I received this message from a friend this week:
Do you have any suggestions on what I can do to become better at improvising with fancy scales and runs? Thanks!
Here’s my response:
Thanks for writing! There are some super-simple ways to get better at improvisation, and here are my favorites:
Practice your scales intensely
I spend about a half hour every day practicing scales, and I wish I could devote 5x that amount. I recommend starting with every major scale and practice them using a metronome, and try to boost your speed as much as possible.
Once you’ve mastered all the major scales, move on to the blues scales and all of the basic modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aolian, Locrian) in every key. This will give you the raw tools to be able to understand and create solos.
Listen, then imitate, but don’t copy
During your practice time, pick a song and try to mimic the exact style (not the actual notes, just the feel) of the song, using the scales you know. Record yourself, and see how close you come to creating the “feel” that you’re looking for. Make changes, and then woodshed it some more. Remember, you’re not looking to be exactly like the original- you just want to get the feel down.
Improvise a ton
This seems redundant, but it’s the most important step. I’ve never met a great improviser that hasn’t put in serious time experimenting, polishing, and improvising. If you can, try and sit in with other musicians in jam sessions and grab a solo here and there. If you can’t do that, get some backing tracks or drum beats and practice with that. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll be.