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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

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January 24, 2013 | John McGann: A suggestion for people getting started with improvisation

We continue to bring posthumous words of wisdom from John McGann as he answers, "How do you learn to improvise when you know a melody and a chord
chart? "

"That is your starting point, knowing the melody and the chords and being aware of the form.

The next thing to do once you have a basic feel to the technical stuff like what notes fit over what chords, etc.- FORGET ALL OF IT and get one of these computer based programs like Transcribe or Amazing Slow Downer that allow you to put in a CD and loop any section of it, and reduce the speed.

1) pick out a solo that you think you can handle technically (don't start w/ Coltrane!)
2) listen to the solo at regular speed, as many times as it takes until you can sing along with it. Get it in your head!
3) using the software, isolate the 1st phrase as a loop, and set the playback for 1/2 speed. It will remain at the original pitch (although you can fine tune to your instrument). Listen to the phrase a few times to get used to how it sounds slower.
4) find the 1st note, then the next etc. on your axe, and put them together.
5) pull out your metronome and play the learned phrase slowly without the recording. Is your fingering good? In the case of Django, can you hear where the downstrokes are used? It's pretty much almost always on a slower passage and when changing strings, even on descending lines, which can be a bitch!
6) go back to the loop and bring the speed up to 90%, repeat the above, etc. until you can play it at full speed.
7) Notice- NO TAB or NOTATION involved- get it direct into your ears, hear and soul and onto the instrument- you don't need the written page and in fact it can be a hindrance to developing your ears and instincts.
8) When you have the phrase together, think of what the notes are in relationship to the chord. Identify the arpeggio notes, scale and chromatic tones, (both by note name and function, ie. an Eb6 chord and the line is C Eb G A Bb- would be 6 1 3 #4 5). Listen how they sound against the chord.

Now, it may take quite awhile to get a whole solo this way, but by going phrase by phrase you get the VOCABULARY of improvising which has little to do with practicing scales and arpeggios.

When learning a jazz standard (or anything really) get as many versions of the tune as you can, listen and study them one at a time, listen for things like how the melody is played differently by different players.

Improvisation requires this kind of experience in assimilating musical phrasing- when you improvise you are calling on the sum total of your life's experience with playing melodically, rhythmically, and compositionally- a pretty big challenge when you are starting, but remember, Wes, Django and every player you've ever admired started somewhere, and they were genuises but didn't have the tools to help us mortals!

Your teacher may or may not agree with the above, but this is what I've done to assimilate a number of styles (Texas fiddle, Irish trad, bluegrass, various kinds of jazz) and it has really helped me.

I'd also suggest reading a book by Mick Goodrick called "The Advancing Guitarist" which has some great things to think about regarding improvisation.

This is all VERY time consuming, but as Darol Anger says, "You gotta log your hours", there are no short cuts unless you are born a genius, and even then...

I hope this might help!

John McGann

Link: The Advancing Guitarist

From John McGann: Jazz Improvisation
Right hand considerations for flatpicking--John McGann
John McGann and Flying Fingers--"How My Life Was Changed"
10 Questions For John McGann


Posted by Ted at January 24, 2013 6:27 AM

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