Often times I find myself in a position of being asked about improvisation by players interested in improving their standing in this particular area. I wanted to create this brief article to talk more about what good improvisation actually is, and give some helpful tips.
To make things short, it’s all about syntax. When you talk, each sentence is unique, you will never have said something exactly the same way twice. Yet, most of us use very few words. There is nobody alive who knows the whole dictionary. Even if we did use copius amounts of vague and unusual words, we would probably alienate most of those around us! What we do is re-use the same group of words but use them in a slightly different context, with a different tone and alongside different words each time. So one word could be used multiple ways. Even a sentence can be said in different ways even if the words are the same, think of intonation and punctuation.
My point is that improvising music is not spontaneously coming up with completely original ideas on the spot and out of thin air, none of us can truly do that. We need to have learned something at some point to be able to develop ideas fluently from that base. Improvisation is simply the reorganization of already assimilated information. So if you are just learning a scale for the first time and wondering why you don’t quite sound like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix or Pat Metheney, now you know. These guys didn't just learn the scale and then through some magical talent sound great playing them straight away. They needed to learn the scale and then find other players who play it well, learn licks and phrases using that scale, keep doing this for years until they have enough of a foundation to build off and play around with. You cannot build something from nothing, and if you do, it likely won't sound professional.
To start truly improvising, you must learn from the greats. Study the way they use the scales, form licks and create melody. Once you have many ideas from several different sources, play around with the order, the phrasing, change notes, change the rhythm, practice different ways of getting into and out of the lick or even re-harmonize it. These are just a few of the possibilities. This is the essence of improvisation. The spontaneous manipulation of already acquired information. When you do this, you may find you do come up with something unique and different, and it may meld into another lick or give you new ideas. The point is you need something there to start with and simply knowing a scale is not enough to make you sound good. That is akin to learning 100 Russian words but not knowing what they mean or what order to put them in.
It is a long process and it can be labor intensive, but once you have amassed a big group of licks and ideas, new ones will follow. The main art of improvisation is being able to manipulate and change things at a fast and near spontaneous rate while on stage. This is true improvisation. It is, however, possible just to learn a whole bunch of licks and swap them around. This will make you seem like you are improvising to the audience, but it is not true improvising. After several gigs you may start to sound the same and grow frustrated with your "bag of licks.” Practice taking licks you already know and switch the notes around, change the rhythm, etc. With constant practice, you will find you get quicker and more adept at doing this. With time and practice you may find you are able to do this on stage without too much effort. At this point you are closer to your quest to becoming a great improviser!
As always, have fun and keep practicing!