Soloing and Improvisation: A Beginners Guide

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!

Selecting a Guitar for Your Child

For parents who are in the beginning stages of signing up their child for lessons and need to select a proper instrument, it can be a very daunting task with the wide variety of guitars hanging on the wall of a guitar shop. It is very tempting for many to borrow a guitar from a neighbor that’s been collecting dust in the basement for a few years. In my experience, those who select a proper instrument from the very beginning have a significantly higher success rate and enjoy the learning process far more than those using yard sale finds.

There are three broad categories of guitars marketed to children: electric, acoustic, and classical. An electric guitar has a solid body which hooks up to an amplifier via 1/4” cable. Acoustic guitars have steel strings and come in a wide variety of body shapes from dreadnaught to parlor. Classical guitars are strung with nylon strings and often associated with Spanish music, but are fully capable of playing most popular genres.

For children ages 4 to 8, I suggest purchasing a nylon string guitar. Steel strings are harder to push down and can cause a lot of finger soreness in the beginning. Nylon strings will be easier to push down, and since the distance is greater between the strings, it will be easier to them to fret a note without bumping into another string. I normally tell parents of younger children to avoid electric guitars in the beginning. The 1/2 sized electrics are notorious for having poor intonation (how well the instrument is in tune across the neck) and you’ll spend more money on buying cables and an amp.

I recommend purchasing a new instrument for your child. Older instruments, especially subjected to the dry climate of Colorado, will have warped necks, meaning the neck bows either up or down. This effects how well the instrument can be tuned and it’s playability. This bow causes the distance between the strings and the fretboard, called the action, to be significantly higher and more difficult to play. If an instrument is more difficult to play, it will be less fun for your child to practice on and keep them from willingly practice. Besides, who wants to play out of tune all the time?

To find the proper size of guitar for your child, first measure your child from the floor to their belly button. Many guitar makers size their instruments using the metric system, so be sure to convert from inches. Don’t feel pressured from salespeople to buy something too big for them to grow into just because your child likes the color or design. Imagine if someone handed you a guitar that was almost up to your shoulder, then told to practice for a couple of years till you got taller. Some younger children ages 4 to 7 might be best suited for a guitarlele, which is a cross between the body size of a ukulele and the 6 strings of a guitar. Don’t be afraid to have the store order you an instrument; it’s better for it to arrive in three weeks rather than walk out with something in hand today.

With any new hobby, you wouldn’t go to the lowest priced teacher, nor would I be comfortable sending a new driver on the road with the cheapest used car on the lot. I also don’t suggest buying a handmade classical guitar that will set you back 2000 dollars either. You can purchase a fine beginner instrument for around 150-200 dollars. Good brands that won’t break your budget include LaMancha, Luna, Yamaha, and Ortega.

When selecting a quality instrument that best fits a students goals and body type, I always encourage parents to reach out to me so I can help them make the best informed decision possible. You can also ask your teacher or an experienced musician to accompany you to the music shop to try them out for you. In my studio, I’ll just meet the family at a guitar shop during their lesson that week. Trust me, it’s no bother!

Encouraging Words for Adult Students

I have taught many adult students throughout my career as a musician, and no other group has been as diverse as this demographic. There have been many walks of life that have come into my studio and not one student has been the same. With all these different personalities and ambitions, there is a piece of advice I can offer that is universal: on whatever level you want it to be, 5 minutes or an hour a day, music should be part of your daily life.

Setting a specific time or day of week has been helpful in my practice. I find that after making dinner and watching a little bit of TV allows me to recharge my brain after a long day of teaching. For some people, Sunday afternoon might work better. How much time depends on your goals; do you want to strum chords and entertain yourself? 15 to 20 minutes per session should work. If you want to play rock riffs and jam with your friends, 30-45 minutes will be enough. The important thing is stay consistent.

When I first took up the guitar, I kept it on a stand in my room. I found myself picking it up when I had 5 minutes here and there, and what I discovered is that the time kept adding up. I was doing 45 minutes of extra practice without too much thought. It takes a lot more effort and motivation to get the guitar out of the closet than to just pick it up.

Have an obtainable short term goal. Do you have a nephew that’s learning the bass or guitar? Talk about common tunes you both have an interest in and make it a point to bring your instruments to the next family get together. Some of my more ambitious adult students like to do grown up summer camps. There are also plenty of meet up groups that cater to specific music styles for you to join. Denver has a friendly and active ukulele community with an orchestra geared towards the adult hobbyist.

When I was studying jazz, it was really helpful to make playlists with different versions of tunes that I was working on. Listen to them during your morning commute or the gym. I would compare Sonny Rollins’ version of There Will Never be Another You to Stan Getz’s recording. With rock music, I liked to have a few live versions of Radiohead songs to listen to. I was recently teaching a few students Julia by the Beatles, and it would be comforting for students to hear Paul McCartney struggle through the chord changes in the studio outtakes.

Another great way to incorporate music in your daily life is subscribing to podcasts and YouTube channels. There is a plethora of topics out there ranging from gear reviews, guitar technique, and rock history anecdotes. Listening to a podcast on pentatonic scales might inspire your curiosity and give you that extra motivation to pick up the guitar after work to experiment with what the blogger was talking about. I love it when an adult student comes into the lesson to pick my brain about something they read about in their 13 dollar a year Guitar World subscription.

I think this last piece of advice is the most important: music is your “me” time! It’s easy to get wrapped up in your job or worrying about providing for your family that you forget that you have to do something for yourself. There is more to life than going to work and coming home. A hobby such as music, no matter your commitment level, will compliment your life and allow you to have a creative outlet!

Practicing With Your Child

The other day, I was talking with a parent after their child’s lesson. He said his son loved coming to his lesson every week, but at home they were struggling with practice. This is not a unique problem, but something I’ve seen for many years across all age groups. Today I will focus on children ages 5 to 12 and things you can do to make practice more fun at home while building a stronger relationship with your child.

With children, the biggest roadblock to success is parent education. Every parent wants their kid to play beautifully, but not everyone has a background in music. This can be intimidating to parents and leads to sending your kid up to their room to practice. Are they working on the week’s assignment? Are they playing on their tablet? Each young student has an assignment notebook where their homework is written down. You can look at the current week, see their homework is a C chord, and say “for one move on the board, play three beautiful C’s.” The important thing is that you’re sitting down with them to work.

In my studio, I play lots of games with the young kids. This isn’t for passing the time, but for doing repetitions in a fun and enjoyable manner. I used to say “play it again” a thousand times a day, but after about 3 months of lessons the student would get frustrated and drop. After incorporating something as simple as a music themed tic tac toe game, all of a sudden the student wants to beat me (they almost always do!) and does dozens of reps. There have been many times I’ve looked up after a few games of dominoes to see that the lesson is over.

Another strategy I use is building a relationship with the child. You can’t do endless reps and games. Every time we finish a round of barrel of monkeys, I give them a couple of minutes to take a break. I ask them about what they are working on in school, who their friends are, how sports are going. I even know about that Disney trip that your family is planning for next year!

Learning to practice is challenging for both the child and the parent, and like anything else has a learning curve. Remember you’re teaching them to follow through and master a skill set, guitar just happens to be our medium!