On paper, improvising sounds like it should be pretty simple and straightforward: just take a scale and play whatever you want. What I discovered, however, is that there is much more to it than that. For the student first delving into the world of psychedelic rock looking to hone their soloing chops, it can be intimidating to ‘play whatever you want.’ Some students are convinced that they aren’t creative enough and look terrified when I mention the word improvisation. In this article, I’ll discuss some of the more successful approaches I’ve found when working with my students.
The first order of business when learning to solo is mastering a pentatonic scale. A pentatonic scale is just a collection of 5 notes played in succession. Most students are able to do this after a couple of months of lessons. The scale should be memorized and a student should be able start and stop the pattern at any point.
The next step is creating some guidelines for us to follow. Each student is different, and depending on what their strengths are, I’ll assign different rules. Generally speaking, I have them pick a number between 4 and 8; this is the number of notes they can play in a row. I’ve found that this made the younger students really think about how each note counts.
Following this exercise, I then begin having them think about patterns and phrasing. The groundwork for this step is laid when I first teach them a pentatonic scale. As a warmup, I’ll have them play the scale using a couple of sequences such as three strings up and one string back.
Another important tool when working on soloing is YouTube. When I was sitting in my room as a teenager learning my scales, I had a 30 dollar Casio keyboard that had a terrible Bossa Nova rhythm that I would play along to. Nowadays, there are literally thousands of backing tracks with every key and style under the sun. Having a drummer keep time for you will sharpen your sense of rhythm and phrasing, so I highly encourage all students spend a little time each week with these play along tracks. For my students working on “Europa,” just search ‘c minor pentatonic backing track.’
Speed bursts and accuracy drills are a great way to develop fast and clean playing. Repeat a very simple pattern on two adjacent strings four times. The first and second repetitions are played slowly, then the third and fourth are played twice as fast. As you develop control and confidence, you make the bursts longer in duration. For students who bump into other strings or landing on the pad of the finger, go back to your pentatonic scale and slowly practice fretting the notes on the tips of your fingers. It is far better to play the scale slow and perfectly placed tips 2 times in a row than 20 times sloppy.
While working on these steps it’s important to learn some classic solos. Students just starting out might be assigned a Pink Floyd solo then graduate to some Hendrix. The younger students might be interested in learning the vocal lines of their favorite song. More intermediate and advanced students wanting to hone certain techniques might work on the tapping section of “Eruption” or sweeping picking in “Bat Country.”
Learning to improvise requires a lot of trial and error and mileage on the instrument. Work one step at a time and gradually include more complexity as you master each milestone. I’ve seen students who never played a solo before run across the fretboard with confidence after putting in the time!