~ Improvisation ~

~ using intuitition and risk in the present moment ~

~ spontaneous composition of melodic lines ~

~ hear the changes in the single note line ~

~ over or through the chord changes ~

~ arpeggios will always tell the tale ~

~ any chord has many parent scales ~

~ from one pitch, various colors ~

~ composing a solo / solo breaks ~

~ soloing over one chord ~

~ one idea per chorus ~

~ improv preparing ~

Lydian b7 / melodic minor
melodic minor substitutions
chord type
the shedding
composing a solo
creating a solo / Saints
modal improv
spelling chords

'using music to synch up our heart, minds and hands together to spontaneously create musical art ...'

In a nutshell. Just a giant of a shell here really in trying to encapsulate the dimensions of such a topic in a few sentences of our Americana ways of improvising music. Luckily though we're talking music theory here for the most part so our intial improv distintion can be simply one of two pathways; are we creating our improvs over or through the chords? For in this distinction is the key to understanding how improv on guitar works across our spectrum of styles and how their theories are formatted through this Essentials text.

over the changes
through the changes
rhythm guitar
lead guitar
chord and melody

By necessity. When we go back into our early Americana history we realize the new folks coming to the Americas had to figure out ways to get things done with what they had at hand; they improvised. This inventiveness becomes a solid part of our musics; for it creates a quality of what each of the players involved might bring on any given day and they must by necessity negotiate all of it to bring the music forth. That "necessity is the mother of invention" works for art too.

'they had to improvise ... ' / K Burns footnote
wiki ~ 'by necessity Mother ...'

Improv history. In the jazz styles, the role of the improvisation is rather varied. From collective group improv of the dixieland styles to the featured soloist, we span a range of opportunities for artistic expression. Parallel to these approaches runs the evolution of the format of what the soloist has worked within. And while in show biz there's no end to the variety of presentation, in the theory, there's a rather distinct historical line that advances the musical challenges of the artist.

Once crossed, the theme and variations basis for the improvising jazz artist is now augmented by creating improvised melodic lines based upon what is provided by the written chord changes of a song, i.e., exploring the harmonic structure of a song. So from this point forward really, the prowess of the improvisor to find new coolness a bit beyond the written changes finds its own spotlight in show biz. The result? The gradual ramping up of the challenge of the written changes and an accelerated evolution of the theory surrounding chord substitution. In a word? The eventual evolution of bebop, often thought to be our most challenging music.

wiki ~ bebop

For the listener? A sort of 'wow ... how did they make that idea work' coupled with a deeper appreciation for a new unrestricted artistic potential of technical prowess, all driven by an artist's own self discipline of study to better oneself among their peers. Thus a new 'no limits' opening for a group of artists that mostly lived tightly restricted under the threat of psychological and physical harm including death, as their day to day American life.

written out
in the mix

A quick improv assessment. So, what if the style of music you love to listen to, perform and improvise on only grants you a 'four or eight bar break' every once in a while? And yet maybe you need to really 'crush' those eight bars when they come along, as they are a consistent feature of the songs in your folk, bluegrass or country styled show. Looking to step on a pedal and shred till the sweat pours out of the dancers?

'bring it'

A blues artist? Is your goal now to strengthen up your skills to improvise two solid, consecutive choruses of 12 bar blues, with a solid storyline and build for a solid climax each time you solo? A jazzer? Is your goal to extend the length of your solos to three choruses of rhythms changes? Go strong through a full chorus of a 32 bar jazz standard, chock full of sequenced changes and looking even further to evolve your improv through chord substitution? Dig jamming along on a vamp so structured to never really end? Progressions that encourage us to gradually evolve and journey to wherever our collective Muse decides to take us?

a chorus of blues
jazz up
rhythm changes
32 bar form
four bar jam loops

Muse on this a bit about what your goals and artistic needs are now and where you want to go. For even though 'all roads lead to Rome', some of them might get us there quicker than others :) A bit of true artistic, inner search then to focus and create our path to success.

wiki ~ ... all roads

Intermediate and beyond. For those theorists along in their improv studies there's a couple of sections yonder that skip the basics here. These are; blues chord chart substitutions and the chord substitution, modulatory properties and modernizations associated with the properties of V7b9. If these ring a bell or raise curiosity, click on over to explore or hang hear for more options.

