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Kirk Lorange

The art of improvisation

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Hi, twang gang ... we thought we'd make this new forum dedicated to the art of improvisation. This is aimed more at the 'Beyond' players here, but it should prove interesting even to those who are just starting out.

'Improvisation' is the art of 'creating music on the fly', 'inventing as you go' ... a seemingly impossible task when you first start playing an instrument, but one that makes perfect sense once you become familiar with the workings of music and your instrument. Music does follow certain rules that, once learned, allow you to play something you've never practiced or rehearsed before. I won't say 'something you've never played before' because that wouldn't be accurate. Improvising is more like 'using bits and pieces you've played a million times before in a brand new way', in the right context.

An example: last week a blues singer asked me if I could play with him at a local blues festival. Being a professional player, I said 'sure'. I had never played with him before, nor had I heard most of the tunes he played, nor were they all '12 bar blues'. We got together for an hour before the show (a one-hour set) and he played the tunes. I played along ... improvising my part. He didn't tell me what to play, nothing was written down, but because I've been playing for so long and listened to so many tunes, I can recognize instantly what the music is doing, and I can invent an appropriate part ... on the spot. Later on, we played at the festival, and I once again played along. I played solos when he signalled me to do so; when he was singing, I came up with a rhythm part that was unobtrusive and complementary and filled any gaps bewteen vocal lines with guitar lines; when the sax took a solo I stayed right out of the way ... that's the essence of improvisation.

Most players approach improvisation through scales and modes. I dabbled with them myself, many years ago, and never made them sound like anything but scales. I then turned my attention to chords after I discovered that the melodies and solos I like are always based on the chords of the piece of music, that they love chord tones. It seemed logical to me to use the underlying chord structure as the basis of my note choices. I was also becoming active in the session scene in Sydney and in the studio, chord charts were the only point of reference. The chords said it all, and producers expected the players to come up with appropriate parts by following chord charts, whether you were playing rhythm or filling in melodically.

Scales and chords are, of course, the same thing, seen from a different perspective. I prefer thinking chords because more often than not, I'm improvising both melodic and rhythm parts. Scales don't come in very handy when you're improvising a rhythm part, and I found that since I needed to know the chords anyway, and they were the key to keeping melody on track, I could literally forget about the scale aspect and, through chords, be able to see all 12 notes in context, not just the chord tones or the scale notes.

So, this forum is where we can discuss it all. I have nothing against scales ... I don't enjoy hearing them pawned off as solos, myself, which is what my solos used to sound like when I tried them out and what I hear more often than not on other players' attempts. What I like, and I think most of us do, is melody. Melody is something that affects the soul, that can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, your heart ache or your spirit soar ... whether you achieve that through chords, scales or a combination of both, that is the goal.

You will be hearing about the chord approach from me, since that's how I think, and there will be many scale thinkers who will hopefully contribute their ideas. Because music is, when it all boils down, something you listen to, you will be hearing examples from me and I do hope others will do the same ...

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