Solo Improv Guitar
A few years ago I decided that I wanted to be able to play music that would stand on its own. The guitar can take on different roles; the most common are accompaniment (rhythm guitar, backing for a vocalist) or a solo "voice" (lead guitar). Both of these roles assume use of the guitar in some kind of ensemble.
When I started down this path I had in mind a plan to play largely improvised music. No improvisation is truly "free" - there's always some structure or framework. This is especially true of ensemble playing - there has to be some kind of common ground to inform the players about what does or doesn't "fit".
Trying to find a way to play "freely" in an ensemble invariably runs up against constraints: musical preferences and skills rarely - if ever - mesh. Resolving differences and attempting to find a common ground is an (often futile) exercise in interpersonal politics and musical compromise. Creative people are not widely acknowledged for their ability to work smoothly (i.e. without drama) toward a common goal.
These thoughts led me to work toward my independence as a guitarist. I abandoned the rhythm/lead dichotomy which had served me well for so many years. Not that I had mastered either... I simply wanted to get closer to the parts that I imagined a guitar could be playing when I listened to music.
In my studies and practicing I started paying more attention to chord/scale relationships and to constructing a mental map of the fingerboard not in terms of notes but rather intervals, considering both horizontal and vertical motion. I've also begun to train my ears and fingers to connect the sound of a note with a particular finger in a chord voicing. As I learn to pull all this knowledge together I'm starting to discover interesting "new" (to me) chord voicings and to learn how to voice-lead from one chord to the next, thereby exposing a new universe of chord progressions.
I play fingerstyle - no more pick, ever. I like the direct connection between fingertips and note production and find that the technique gives me access to a wider range of dynamics and colors than I can obtain using a plectrum.
I am attempting to become more aware of my rhythmic vocabulary, which has always been a source of weakness in my execution. My time sense, at least, seems to be improving as I develop confidence in navigating the instrument; occasional drills using a metronome help, too.
My sonic preferences are shifting toward a clean sound with reverb and chorus. (My preferences have never strayed far from that for very long - it's a matter of degree.) Occasionally I'll add a bit of spice using echo, rotary speaker (i.e. Leslie) or mild overdrive. The Leslie is particularly interesting in that one can "play" the effect (by changing speeds) while also playing the guitar. Ultimately, though, my intention is to express myself through the notes themselves rather than through sound modifiers.
The notion of "improvised music" covers a lot of territory. At a very simple level you might have someone playing notes from a pentatonic scale over a harmonically trivial set of changes (or even over a modal vamp). The improviser explores this space through variation of phrasing and ornamentation.
At a higher level of complexity the improviser works within a richer framework - melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. There's still a framework for the benefit of coordination with other members of an ensemble; that framework may become arbitrarily complex depending upon the interests and abilities of the players.
What I do falls somewhere within the broad middle ground. I have a collection of motifs from which to draw; I can assemble these on-the-fly into larger compositions or suites. To a certain degree the larger works are unique - dictated by mood and whim - even though the motifs themselves are recognizable elements on their own.
As my facility with the instrument improves I'm able to stray further from my catalog of motifs, mutating and sometimes combining them to add new elements to a performance. The fact that I'm improvising from motifs rather than riffs gives me the ability to think in terms of composition, which makes the resulting performance (I think) a bit more interesting than if I was playing distinct songs.
When I'm pressed to attribute a genre to my music I usually answer "folk jazz", not because it necessarily agrees with the Wikipedia definition of the term but rather because that term is evocative of the way I approach music. I draw upon my musical influences and interests to create something new yet familiar. I draw my inspiration from classical, folk, rock, surf, and psychedelic music - in short: the music I heard in my formative years.
I consider myself fortunate in that the best popular music of that era was written and performed by accomplished and versatile musicians who were allowed the freedom to "break the mold". Much of the music of that era was innovative. Its creators certain drew from deep wells, but they were not so tightly constrained by marketing demographics and stylistic norms as pop musicians are today.
I was exposed to a fantastic variety of musical styles and ideas as an impressionable teen. More recently I have attempted to expand my musical appreciation to include jazz, which is difficult given the tremendous variety of music encompassed by that genre. My playing has benefited somewhat from the swing feel and some of the harmonic concepts used in jazz.
I record the same way as I perform. I pick up my instrument and play, following and developing ideas as they occur. I try to maintain a "flow" to the performance. At some point (I usually refer to a clock when I'm performing) I find a way to wrap up the performance.
I prefer to leave recordings unedited, although I've been pondering the idea of assembling a collage of selected portions of multiple recording sessions. I have a lot of respect for musicians who can craft a recording from multiple tracks, but the transparency and directness of a "live" recording appeals to me on an emotional level.
I hope that this article has provided some insight into how I create music. It's certainly more difficult to write this kind of material than it is to write about about gear. Going forward I'll be striving to write more about music than about gear.