Easiest way to begin. For brand new cats, lots of ways into this improv theory business really; a lot depends on the styles you dig and aspire to play as there's a wide variance to the degree of improve through our spectrum of Americana styles. Easiest way into all this? Old as the hills; sing and play. Got something to say? Sing, hum or mumble along and pitch it out on your gitfiddle.

spectrum of styles
sing and play

Just rough out the pitches one by one, then the rhythms. First to get it going then go deeper and find the nuance of your vocal ideas on your git, your guitar will sing right along with ya. That for some reading here this might be all the improv theory ever needed, for it's how it all usually begins anyway.


Formal music school. While attending formal music school there was a weekly class called jazz improv with Dr. Miller. Jazz improv was set up as a jamm session in the band room run by the good Doctor. Mostly horns, there was a rhythm section with Doc on guitar for backing the soloists. We'd read the melody down, then each in turn took a chorus improvising over the form of the chosen song.

Dr. Miller

Calling jazz standards, Doc had the 'radar', his term for hearing the theory in real time, to hear the relationship of any pitch to any chord. Judiciously facilitating the academics of a jamm, Doc would if necessary stop a soloist to make sure they knew the pitch / chord theory at that point in the tune. Sounding the wrong 3rd of the triad / chord was the most common, the 7th too.

spelling chords

Once the letter names of the chord were spelled out, inevitably Doc would strum the chord and have the soloist sound out its arpeggio pitches, checking each with the chord. Once everything was straightened out, he'd count it off and back to it we'd all go. This process was repeated for each of us in class.

count it off

Hear the changes in the line. What this adds up to is to hear the chord changes reflected in the improvised melody line of the solo. We called it playing 'inside the changes.' This basis, along with a few other improv essentials, create the topics for discussions that follow.

inside / outside
count it off

The majority of the theory centers on the diatonic relationships of parent scale / arpeggio / chord. In this pursuit of the art of improv, we initially approach soloing 'over' chords with scales, or 'through' chords with arpeggios and then begin to mix them together. Motored by rhythms, these three musical elements constitute the basics of the theory for improv in this book.


So with this in mind, select and explore directed by your own interests and curiosities or continue reading for more improv ideas. Pick and click and off ya go :)

trading fours / ideas

Overview. So while music improv includes a lot of coolness to consider, here now as music theory scientists we'll focus our initial investigations on the measurable elements involved with this general premise; that there's always melody pitches to be found tucked into a chord, there's always a chord or two to back a melody line and chords can be melodies also. This is the basis of the roughly 300 year old style of compositional we know as the homophonic style.

the homophonic style
chord melodies

We'll measure numerically by intervals, passing tones by scale and chord degrees and color tones all back and forth between these two groups. Thus, we get two 'sets' of pitches to create improv theory perspectives with; pitches arranged as scales or arranged as chords. Examine these 'sets' of pitches for making melody and chords. In A major. Example 1.

music and math

'Farm livin' is the life for me' :) ... Easy and fun linear melody idea followed by stacked pitches as a chord. Melody style chord tones? An arpeggio? Yep. Simply sounding the pitches of the chord from bottom to top and back. Hear the chord's quality in the arpeggiated line? Thus, the basis for improv through chord changes.

Old MacDonald
arpeggios become chords
chord quality

That we improv together. In a traditional styled performance of Americana musics, there are parts in the songs where we each get to bust out and jam to our own muse while the rest of the group provides a background for us to solo over. Mostly called 'improv' or soloing, even though one steps up to becomes a soloist, everyone else in the group is also still part of creating this improvised dialogue; through listening, supporting the soloist in musical and spriritual ways.

provide background

Thus in our collaborative thought process of soloing and support we all get to improvise together. Is this part of the magic that has enthralled folks since it all began? It sure is. That a part of the music they are hearing is being made up brand new right then and there just for them makes it special. And for the dancers in attendence? Probably, for through their aural process they too can enter into this collective improv dynamic to improvise their own vision of the musical story being told through their body movement to the pulse of time.

the dancers

“You fear the least what you know the most about.”

wiki ~ John Glenn

~ improv ~

~ composing a solo ~

~ soloing over one chord ~

'using music to connecting our heart, head and hands together in spontaneous creativity with music...'