Chapter 1:
Anyone can improvise

Start with a single note, and listen. A few tricks can help, too.

Anyone can make music on a guitar, from the first moment we hold one. Even if we have no training. Even if we have never seen a guitar in our lives. The instrument itself shows us how, right away. All we need is the will to create something beautiful, and an ear to listen.

What is improvisation?

Improvisation means playing off the top of our head, “extemporaneously”, or “without time” to prepare.

Improvisation involves an element of novelty—some unique expression that only we could make—but that doesn’t mean coming up with an entirely original composition (if there even is such a thing).

We can play parts of existing tunes, flowing from one bit to the next on a whim, floating on a stream of consciousness, adding our own embellishments as we are moved to do so.

Why improvise?

For one thing, improvisation is so much fun.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the whole point of all this is to create music. To create art, to express ourselves, to make our novel contribution to the universe. And in order to do so, to play the guitar with the same freedom as one might sing.

We can make art without first mastering the art form. The reason to study and practice music is to make better music. The music is the point, not the theory or the practice.

Every practice should begin and end with the improvisation of music.

The first note

The first note can be literally anything.

A tune can be played in any key. Or we can slide up and down the string to find an exact starting pitch.

The next note

Finding the next note is like a game.

It’s like making an educated guess. We can use anything we already know to inform our guess, but it’s often best to not think at all and just let our fingers choose. Then pause, listen, adjust.

The melody

Try to pick out a short melody. Whatever comes first to mind, something simple and short.

It’s hard at first, random and full of wrong notes. But it gets easier, the wrong notes fewer, as we explore, listen and learn.

Some tricks

There are some tricks that can make it easier to improvise in this way.

Beginner’s mind (aka lighten up)

The most useful trick for improvising on any instrument is to lighten up about what sounds good.

Rather than worry about how it will sound, or whether others would appreciate it, or whether we will live up to some expectation, it is far more effective to let go and allow ourselves to discover whatever we happen to find.

Like a beginner, or a child. With curiosity, innocence, and joy, and without expectation or fear.

Quiet quiet loud loud

If we are unsure what a note is going to sound like, we can play it quietly at first, to get our bearings, before playing louder with a more certain note.

Any random note is probably “in”

Finding an “in” note is almost as good as finding the “right” note. If we land on a note that wasn’t intended but which is still “in” the key, it still sounds musical, and we can treat it as a “melodic approach” to our intended note.

By the law of chance, any note picked at random is going to be “in” most of the time (58%, 7/12 chance).

Out notes are nearly in

Any note that is “out” is only one fret either direction from being “in”, so we can treat it as a “chromatic approach” into an “in” note, like we did it on purpose, and shift “in” by a fret in the chosen direction.

In notes are usually two frets apart

From an “in” note, the next closest “in” note is most likely two frets away (70%, 5/7 chance).

If the next “in” note is only one fret away, we can often feel it “pulling” to resolve.

If we don’t feel this pull, we should try going two frets in either direction and see what happens.

Vibrato can make intonation close enough

A trick for blending in with other musicians: differences in tuning and intonation between instruments can sometimes be covered with vibrato. A note doesn’t have to be perfectly in tune if it is passing back and forth (vibrating) through the perfect pitch.