Improvisation is a component of a guitarist’s arsenal just as deserving of attention and practice as performance, composition, and arranging. But it is somewhat conceptual and ephemeral, and can therefore be challenging to teach and learn. However, with a few strategies and exercises, you can develop the right frame of mind to begin improvising confidently.
Weekly Workout is a series of monthly guitar exercises made up of interesting technical workouts that will get your fretting- and picking-hand fingers working in different ways, and offer musical studies that will help you visualize and explore the fingerboard.
This Weekly Workout will help you develop your frame of mind and confidence in solo fingerstyle improvisation. The focus is not on soloing over an accompaniment or ensemble backdrop, although the lesson’s concepts can certainly improve those skills as well. We’ll explore improv via “Etude in E minor,” by the Romantic-era guitarist-composer Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909), progressively adding some spontaneity and developing ways to improvise from scratch.
These examples are designed for guitarists of varying skill levels and abilities, although some familiarity with the geography of the fretboard will be helpful. Working on the skills in the woodshed will boost improvising during performance, and ideally will lead to new breakthroughs in both composition and arranging as well. Let’s get started!
Week One: ‘Etude in E Minor’
Begin the first week by familiarizing yourself with “Etude in E Minor,” as shown in Example 1. Although associated with the classical guitar tradition, this study also sounds wonderful on steel-string acoustic and provides ample potential for improvisation. It’s not necessary to already be able to play it flawlessly; in fact, I recommend beginning to improvise on this or any other piece while you’re still becoming familiar with its nuances.
Play through the etude a few times. Listen carefully, paying particular attention to the colors and voices. What pitches and chords are you hearing? Which chords are definite, which chords are implied, and what voices might fall in between different chords? Obviously, the piece is in E minor. In the first measure, the notes are members of an E minor triad (E G B); in the following bar, you have Am7 (A C E G) and Am6 (A C E F#) chords; and so on.
Analyze the remainder of the piece in similar fashion, and don’t worry if you’re not strong on theory. The main idea is to use your ear and hear the different chords that are present. Before moving on to the next week, try playing some of the arpeggios as block chords. Listen to the notes in your mind, individually and together, and try to recognize and appreciate how each pitch relates to the others.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Feel free to use any song that you are relatively familiar with to explore improvisation. Start with a piece in a guitar-friendly key like E or A major or minor.
Week Two: Add Slurs and Rhythms
This week, we’ll continue our exploration of the etude by adding embellishments and rhythmic variety. I’ve provided some examples that are meant to serve as launching points. Needless to say, the very nature of improvisation is spontaneity, so work to free your mind (and your fingers) as you progress through these figures and concepts.
In Example 2, you’ll be adding some slurs and a bit of rhythmic variety to the first part (bars 1–8 of Ex. 1). Play through the part several times before continuing with the same approach on your own, extending through the second section (measures 9–16 of Ex. 1). I’ve provided suggestions to get you started (Example 3a).
Next, perform the study as written, but adding embellishments and rhythmic variations within the repeat of each section. Play the repeat section freely. And don’t be anxious about altering a classical work such as the etude. To paraphrase what guitarist Dušan Bogdanović, a dazzling improviser, once told me, at best improvisation is as structured as composition, and composition is as fresh and inspired as improvisation.
Tárrega’s etude, as with many others, concentrates the melody on the first three strings, and our embellishments and variations up until now have focused on these higher strings. In Example 4, we’ll shift the melodic focus to the bass strings. Once again, think of these as examples designed to ignite your own explorations. Keep working on the etude, exploring different melodic variations on both the treble and bass strings.
Beginners’ Tip #2
When improvising, don’t worry if you hit “wrong” notes here and there—it’s all part of the process.
Week Three: Explore Different Chord Voicings
Improvising is a different use of the mind than practicing or playing a piece that you’ve been working on and memorizing. It can be helpful to find a section within a piece that you can use as a launching point into improvisation, such as the break between sections in Tárrega’s etude. Example 5 explores voicings that add a bit of color and ambiguity. You can play these chord voicings, or variations of them, in different areas; pay attention to how the timbre, and with it the possibilities for embellishment, changes as you move around the fretboard.
Next, once again play the etude as written, adding a bit of variation after the first repeat, and then use Ex. 5, or other voicings that are pleasing to you, as a foundation for improvisation. Allow yourself to wander a bit and get lost in the moment. Improv involves a bit of risk, and a leap into the beyond, with dissonance often welcome.
One approach is to collect odd or ambiguous chords, either as you improvise or as you learn different pieces. Example 6 provides a few examples. Explore different shapes, positions, and alterations. Keep a notebook or use your smartphone to record moments as you discover them, chords that open tonal possibilities, that are neither commonplace nor fully dissonant. Utilize these in unique combinations as you improvise.
Beginners’ Tip #3
Unusual chord voicings are excellent source materials for improvisation. Explore the full fretboard for different tonal possibilities, and collect them like seashells.
Week Four: Create Your Own Etude
You might have noticed that there’s no notation for this week, so that you can focus on what you’re hearing in your mind’s ear, rather than get distracted by the printed page. This time, instead of improvising on Ex. 1, work on a spontaneous prelude, either as a standalone creation, or as a spontaneous introduction to the Tárrega etude. Use the voicings in Ex. 6 or some of the other harmonies that resonate with you to begin an improvisation.
See where it goes; try not to be self-judgmental. Use this approach throughout the week. How does this differ from an improvisation within the piece, or at the end? Don’t expect transcendence every time. The measure of a good improvisation is for it to be Zen-like, harmonious, and not timeworn; it doesn’t always happen, but when it works, it’s magical.
Beginners’ Tip #4
Try improvising an intro or outro to a basic folk tune, keeping the melody or chord progression in your mind’s ear throughout.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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