Developing improv skills
You'll get a lot further by training your ear and by understanding the relationships of the notes on the fingerboard than you will by memorizing patterns. Memorization is a good jump-start and is no doubt good for motivation in the early phases of learning, but continued progress requires an understanding of how the instrument can be used to express musical concepts.
This is by no means intended to be read or used as a strict progression:
- Learn the relative interval relationships in a linear sense - i.e. up and down a single string. It doesn't matter where you start, but you should start at different places since muscle memory does come into play. Pick a note as the root, then map out the intervals: r, m2, 2, m3, 3, p4, a4/d5, p5, m6, 6, m7, 7, 8.
- Do the same kind of mapping between adjacent strings. Start on the lower strings. Concentrate on the intervals you can reach 4 frets (or so) up and down from the root on the next higher and lower string. Name those intervals. When you have those relationships down, look at the G/B string boundary and note the one-fret shift.
- Now do the same thing for reachable frets two strings away.
- At some point you should start paying attention to note names. You already know, from tuning your instrument, the names of the open strings and the frets you use for the traditional tuning method. Start with what you know and expand your range by naming each note in the intervals you're playing. (Don't get hung up on enharmonic equivalent names. You'll notice we're not working on scales, but on intervals. Call it G# or Ab. Better: both.)
- Bring scales into your practice. Pick a scale and a fingering. Play it up and down over an octave until you "get" the sound. It won't hurt (and will probably help) to sing along. Do the usual linear transposition - i.e. starting the scale at different points up and down the neck - to keep from associating a particular scale with a muscle memory.
- Take the same scale and find different fingerings. Yes: find. (It won't hurt you to already know several fingerings for a scale.) The goal here is to take advantage of your developing knowledge of interval relationships. Most scales are a sequence of whole- and half-step moves. Think in terms of "where's the next scale step on this string and on the next string?" Mix it up. Play two notes on some strings and three or four notes on others. Explore. Play up and down.
- Bring chords into your practice. Pull out a music theory book and take a look at how different chords are constructed. It's pretty simple if you don't try to cram it all into your head at once. Start with triads - sus2, diminished, minor, major, augmented and sus4. Start out simply, playing chords in different positions on the neck and getting the sound into your ear.
- In conjunction with the previous step, experiment with inversions. Continue to play triads, but find fingerings that have the root note in the middle or on top of the voicing. Again, pick different starting points.
- Learn the spellings of the sixth and seventh chords. Then learn how extensions fit in. You don't have to have a strict "stack" of notes, e.g. 1-3-7-9-11-etc. Any of the chord tones can be voiced above or below the root. You'll discover that you can arpeggiate the chord tones for any chord, but will more often than not have to rearrange the voicing in order to play the tones as a chord.
- Learn altered chords. These are chords in which one or more chord tones are augmented or diminished. For example, you might play a #9 or a b11.
- In addition to expanding your knowledge of the fretboard and learning the characteristic sounds of different kinds of chords, you'll also be building a vocabulary of chord voicings that go way beyond what most guitarists ever learn. The benefit of this approach comes from the observations that chords and scales are related. Keep your ears open to the individual tones within the different chord voicings you learn. You can use these chord tones - and grips - as the basis for single-line patterns that you may not have otherwise found.
- Expand your chord vocabulary by moving individual voices up or down by a half or whole step, individually or in combination with other voices. Some of the new chords may sound dissonant at first, but can still be used as passing chords when resolving to a more stable sound. This is a great way to invent unexpected new chord progressions. Rather than starting from the theory, search first for the sound. Only after you've locked-in a new discovery should you go back and - using your knowledge of intervals, chord construction and music theory - analyze and name what you've done.
- Now that you have some familiarity with extensions and their sound, map out the interval relationships skipping more than one string. For example, find the 9th and 11th three strings over and the 13th four strings over.
- At any point, loop back and repeat. Or skip ahead. Even though instructions are linear, learning isn't. Follow your muse, and have fun!
- Take some lessons to cement your understanding and correct any misunderstandings.