Musical Storytelling In Improvisation


Playing A Guitar Solo is Like “Talking With Your Guitar”.

In the beginning stages, students of improvisation tend to solo like they are trying to constantly reinvent the wheel.

They constantly try to keep coming up with ever new phrases and new melodic ideas, which makes the solo sound like it’s “meandering about” without ever really “saying something”.

The focus tends to be on “coming up with new ideas”, rather than on “developing and connecting the melodic ideas into a story”.

A great guitar solo is a bit like a great conversation.

We Talk in Paragraphs, Not In Single Stand Alone Sentences.

When people are engaged in a conversation, they actually talk in paragraphs of information. Whenever you make any statement or say anything, you usually elaborate a little further on the thought in your next sentence.


“Hey Jim how are you. We just came from the supermarket. Yeah… the fridge was empty, and we needed groceries. While I was there I found this really cool DVD of this old movie I always liked. Then we went to buy shoes since we started a shopping spree anyway” … etc.. etc.. “

The first sentence was about shopping, and then you elaborated a little further on the shopping in the following sentences.
We talk in paragraphs, not in single disconnected sentences.

This as opposed to:

“Hey, Jim! I think my cat is sick. Do you know where I can buy a microwave close by here? I just started taking tennis lessons last week. How is your mom? Yeah, I love that hockey team, they are my favorite.” … etc.. etc… “

Nobody talks like that. Everything is too disconnected.

Your listener totally loses you in the conversation: there is no direction, no line or form to follow in this conversation.
The conversation is random without logical direction, and it is not saying anything.

In other words: in a conversation, information from the previous sentence is used (meaning: repeated) in the next sentence, creating a feeling of connectedness from statement A to statement B, yet adding some new information in statement B (development of the first thought/idea): henceforward motion (storytelling).

Exactly the same 2 principles should be applied to improvisation if you want to create connectedness and direction in your musical storytelling: “repetition” and “development”.

Repetition & Development = Better Guitar Solos.

There are 2 kinds of repetition that you need to know about in the study of improvisation.
You can either repeat melodic material or rhythmic material from your previous phrase or phrases.

First off: a “phrase” is a short melody line.

Making the connection to language, saying: ” I went to the music store” is a phrase. Saying: “and I bought a new guitar amp” is another phrase.
Both these phrases make full sentences and tell a story when combined.
Both phrases, talk about the same thing: about the shopping experience in the music store.

Improvisation on the guitar works the same way.
You play a short melody line connecting a couple of notes, and then you follow this with another melody line that somehow connects to the previous melody line.
One of the ways to establish that connection is by either repeating part of the melody of the previous phrase in the construction of your next phrase, or by repeating part of the rhythmic placement you used for the notes in the previous phrase or both.

Both of these categories of repetition (melodic and rhythmic), can be applied in 2 different ways.

Here’s how this works.

Melodic (Note) Repetition: A More Static Melody

Depending on the type of momentum you want to create in your solo or the feel you want to create, you can either repeat the first couple of notes of your previous melodic phrase or the last couple of notes.

Repeat the FIRST couple of notes of your previous phrase, as a starting point of your next phrase.

In this case, you have a set (paragraph) of consecutive phrases that all start with the same notes in the same melodic order (repetition, creating connectedness) while adding a couple of notes for the remainder of the phrase (development).

This technique creates a more static feel because you always come back to the same starting notes.

Check out an example in the next video:

Melodic (Note) Repetition: With a Stronger Feel of Forward Motion

Repeat the LAST couple of notes of your previous phrase, as a starting point of your next phrase.

With this phrasing technique, you repeat the last notes of your last phrase as a starting point of your next phrase, with a couple of notes added (development).

This technique creates stronger forward motion in your storytelling (improvising) because you keep on moving forward from one phrase into another.
These melodies have strong momentum, and it feels like your story constantly keeps branching out into new territory, without ever losing its direction.

It is the sense of connectedness created by the repetition of melodic ideas, which creates a feeling of direction in the storytelling.

This video showcases this technique.

Rhythmic Repetition: Maintaining (Repeating) The Melodic Curve Of Previous Phrase.

Other than repeating parts of melody lines from phrase to phrase, you can also repeat specific rhythmic placements of notes from phrase to phrase.

There are 2 different ways you can approach the repetition of rhythmic ideas: you can also repeat the melodic contour, or you can be completely random in your note choices for each consecutive phrase, as long as you consistently repeat the same exact rhythmic pattern.

I first need to make sure it’s clear what “melodic contour” means.
Another word for “melodic contour” is “melodic curve”.
It is the shape you’d get if you were to connect all the note heads on a staff with a line that runs through the note heads.

For example:
If I’d play the notes C E G, and then the notes D F A, I would have played 2 melodic phrases that have the same melodic contour.
From C to E to G = two 3rd intervals.
From D to F to A = two 3rd intervals.

So one way to create connectedness through rhythmic repetition is to repeat the rhythmic placement and melodic curve of your previous phrase.

While repeating the rhythmic note placement and melodic shape, you leap around to random starting notes within the scale from where to start the melodic curve and rhythmic placement repetitions.

You are totally free in choosing which note you start on or where you go with your phrases, as long as you keep the same rhythm (note placement) and melodic curve in consecutive phrases.

This technique has the strongest forward motion because you really leap all over the place; but you keep a strong feeling of connectedness and logical order of phrases, because of the rhythmic repetition connecting all the phrases and the repeated melodic contour.

Rhythmic Repetition: Connecting Random Note Groupings.

In this approach: you repeat a short, strong rhythmic idea (phrase), keeping the rhythm the same from phrase to phrase, but varying up the melody lines without any connection to any previously played melodic phrases.

You are totally free in choosing which note you start on or where you go with your phrases, as long as you keep the same rhythm (note placement) in consecutive phrases.

This technique has the strongest forward motion because you really leap all over the place; yet you maintain a feeling of connectedness and logical order of phrases, because of the rhythmic repetition.

However: the feeling of logical order and connectedness from phrase to phrase is lesser strong and lesser obvious than in the previously 3 discussed approaches because you don’t repeat the melodic curve of your previous phrases.

The feeling of connectedness and logical direction from phrase to phrase is established only by the rhythmic repetition.
As such: this approach only really works if your rhythmic note placement stands out.
If you play too many long sustained notes or uninteresting rhythms in your note placements, all sense of repetition and connectedness will get lost.

Here’s how this works:

The advantage to this type of phrasing though is more variety and movement.
You occasionally want to use this technique to vary things up a bit, but the previous 3 phrasing techniques should be used more often.


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