(To get a free E-book containing audio and tablature examples from this article go here.)
One of the questions I get asked by guitar students is "what should I be practicing to get better at my phrasing and overall improvisational skills"? Usually this type of question comes from intermediate to advancing level students who have been playing a few years and are seeking help because of one primary reason: The way they are currently practicing is not producing the results they want.
I think a large part of the problem has to do with a general approach to practicing lead guitar that tends to be very focused on developing technique only. Just read through any guitar players forum and you'll see an over abundance of topics all about technique. Before I continue let's be clear: having great technique is a very good thing! I'm all for practicing and improving your technique and I do it myself everyday. The issue that many guitarists are having now is that they are unable to apply the technique they have in a way that actually sounds like music instead of exercises. Frustration rises because all that hard work with the metronome does not seem to be paying off when it comes time to actually improvise your own solo and express yourself. The problem is in translating the technique into music.
But an over emphasis on technique is only one of the reasons why our practicing is not leading to better improvisational skills. Most guitarists realize that in order to improvise well they will need to study a variety of subjects. Because different areas like technique, improvisation and theory are often practiced in isolation they never really become integrated together as a complete musical package. This is a problem because in order to play music well, they must become integrated together. As lead guitarists it is necessary to be able to put things together instantly. Our knowledge of music theory, our technical skills, our phrasing and improvisational skills, our ear training, all need to become integrated together seamlessly and automatically. The reason this often does not happen, and the reason many guitarists give up in frustration, is because these things can't come together unless they are practiced together. In short, we need to become more purposeful about how and what we practice.
Most guitarists I know love to jam. There is nothing quite like letting your hair down (so to speak) and just allowing your fingers and mind to wander wherever inspiration leads. In general this is a great thing to do and is a lot of fun. The danger, however is that there is a chance we can fall into a playing rut because we have a tendency to jam on autopilot. This can lead to boredom for both you and the listener because we often wind up repeating a lot of the same licks and patterns unless we are consciously aware of what we are doing. So to help alleviate this potential roadblock to progress I want to talk about something I call Jamming With A Purpose.
The idea is that we are going to set up a jam session, just like you normally would, but instead of just "winging it" we are going to focus on certain aspects of our playing that we want to develop and practice applying those purposefully. Here are just a few reasons why jamming with a purpose will benefit you:
I use this concept of jamming with a purpose very often and it has paid great dividends in my own playing. If you combine this type of focused practicing with a bit of the unstructured "winging it" approach you'll get the best of both worlds.
We'll need to get a few things organized before we can start the practice session. Here's a list of the things you will need to make this work:
1. A high quality backing-track to solo over, preferably with drums, bass and rhythm guitar. Choose a style that you like so that you are inspired to play.
2. You'll need to be able to identify the key(s) center of the track as well as the appropriate scale(s) that can be used to solo over this track.
3. Choose a few areas of your playing that you'd like to focus on developing as a lead guitarist. For example, you might want to focus on certain techniques like sweep picking or legato playing. Or you may choose to work on your string-bending, vibrato and blues based phrasing ideas.
Here is a very simple example of how this works. Let's assume we have chosen a backing track in the key of D natural minor. I chose D minor because it is of course the saddest of all keys :) (Please refer to the movie Spinal Tap if you don't know what I'm talking about)!
Actually, I chose D minor because although it is a common key for rock guitarists, it is much less familiar than the typical E minor and A minor keys. That is one of the things we will work on here - improving familiarity with D minor.
For this jam session I have chosen these things to work on:
1. Applying all 5 patterns of the D minor blues scale.
2. Working on improving my ability to express myself with string bending and vibrato.
3. Phrasing using diatonic 7th arpeggios.
4. Working on learning a key that isn't as familiar.
That's it! Just put on the backing track and begin playing with these areas as your focus. (Click here to get your free D minor backing track as well as tablature examples) You will want to weave in and out of these things as you play. For example, you might start out slow and focus on getting some nice sustaining bends going. Then play some easy phrases from the blues scale ending them with a nice wide vibrato. Then move things up a notch and work on some of the 7th arpeggios in the key of D minor, trying to create some nice melodic ideas in the process. Then begin combining all areas together.
Your backing track should be fairly long. You can even loop it so it plays over and over. This will give you room to stretch out and experiment. I guarantee you will come up with some of your own great soloing ideas while doing this! I usually work on this for 30 minutes or so, but even 15 minutes a day will do wonders for your soloing and overall musicianship. Why? Because now you are applying things you know to real music. This isn't just a monotonous exercise this is self-expression baby!
Let me give you one more example. For simplicity sake let's keep our D minor backing track. But this time we'll work on three different areas.
1. Applying all 7 three note per string patterns.
2. Phrasing using the legato technique.
3. Soloing using adjacent string pairs.
Follow the same procedure as before focusing on each area separately and then combining them. Aim for musicality, self-expression and try and keep your mind focused so you don't fall into the mindless "noodling" trap. Save that for another time. We are here to make progress!
I realize that, although this concept is simple, this can be a bit confusing if this is new to you. So I've created a special free E-book for you with audio demonstrations of these jam sessions, plus tablature of the examples and a killer D minor backing track. In addition I've included detailed explanations of the entire process. To get your free E-book now click here.
Hopefully you've been inspired to take this concept of jamming with a purpose and utilize it with your own goals in mind. Determine what areas you want to work on. Find your own backing tracks in the styles you like. Personalize it and make it your own!
Nick Layton is a professional guitarist/composer living in Vancouver, WA. His debut CD entitled "Storming The Castle" is available now and features epic metal songwriting and virtuoso guitar playing.
Visit nicklayton.com and join his free newsletter to receive an excerpt from his latest phrasing course "Innovative Arpeggio Phrasing for Advancing Metal Players", including text, tab and mp3s.