What Improvisational exercises work for you?

anthon_74anthon_74 Marin county, CA✭✭✭✭ Alta Mira M 01
Hey Friends,

In the last few months, I realized that for quite some time now, I've been avoiding one specific area of practice - Simply playing a backing track of a tune and improvising over it in real time. Strange that I would do all these other things such as lick/phrase connection out of time, transcribing solos, developing lick/phrase ideas, etc, yet exclude the rather important practice of ACTUALLY improvising like I'm jamming. So, as I've begun to focus on practicing real time, to the music improvising, I'm hungering for different exercises to strengthen weaknesses I have. Here are a few I've been dabbling with already.

1)Straight improvising with no rules
2)Improvising in specific "zones" of the guitar neck (like between frets 0 and 7 only)
3)Chord comping only.
4)Octave comping only.
5)continuous eighth notes only

What other real time improvisation exercises have you done that have worked?



  • NylonDaveNylonDave Glasgow✭✭✭ Perez Valbuena Flamenca 1991
    Posts: 462
    Playing tunes by ear in different keys. Any phrase that throws me woodshed that and work it round all twelve keys. Use a different fingering for every key to try and get away from thinking in fingerings and instead to thinking in melody.

    Playing with a responsive accompanist, which means avoiding other guitarists who don't respond to dynamics and all forms of Karaoke, playalongs. The influence of playing with unresponsive people can be hard to shake, space and nuance are a big part of Django's playing and extremely hard to hear in most jams.


  • TubaphoneTubaphone Kansas Mateos Django
    Posts: 29
    I record myself improvising, then try to notice things that need work. I typically work on them by making up exercises similar to yours, Anton, where I'm either required to do something particular or prohibited from doing something.

    Some of the most helpful ones have been:
    • limiting myself to certain strings or groups of strings. this is particularly fun to do mid-string change... Leave only strings 2, 3 and 4 on and play, for example.
    • no diminished. don't get me wrong, diminished runs are great, but declaring that I'm not allowed to use them helps me get outside of some comfort zone
    • follow a map. take a grille, and plan in advance where/how I am going to approach each section of it. for example, I'll plan to use an A-7 arpeggio around the 12th fret then a G#-7b5 arpeggio starting at the 10th fret over the first two chords of All of Me. This is particularly effective if I choose arpeggios/frets/licks etc. that are in underutilized areas of the fretboard for me, or are new to me in some fashion.
    • maintain the melody. here I try to preserve enough of the melody to be recognizable to someone that just walked in the room, but adding enough that it isn't just the plain ol melody. my favorite solos from others have this... they are not just noodles over a I vi ii V I, they are identifiable as Swing 42 or Daphne etc.

  • Lango-DjangoLango-Django Niagara-On-The-Lake, ONModerator
    Posts: 1,858
    Good topic, Anthony!

    For several years I practised with backing tracks, but since I play in a trio without a rhythm guitar, I gradually realized that that wasn't really building the kind of chops I really needed.

    So now I've learned to practise without any accompaniment, and try to alternate between chord melody and single note style.

    Sometimes I do this with a metronome, and sometimes I do it with tapping my foot.

    I am inspired by the sax/clarinet player who leads my group, he can play absolutely unaccompanied and still make it interesting and swing. I've envied that ability for years and finally I'm able to do it, albeit with occasional train wrecks...
    Hugh Huffaker
    Paul Cezanne: "I could paint for a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing."

    Edgar Degas: "Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.... To draw, you must close your eyes and sing."

    Georges Braque: "In art there is only one thing that counts: the bit that can’t be explained."
  • t-birdt-bird Portland, Oregon Castelluccia Nuages, Dupont Nomade
    Posts: 119
    stuart wrote: »
    play the arpeggio for any chord (the less likely the better) and try and make it work over the progression.

    @stuart Can you expand on this a little? I'm intrigued, but not exactly sure what the process would look like.
  • spudspud paris, france✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 101
    If im using playbacks (and i probably use them too much, but i often let them run on a random order) to avoid just 'noodling' all the time i try:
    - the melody in another octave or position i am not used to
    - 1 chorus note soloing (you only get one chorus so you cant just noodle)
    - 1 chorus chord solo
    - 1 chorus octvaves
    - 1 chorus comping including tremelos
    - 1 chorus imagining someone singing the melody and trying small fills in between their phrases
  • anthon_74anthon_74 Marin county, CA✭✭✭✭ Alta Mira M 01
    Posts: 561
    Awesome Ideas !! I was actually just trying Tubaphone's restriction of only soloing using 3 strings, and it already got my brain thinking in other ways.

