To be able to improvise well you’ve got to be in the right frame of mind. You can’t always control your emotional state but here are a few handy tips for things you can control so you can slip into guitar god mode wherever you are.
9. Enjoy the moment
I’m going to start with this one as it’s a little deep but well worth thinking over. The present moment is where it’s at as far as improvising is concerned. Try to forget about the past (things that went wrong) and also try to disregard the future (things that could go wrong) and simply enjoy the present. If you can get your head around this, it’s also a great way to deal with stage fright.
8. Slow down
Unless your fans/audience came specifically to see you play the guitar fast or the piece of music calls for it I’m going to say that most of the time it’s not necessary. As a guitarist you may feel a certain obligation to play fast or play a certain quota of notes per bar but less is more, and always has been and your audience needs something to hang their hat on.
7. Play for the audience, not for yourself
There are two main things you may want to consider when soloing live. The first is melody. A large part of your audience, and more importantly the part that’s likely to buy your material, won’t be musicians. They’ll be music lovers in general, the majority of which like to hear a good melody now and again.
If melody is not your thing then you may want to work on developing tension and release. 99% of great solos can either be whistled with ease or have a terrific blend of tension and release. If you can play blues you’re already well on your way to developing tension and release as blues is heavily based on it, and since blues is the foundation of rock and to a certain extent jazz, the principle remains the same.
6. Use less distortion
This really goes with No. 5 but I thought it was worth a position of its own. Having the distortion on 11 may sound good to you but live it’s not going to sound that great and cause tons of unwanted feedback. If you need a lot of distortion use the amp to generate it as an effect may cause a sudden difference in volume levels and a lot of head-shaking.
5. Get comfortable with your (amp) sound
You won’t feel comfortable soloing until you a have comfortable sound with which to solo. Make sure your sound is as portable as possible (unless you always use your own gear) as sometimes you’ll have to use other people’s gear and set-ups.
To make sure you can get as close to your own sound as possible when using borrowed gear, get your amp settings defined. I have found this to be the overriding factor in determining whether or not I can get comfy enough with a sound, especially when using someone else’s gear.
4. Sloppy technique
Nothing sounds worse than sloppy technique. Sloppy technique is usually the result of playing too fast too soon. When practicing, you should aim to play as fast as is comfortable without making the slightest clam or mistake. This way your natural speed will increase over time alongside your control. Developing speed without control results in sloppy playing. Check out How to Play Fast for a more in-depth look at this.
3. Is this a bad time?
Time is one of the most important aspects of music so for this one you really need to listen to your own playing (as objectively as possible) and do some analysis. Ask yourself the following questions:
Am I playing on the beat, behind the beat or in front of it?
Am I leaving some breathing space/silence?
Is my playing too stiff/loose?
Do I groove?
Does it swing?
Am I locking in with the bass player/drummer?
Am I playing too fast/slow/much/little?
Check out the amazing John Scofield for a lesson in groove playing.
2. Playing the pattern instead of playing music
I’ve put this high up the list because it’s something that is very often overlooked and when corrected can make an incredible difference to your playing. I see a lot players learning their 5 or 7 position scales or (God forbid) the CAGED system and they get to a point where the scale shape begins to dictate what they play rather than what they want to hear dictating what their fingers do. Scale patterns, if practiced to death, lead to the development of muscle memory (your muscles react before your musical sensibility does) which in turn leads to ruts. If you haven’t checked out the 2 Position System, please do as it was designed to avoid precisely this kind of rut-inducing way of learning to improvise. Another cure would be to either Stop Running Scales or get the creative juices flowing and see if you can get some actual music out of those patterns.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the number one way to improve your soloing (and most other things for that matter) is to feel confident about yourself and your abilities. It removes barriers and opens channels through which you’ll be amazed at what you can do. You’ll gain confidence from things such as playing live a lot, conquering a difficult piece, knowing what you’re doing and feeling comfortable with your sound.
I'm probably leaving out some information. What other tips do you have about live soloing?