How to Improvise Better on Your Instrument

Learning how to improvise can be a bit terrifying if you stop to think about it.

As musicians, we’re taught to stick within a certain set of boundaries in order to function.

A finger placed a centimeter off creates a buzz instead of a note on the guitar’s fretboard. Sing one note too flat or sharp and it could spoil an otherwise great musical performance.

Improvising music is a whole other ballgame for musicians when it comes to performance expectations.

In order to learn how to make music, musicians have to start by following the rules. So when we’re told to go off script and sing or play literally whatever we want, it’s only natural to feel intimidated.

While improvised music is hard for some musicians to create, the process delivers massive creative benefits. Learning how to improvise helps musicians develop ideas and better understand music.

If you want to learn how to improvise on guitar, piano, or any other instrument, you came to the right place. In this article, you’ll find everything you need to get started.

What is improvisation?

Musical improvisation is the act of making up music on the spot. This can be done either by singing or playing an instrument.

As musicians, most of what we play is pre-planned, whether it’s a song, scale, or technical exercise. Improvisational music is a completely separate from sticking to a strict plan for what you perform.

Improvised music can be playing spur of the moment melodies over predetermined chords and rhythms, or performing material that’s completely made up on the spot.

Improvisation is a hallmark of jazz music, but it’s a tool many other musicians use to unlock ideas.

Improvisation is a hallmark of jazz music, but it’s a tool many other musicians use to unlock ideas.

How to improvise over chord progressions

If you’re completely new to improvisation, practicing with predetermined chord progressions is a good place to start.

Start by choosing a simple chord progression and looping it. This can be done easily through your DAW, or your band. Choose something simple and easy to play like the 12-bar blues, or even a progression of just two chords.

To get the most out of improvising over chords, you’ll need to give yourself plenty of time. Try starting with sessions that are at least five minutes long.

When you start playing, resist the urge to adjust the underlying chords until the session is over. Instead of trying to control the experience, try your best to work with it in a way that unlocks your creativity.

Instead of trying to control the experience, try your best to work with it in a way that unlocks your creativity.

You’ll soon find that some ideas work better than others, and you’ll naturally develop those throughout the session.

For vocalists, everything here applies, but there’s one additional thing to think about. Unless you’re freestyle rapping, you’ll probably have to sing melodies in gibberish during improvising. It can feel––and sound––awkward, but it’s a great way to create melodies for songs.

You’ll get the most out of improvising melodies over chords if you feel comfortable with yourself and your surroundings.

Tips for how to practice improvising music

Here are some helpful tips for improvising on your instrument. These apply no matter what your instrument is and how you choose to improvise:

Get rid of your judgements and expectations

No matter how you choose to improvise, the beauty of it is that there are no wrong decisions.

No matter how you choose to improvise, the beauty of it is that there are no wrong decisions.

The same expectations and pressure you put on yourself to help you perform well in a conventional setting are obstacles when it comes to improvising. The more you can put them out of your mind, the freer you’ll be to explore and create.

Record your sessions

You’ll quickly find that improvisation shakes loose a whole mess of great ideas. Keep them from slipping away by recording them on your smartphone or computer. Listening back to improvised sessions can also help you improve your technique and playing style.

Start with a plan

Jumping into complete free improvisation can be a big challenge for inexperienced musicians. To ease into it, try playing over a looped rhythm, bass line, or chord progression first. This is especially applicable for bands interested in improvising.

Try out different approaches

This tip is especially geared towards songwriting. If you find yourself creating the same musical ideas over and over again, improvisation is a great way to break out of your rut.

If you find yourself creating the same musical ideas over and over again, improvisation is a great way to break out of your rut.

By making a conscious effort to explore different rhythms, chords, and melodies in your playing, you’ll be able to move past tired ideas. Let go of what feels comfortable and allow yourself to make mistakes and new ideas will follow.

Improve and improvise

There is no wrong or right way to improvise, but by not taking yourself seriously you’ll be able to better explore your musical intuition without boundaries.

Following the rules and focusing on being the best musician you can be will help you be great on stage and in the studio, but improvisation is the time to let go of that pressure and create.

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