    The idea of doing a solo with NO diminished runs sounds pretty frightening, so I guessI should try that one as well.

    As for the Bireli Idea that Stuart posted, I agree with T-bird, can you elaborate, as I'm having a hard time understanding what that one entails, but I'm certainly intrigued.

    Will (aka - Lango Django), I'm the opposite of you, I tend to practice too often with no backing track. Though I guess the metronome acts as one? Maybe I should try just a metronome with the song in mind?

  • NylonDaveNylonDave Glasgow✭✭✭ Perez Valbuena Flamenca 1991
    edited October 2016 Posts: 462

    Good luck Anthony.

  • I notice no one is using one note solo's. One of the best exercises out there IMO. Create a credible solo using only one tone. One has to pick well, which means knowing the harmony of a song and the rhythm inherent in the melody. Maybe its more of a sax player thing but do give it a whirl. Does wonders for ones sense of rhythm
    The Magic really starts to happen when you can play it with your eyes closed
  • ChiefbigeasyChiefbigeasy New Orleans, LA✭✭✭ Dupont MDC 50; The Loar LH6, AJL Silent Guitar
    Posts: 341
    Unless it's already understood, I'm surprised no one has mentioned simply playing through the changes very slowly. I find that this eliminates the need for a metronome because it's more like working your way through a ballad version of whatever it is you're trying to play.

    Secondly, since we know the song so well, I think the backing track is going on in our head anyway. Therefore, I tend to just slowly work my way through, finding something interesting to play because I can hear the tune in my head and I can feel the rhythm, albeit, much slower. In this respect, I think I'm working this like Lango-Django observed. I too am impressed by the musician who can play solo and carry a tune by himself especially on a single note instrument like a sax. The best I ever saw was Sonny Rollins. Need I say more?

    Finally, I tend to not be as well organized in my approach as many of the responders here. I haven't had the time in studying this music to be as comfortable with all the variations on arpeggios in different keys, for example. Because I am so ear-oriented, I tend to be more melody-oriented. In that respect, perhaps I'm following the tradition of those early players who learned this music. I have taken the approach, as suggested by many, of learning entire solos. I'm finally starting to reap the benefits of that approach by working in variations of what I've learned.

    One recent example comes to mind. I learned the solo for "Bistro Fada." I watched a couple of performances by Stephane Wrembel and noticed that he occasionally improvised during a repetition of the "A" section of the tune. I thought to myself "I can do that!". And I did. I worked slowly, playing through the changes in my head and hearing the waltz rhythm simultaneously. I worked out an interesting progression which ended with a Bach-fugue like passage over the final chords of the section before going back into his version of the tune.

    Of course, that was not a true "in the moment" improvisation. It's just something I heard and then leaned toward when I realized I wanted to create something in that moment. For true improvisation, I allow myself to wander, realizing that if I'm not actually on the right note, it's usually just a fret away. It's a kind of exercise requires a bit of courage, and it also helps to do it in your living room as opposed to in front of an audience. When I do it, if I feel lost, I will anchor my thoughts again to any chord or arpeggio I can find. But I will try to again wander off and see where it leads me.

    If all this sounds a little undisciplined, it's because it is. Fortunately, I still have enough discipline to work on the required aspects of technique and harmonic knowledge that I've gotten me this far. But I think you've got to let yourself be inspired sometimes. A little bit of Sonny Rollins usually does it for me.
  • I've been sweating a podcast called GuitarWank recently with Scott Henderson and Bruce Forman. Despite the unfortunate name, these two give a great deal of things to think about bringing to the practice room. There are some fine ideas all over the place in this post and they are well worth trying, but I'll summarize two things that I've tried to practice as a result of listening to these two talk:
    - Left and right - think like a piano player and play a chorus with a line followed by a chord, line-chord, line-chord...all through the chorus. Maybe that chord is simply the 3rd and 7th of the chord you are playing over.
    - Remember - these guys both refer multiple times to a lot of guitar players taking a million solos within a chorus and forgetting what they initially played. They suggest using a motif through a single chorus, obviously relevant to the chord you are playing. They suggest that many guitar players play a lick and then another lick and then another lick ad infinitum resulting (to their ears) in what sounds like starting a new solo on each chord. The "remember" part and the point is to try to come back to something you've developed earlier in the chorus or solo and bring it to closure.
    There are quite a few more, but these are pretty simple and good ideas to work on.
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