A Guide to Improvisation
Have I Got Blues For You
What does it mean to Improvise?
Improvise: To create and perform spontaneously or without preparation.
This definition is slightly misleading because everything we do leading up to the improvisation is preparation. All the music we listen to, all the scales we practice, all the pieces we learn to play, and all the theory we study leads up to this point. The music we consume is the music we play.
Dizzy Gillespie - A master of musical improvisation!
Think about conversation. Whether we speak one on one, or have a group chat, we are improvising. We are using the language we have heard, read, and practiced in order to create a dialogue on the spot. Improvising on an instrument is no different. So how can we begin to look at improving what we are “saying” when it comes to improvisation? There are many approaches and methods, but let's start with the basics.
The 12-bar Blues
At its simplest, the blues is comprised of a 12 bar form and has four beats in a bar. This blues is in the key of C. If we take a look at the chords with regards to their relationship with the key we can see that the C7 chord is chord I(1)and lasts for four bars, the F7 chord is chord IV(4) which lasts for two bars before returning to chord I and the the G7 chord is chord V(5) which takes us into a V - IV - I progression to end.
This is a great place to start practicing your improvisation as it is simple.
Let’s take a look at the three chords in a C blues in more detail:
(Ever wondered why your teacher keeps asking you to practice your scales and arpeggios? Well here we go!)
Each one of these chords are comprised of four notes: the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th.
When starting out, you can select one note to play from each chord and make up different rhythms on that note. Listen to how each note sounds while being played over the corresponding chords. Use these backing tracks below to play along at home - make sure to choose the right key for your instrument!
Over time, you can switch to playing two notes per chord, then three, and so on. You can do a lot with just three notes!
When you get comfortable with how the notes sound in each chord, you will find some notes are shared by neighbouring chords. Let's go back to our arpeggios:
You can see the note C is found in both C7 and F7, and F is found in both F7 and G7. Try playing the same note while the chord changes underneath, can you hear the sound change? Write any ideas down in your practice journal, or download our worksheet, and this will help you to slowly build up a vocabulary you can use in your improvising.
The next step is to look at the distance between notes. For example, if you take Bb, the 7th of the C7 chord, you’ll notice that it is only a semitone away from A, the 3rd of F7. It's the same with the 3rd in G7 (D), it moves up a semitone to the 7th of F7 (Eb).
You'll want to take advantage of these small movements as they will help to create a sense of direction in your improvising by creating smooth sounding lines.
I hope this has been a useful post to aid you in beginning your journey into improvising, it's a long but fun process. Download our worksheet that has the 12 bar blues chords and examples of phrases to use. Play along with the backing tracks on this page and feel free to record yourselves and ask an adult to send them to us on social media, we'd love to hear them!
Written by Danny White