Monday, July 20, 2009

More about improvisation

People have a lot of different approaches to this, and I don't claim any great expertise in improvisation. I'm open to any suggestions of how to approach it, but here are my main thoughts, based on some discussions I've been having recently at Mandolin Cafe. I've included a couple of YouTube examples, the first kind of instructional.

When I approach an improvisation, I usually hope to be working on a tune I know well. If you don't know it well, all you can do, if you've had time to grasp the chords for the song, is play some appropriate scale runs and licks on the right chord. I play with a band who often have me go on stage with them on songs that I've only picked a couple of times. From this I have learned that both practicing and performing your improvisations thoroughly and regularly is the best way to get a successful result. I need to have played it in rehearsal four or five times, as well as practiced it in privacy quite a few more times, if the resulting improv is to be anything other than rather tedious chordal noise.

Improvisation is challenging, and preparation is essential. When I sketch out in my head what I'm going to try to do in a solo, I'll be thinking about licks I have under my fingers well, areas of the fingerboard that are good to explore in the particular key I'm playing in, and where I'm confident I can create some tension and excitement in my scale runs. While I play, I will also try to keep the melody running in my head. All of this is not easy, and the last part can be especially tricky if you don't know the song like the back of your hand. Many times I have come unstuck when the chorus of a song has a very different melody and chord structure to the verse, and I'm expected to solo over the verse right after hearing the chorus. I know from listening to other players I'm not alone in this.

I will also try to have planned out some simpler, fallback positions if things don't go well and I find my solo wandering too far out of my control. It can be very deflating to miss a few notes or hit some wrong ones when I'm supposed to be creating a soaring climax to a song, and once I lose confidence it all becomes more difficult.

I guess my main point is, people like to think of improvisation as something wild and free requiring no preparation. Well, it would be great if it were like that, but my own experience is not like that at all. For me, it's much easier to learn a fiddle tune or a solo note for note, than to work up the scales, licks and expertise to improvise a solo effectively.

Anyway, here are those YouTube examples so you can watch me struggling with these ideas:

Friday, July 10, 2009

Pick Hold

I recently decided I really ought to be using a more conventional pick hold. Until a few weeks ago, although I would usually use the standard pick between thumb and forefinger hold for playing chop chords, I would tend to use a three-finger hold for picking single lines. This is mainly because that's the pick hold I ended up with from teaching myself how to play guitar when I was 15, and it does have a few advantages.

I should add that I had been considering doing this switch for a very long time, but I kept putting it off because I was not sure what the result would be, and besides I liked my three finger grip, even though it sometimes felt quite awkward...

But anyway, I decided to do the switch, and here's my diary of the days that followed:

Day 1:
Well, it feels a bit weird, but it does make it easier to play consistently at volume, so I will stick with it. I can always change back to my old hold.

Day 2:
This is terrible, I can't play anything, and I don't even seem able to switch back to my old pick hold. How miserable and frustrating, my whole life sucks (etc. etc.)

Day 3:
Ah, okay, this seems to be starting to work.

Day 4:
This is great, it's so much easier, my tone is way better, and I am never going back to that ridiculous three-finger grip.