Instead of playing by the book, consider throwing the book away. Step away from the conventions of genre and technique and enter the unbordered world of improvisation, where all styles and approaches are part of the game, and players develop fearless hearts. Regardless of what you do musically, rest assured there’s room for expansion, especially if you’re interested in creating sounds that may at times seem both beautiful and alien.
Here are 10 tips to get you thinking (way) outside any box:
• Think Modally: Okay, this can be a little fancy (think jazz giant John Coltrane)… or not (think juke bluesman Junior Kimbrough). Break it down this way. Consider playing scales that don’t require working with chord changes, or require working only with minimal changes of chords held for long periods of time. Coltrane’s solo in “My Favorite Things,” where the song essentially pedals as he takes flight, is an accessible example as is Kimbrough’s “All Night Long.” The simplest way to approach modal playing is to keep these three factors in mind as you construct your solos or harmony/melody themes on the fly: a) compositions should have a slow moving harmonic rhythm, with single chords lasting 12 measures or more to really make things count, b) play lines that rely on pedal points or drones, c) don’t worry about where the chord progression goes as long as you’re basing your playing on the root and it sounds good.
• Think Texturally: Put yourself in a place where notes and chords don’t matter as much as sounds and how they overlap, then take a bold leap forward. For inspiration, consider the ambient recordings of Brian Eno, like his groundbreaking Music for Airports, or Radiohead’s thrilling Kid A. It’s all about casting a spell with sound. If you’ve got GarageBand or some other simple method of multi-track recording, get into textural playing by laying down a single note for three minutes. Then give yourself the assignment of cutting at least four more tracks over that first track, starting with whatever the sound of that sustaining note triggers in your mind. Don’t map out more than one part at a time, and even as you do plan your next move, try not to think in terms of scales of progressions of more than four notes. That’s a simple exercise that can change your entire perspective on making music.
• Go For It: Don’t be afraid to play something that sounds strange. In fact, feel encouraged to do so. No guitarist worth his or her salt has gotten recognition for following the pack. Have faith in yourself and take risks on a regular basis, because that’s part of becoming a better player.
• Expand Your Technique: Playing improvised music is possible at any skill level, but the more you have in your vocabulary of chords and scales, the more departure points you have. Likewise just don’t settle for using plectrums; try finger picking as well, or playing with objects like drum sticks, files or paint brushes. Try treating your guitar strings with alligator clips and the like, a la early Fred Frith. Or using a slide or open tunings. Having the broadest command of your current universe makes you more likely to discover new universes.
• Listen to Great Improvisers: Be inspired by others. Any essential listening list of consciousness expanding guitar improvisers should include Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin, Fred Frith, Adrian Belew, Sonny Sharrock, Derek Bailey, Roy Buchahan, Jonny Greenwood, Frank Zappa and Jim Hall, for starters.
• Stretch Beyond Your Genre: New sounds, new songs and new modes of delivering musical messages can expand your own boundaries, so listen to music outside of your usual genre. Check out electric African music, which has a wealth of great guitarists, Gypsy jazz, Miles Davis’ cool era recordings, Les Paul, Uli Jon Roth – listen to whatever it is that’s farthest from what you’re playing and listening to right now. If you’ve got an open mind, new ideas are guaranteed to arrive.
• Own Flexible Gear: You’re only as limited as your rig. Sometimes it’s great to have limitations, because they can suggest musical routes, but they can also cut off byways. Versatility is the key to improvising. Play through amps that sound great clean or distorted. Invest in an array of basic pedals, including distortion/overdrive and delay, consider guitars with access to strings above the nut or below the bridge, and with a variety of available tones.
• Think Chromatically: Dig the semitones! Be comfortable playing every chord within the realm of a given progression, including the ones that might not sound quite right. The same goes for every note inside and outside of scales, regardless of tonal center. There’s an intelligence and beauty to playing uniform intervals that reveals itself quickly.
• Create Chords and Tunings: Let your fingers drop in places they’ve never dropped before and rearrange the tunings of your strings to create droning open chords and other unconventional sonics. Then experiment with what you’ve found. Listening to classic cutting-edge bands like Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine, the odd clusters of notes they often use to create chords reveal their own beautiful colors.
• Make Mistakes: Improvising isn’t a perfect world, so what’s right and wrong is a matter of taste. Don’t let the unadventurous impose their limitations on you. Try new tunings, new directions, new approaches to melody and harmony. And if your first attempts don’t attain what you’re hearing in your head, keep going. The delicious sweet and sour sounds are all there, just waiting to be discovered.