Monday, December 22, 2008

Improvisation: Learning to 'Play What You Hear' on Guitar


Musical freedom and fluency are the goals of all aspiring improvisers, regardless of the musical language they wish to employ. (Some people wish to speak Blues, others Klezmer.) In order to gain this fluency, you have to not only learn the music, but also where to find the music on the guitar.

First problem: identifying and organizing what you are hearing.

Learning music requires a what musical torture professionals refer to has ear training and music theory. But it's really not that scary. It's simply about learning to critically listen to music and identify different sounds.

Here's a link to a decent site that has the standard interval, chord, and chord progression memorization exercises: Good-Ear. Those exercises are good, and they are a big part of the kinds of ear training you will receive at an American music school.

Far better is actually learning harmony.

The best way to do this is to explore this book: Harmonic Experience by W.A. Mathieu. If you are comfortable with your ear, you can probably do a lot on your own in the beginning. Otherwise, get yourself a decent music teacher who is familiar with this fine book. Wink!

What I like about this method is that it I have personally gotten a much deeper knowledge of harmony from my studies with Mr. Mathieu and his book than I have from years of studying other methods.

The second problem: Finding this music on your guitar.

Finding all of this music on the guitar presents us with an interesting and complex set of problems.

Standard Tuning (E A D G B E) on the guitar gives us a fantastic system of open chords and, of course, the ever popular blues scale.

However, that same tuning system that gave us the blues scale and all those great open chords makes things pretty tricky when you look at what it takes to learn just a few open position major scales. There's a different pattern for each different key! There's going to be a lot to learn. And that's just the open position.

Once we learn about movable Barre Chords and start getting curious about leaving the comfort of open position, many of us get stumped by the mystifying complexity of the instrument presented in all of those nasty chord and scale boxes in awful books like the The Guitar Grimoire.

If you are trying to learn the organization of the fretboard, a far better investment than that horrible tome would be to take some time googling and learning the CAGED system of guitar organization. There's a good series of books on this subject called Fretboard Logic by Bill Edwards. These ideas will help you to break down the fretboard and 'visualize' it musically.

From there, I highly recommend The Advancing Guitarist, by my guitar master and guru Mick Goodrick.

In the meantime, perhaps you will enjoy some ideas for 'Playing What You Hear' on guitar in an article from the pre-eminent source of all knowledge: wikipedia. Seriously, this article is not a bad start.


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