Practicing Improvisational Fluency

If, like me, a lot of your real-life playing involves improvisation then it can be tricky to know how or what to practice. Of course we can learn licks and patterns, but if we're not careful all our solos will start to sound like a collage of the same stuff played in a different order, and that's not really improvising. This lesson describes a simple practicing strategy to help you build fluency when playing off-the-cuff.

First set your metronome to a slow tempo that you can easily improvise over, one that gives you time to think about every note you play. I use about 60bpm and play eighth-notes (two notes for every tick of the metronome) but you may prefer to start much faster or slower. The point is to improvise in slow motion and really try to surprise yourself.

At this point be careful to avoid any of your standard licks and patterns. Actively look for new patterns, new ways to play things that you've never tried before. Try to apply the most advanced ideas you know about -- exotic scales, arpeggio superimpositions or whatever. Use every technique in your arsenal, too -- alternate picking, economy picking, sweep picking, tapping, hybrid picking, legato, wide bends, harmonics, the tremolo arm, whatever you have.

This is why the metronome must be set slow. If you play something you're already comfortable with it should feel too slow. Stay with a steady stream of eighth-notes (or quarter- or sixteenth-notes if you're going very slow or very quick); don't vary the rhythm and definitely never, ever double-time, however tempted you might be. Use the time you have between the notes to really use your brain.

Do this for as long as you like, depending on how long you have available. At some point you may just run out of ideas, or you may be itching to play faster. OK: then turn up the metronome by about 20bpm and start again.

Naturally, the idea is to keep doing this to failure, by which I mean to the point at which you actually can no longer keep up with the tempo no matter how simple the stuff you play is. Gradually as the tempo goes up you will obviously have to start making compromises: you can't play as fluently at 180bpm as you can at 60. Your old licks, patterns and other cliches will start creeping in as you do your best to keep up.

That's completely fine, but pay attention and notice which of those little devices it is that you rely on when the tempo heats up and do your best to keep them to a minimum. Notch up the metronome about once a minute, 20bpm each time, although if you have tme and you feel like you're making some progress as a particular tempo you can always extend it for a while.

At some stage, as I mentioned, you'll top out and simply not be able to keep up with the ticks even when you're playing your most familiar, basic stuff. At that point, bring the metronome down by a whole 50bpm. You should really feel an amazing lightness now as the pressure eases up. Let your cliches fall away as much as you can and let your imagination start challening you again: new ideas, new shapes and patterns, more difficult techniques.

Stay at this tempo for 5 minutes. Remember those ideas you were playing before it got too fast for you; try them out again, with variations and developments. If you went up from 60bpm to 180 and then dropped down to 130 you're now playing at more than double the speed you were at the beginning, but your mind's been conditioned to work faster and I hope you're finding your playing is more interesting and surprising than before.

This is quite a long exercise -- it needs a good 15-20 minutes -- so it may not be one you can fit in every day. If you have a metronome that can automatically change speed then you can play a more compressed version of it, say doing 8 bars at each tempo, but the longer you play, especially at the slower tempos, the better this exercise will work.

You may also find it rather tiring if it's part of a practice routine that involves a lot of finger-punishing drills. It's worth fitting this in once in a while, though, to challenge yourself and to train your improvisational thought-processes to move that little bit faster.

At the end, pick (at least) one thing you played during the exercise that you haven't tried before and make a note of it. It might even become something you work on in your daily practice.