is a free video from JamPlay (no affiliate link here). The video only scratches the surface but there are a few good pointers if you’re new to improvising.

If you are in search of regular tips on improvising and guitar in general, I highly recommend following Tomo Fujita on YouTube. Tomo is a professor at Berklee College of Music who shares a ton of guitar wisdom on YouTube and his own sites. Here’s one of his videos on improvsation which will give you an idea of his philosophy.

I’ve found most of Tomo’s videos on guitar wisdom to be incredibly useful. His low budget, lo-fi lessons are a nice foil to some of the slicker produced videos on YouTube. And he’s one the greatest guitar teachers out there.

Improvisation is where most great music comes from. At the heart of improvisation is starting with something relatively straightforward that a lot of people can do, and turning it into something that only you do.

What are your tips for improvising?

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The Improvising Fingerstyle Guitarist

Improvisation and fingerstyle guitar seem like incompatible topics. Belgian composer Gilbert Isbin has been teaching improvisation for fingerstyle guitar for a long time. Some of his lessons on fingerstyle improvisation were posted on Guitar Noise way back in 2001. In the intervening years he has honed his and recently published The Improvising Fingerstyle Guitarist.

The book comes with more than 70 audio files that are free to download from Mel Bay. There is a kindle version and paperback version available from Amazon.

You can find my review of The Improvising Fingerstyle Guitarists on Guitar Noise.

Easy Guitar Listening

Sure, Hotel California is great. I just don’t think I need to hear it on the radio every day for 40 years. Fortunately there’s a radio station that plays great guitar music all day. Radio Guitar One has a more varied playlist than a typical classic rock station that plays The Rolling Stones 50 times a day.

Radio Guitar One was established in 2016 in an effort to create the ultimate online radio guitar network. It started as a smooth jazz station focusing on guitar players. Since then, they’ve added ten stations all focused on great guitar playing. The network broadcasts for free, twenty-four hours a day and can be found at www.radioguitarone.com.

There are currently 2,000 listeners tuning in every day, and close to 11,000 Facebook followers. If you’re looking for a wider variety of guitar music than your hometown station gives, join the community of guitar enthusiasts that flock to Radio Guitar One every day.

That’s all for this week. What will you be listening to this weekend?

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You can email me at paul@guitarnoise.com or follow me on Instagram & Twitter.