One aspect the graded guitar exam will assess is your ability to improvise over a pre-selected chord progression by your examiner.
While this article is written from a guitar playing point of view, you can apply the theoretic and general thought process here to any instrument in any situation.
This article has been written for Rockschool on behalf of MGR Music by Leigh Fuge.
Firstly, what is improvisation?
Improvisation is defined as a piece of music, drama or other art that is created spontaneously without prior preparation. In the music world, improvisation is often heavily associated with lead guitar playing, however all instruments have the capacity to improvise.
While the art of improvisation is based around spontaneity and playing something that you have not prepared prior to that moment, it still has to be contextual to the piece you are improvising with. We still have to be playing in key, selecting the correct notes to improvise with and also approaching it from a stylistic perspective.
Before I improvise over a piece, I like to make a short checklist in my head that helps me get around the improvisation. I will ask myself some questions to mentally prepare myself without actually knowing what I will play:
What key is the track in?
This is obviously important. Without being in key, our improvised lines are not going to sit correctly in the track. In an exam you should be able to work out the key based on the chords given to you by the examiner. Once you’ve worked out what key you are playing in, you can then decide what scales you will be calling on for your playing.
What style is the track?
You can also use style to help choose scale types. In the lower graded exams, you will have a smaller pool of scales to choose from and as the grades increase, the scale pool will grow. If you are presented with a simple blues chord pattern in one of the minor keys then you will most likely gravitate towards a minor pentatonic, natural minor or blues scale. If the piece is more jazz orientated, perhaps some modal scales will be better suited. Use your scales to suit your stylistic playing.
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What is the tempo?
Tempo doesn’t have a bearing on the scale and key choices, but it does have a bearing on the style of playing. If the piece is a slow acoustic style track, then sweep picking 16th notes on the guitar won’t be stylistically correct.
What sort of artists could this track be likened to?
Does the track sound like any artists you already know? If so, perhaps you can emulate some of their licks. How would they approach that style? What would they use to play in that way?
In my own improvisations, I often have a pool of licks in my mind that I call upon. If I’m playing a specific blues style track, I will look for licks in my head that sit with artists that may be similar. These licks are probably not going to work if I’m improvising over a power ballad or a hard rock track. I will adjust my style choices based on this.
I always think that a good approach to improvisation, especially at an early stage, is to think melodically. Think about singing a melody line and then replicating that on your instrument. Can you hum or sing along with what you’re trying to play? Vocalising lines can be a great way of working out the phrasing you want to use.
When introducing students to improvisation for the first time, I always tell them to think in a very limited range of notes. Put on a contextual backing track and choose 4 sequential notes from the scale of your choice. Use only those notes to improvise over the track for a set period of time. I encourage the use of techniques such as string bends and legato but sticking within the construct of only 4 notes.
Limiting yourself to a small number of notes make you really focus on the phrasing and how you can use a small number of notes in so many different phrasing combinations.
Try it, you’ll be surprised at less being more.
Improvisation at a more advanced level can be a great platform to trial combining scales. If there are a few scales you want to combine, the best place to start is to overlay similar scales. For instance, the minor pentatonic and natural minor scales on guitar are similar shapes. Try improvising with a hybrid of these two shapes at the same time.
About the Author:
This article has been written for Rockschool on behalf of MGR Music by Leigh Fuge, a professional guitarist, tutor and journalist from Wales in the UK. He has been working in the music industry for over 10 years as a touring and studio musician with various artists, guitar tutor and writer for many high profile guitar publications. Read more of Leigh's pieces relating to Rockschool here...