I received another question the other regarding fast lines in improvisation, ear training and time feel. Seeing as these are all fairly hefty topics in their own right, I am going to divide this up over multiple Blog posts. This one will be Part 1: Fast lines in Improvisation. (Note: This is translated from Spanish to English, and because of the time between the original question and now, there will be some added points).
Question: How do I improvise and create faster lines while improvising? I don’t necessarily have trouble with technique but find it difficult to create something in the moment.
When discussing the idea of fast lines in improvisation, I feel it is important to realise that not all of these ideas are always created on the spot. Most of the time, they are pre-meditated. It’s actually fairly difficult I’ve found to create a totally unprepared run from scratch, on the fly. In fact, that’s usually done via taking a small idea and developing it to create a run (this actually takes us into Motivic Development. a concept that I may talk about in the future).
The improvisation actually occurs when we are connecting ideas, whether they be improvised or prepared. As improvising musicians, we are effectively composing in real-time. We take ideas and develop them further to create a cohesive piece (an improvised solo). Therefore, when it comes to faster lines, we are making the connection at such a subconscious level that we’re relying on either previously used material in the solo or ideas/phrases that we ourselves have learnt and internalised. In short, you must be able to have these ideas under your fingers already and be able to play them at the tempos you desire.
We can either connect one idea to another, to create a string of motifs/cells or we can change it in the moment by maybe tweaking one or two notes (or more, should you so desire). Essentially, you take ideas that you have developed and all you do is change either a few notes or connect it to a different idea to create longer runs while improvising. However, this also comes from knowing your Scales, Arpeggios and Chords, having those internalised at a subconscious level and being able to apply this knowledge to whatever situation you’re in. In essence, this is your fretboard knowledge.
I’m actually going to take some time to talk about Fretboard Knowledge right now, because I feel that it’s definitely related to the question above and the basics are often the root of most problems, even at an advanced level.
There is actually a lot that goes into fretboard knowledge. This can effectively be broken down into Scales, Arpeggios and Chords. For the sake of keeping this on topic, I will keep it brief. Improving your fretboard knowledge in these areas, will allow you to visualise and actually help to generate new material while you’re soloing. For example, let’s take the key of G minor and we’re playing over a G-7 chord:
Scales: If we are using the Dorian mode over this, we should be able to visualise this all over the neck, giving us little melodic cells to use in our improvisation. This applies to any other mode we may use over this chord (depending on the harmonic function in the given context).
Arpeggios: Sure, we can use the G-7 arpeggios, but we can also extend this knowledge to upper structure triads and triad pairs. This will allow us to hit chord tones specifically, but also outline tensions in the chord. I.e. we can use an A-7 arpeggio over the G-7 to outline tensions 9, 11, natural 13 and immediately resolve to the root (bear in mind, this involves just simply playing the arpeggio up and ending on G, we can always be more creative in our approach/use of arpeggios.)
Chords: This allows us to visualise all our chord tones on the fretboard. Using this knowledge we can center our playing around these chord shapes to help changes playing or provide target notes and resolution points for our faster lines. You can even use these chord shapes as “voicing arpeggios” and use them as an arpeggio themselves (but remember: BE MUSICAL!!).
Using these all in combination, allows us to really outline chords and tonalities. In relation to the original question, it gives us visual and auditory anchor points when playing faster lines. It also allows us to take these and generate more material that we can connect to create these longer runs as mentioned before. Therefore, if this material is familiar and prepared, we will (by pure logic) have a bigger reserve of ideas and be able to have this under our fingers to play at faster speeds/tempos.
I hope this answer helps a lot of you guys out with this topic and also gives you some new ideas to consider practicing. I will hopefully post Part 2 in the next few days or so. Stay tuned for January 1st, I have some exciting news for you! As always, if you have any questions, do not hesitate to get in touch with me. I will be more than happy to help!
– Juan Dhas