Scotty's Secrets of Improvisation

In styles like jazz, rock, blues and country, you get to make up your own music right on the spot. This is what soloing and improvisation are all about. It is some of the most fun you can have in all of music, but most folks don't understand what it takes to be a really great guitar soloist. In the end, it's all about ear training.

Did you know that a lot of the music you hear is made up on the spot? This is what it means to jam or improvise. In a lot of pop/rock music (and particularly in jazz) the guitar player gets to "go nuts" on his guitar for a few minutes in the middle of the song. This is an improvised solo and that player probably will never play that solo quite the same way again. Soloing is one of the most fun parts of music but also one of the most misunderstood. What does it take to become a good soloist? What do you have to know in order to create interesting lead guitar lines?

A guitar solo is an improvised melody played over a given set of chords. These melodies are generally thought to be made out of the notes in certain scales that are being played in a particular key. The artist takes the scale and jumbles the notes around in a different order and creates a new melody every time he or she plays the song. Many of you already have some experience with this, but if you're like most folks, you probably wish you were better at it. The guys on the radio do it so well and you're wondering what they know that you don't. What is the secret to better improvisation?

A lot of it is simply information. People are going to try to tell you that you can learn to jam without knowing what you're doing. They point out that many famous players have had no formal training and therefore don't really understand music theory. This is indeed true but it's really not quite that simple. Many players take way too long becoming good soloists because they are hampered by their lack of music theory knowledge. They may eventually get there, but they waste years worth of time! You can get there in half the time if you learn your stuff.

Scotty West improvises on his red guitar, he know that soloing is more than just knowing where to put your fingers.

Guitar improvisation is not just about knowing where to put your fingers. Scotty plays guitar solos with power and passion, he feels and hears the music before he plays it.

So many poor souls become frustrated by their inability to jam with the kind of freedom and passion they would like. Many people resist learning about music theory because they are under the impression that this stuff is difficult or impossible to understand. We've all heard the horror stories about friends that took a music theory course or tried to read some book and were totally confused by it all ... but it just doesn't have to be like that. is a languageand, like any language, you have to know how it works in order to do anything interesting and creative with it...

You see, the traditional way that music is taught, they give you the information in the wrong order. Folks wind up with a bunch of scattered facts but they can't see how it all comes together. I've spent the last 25 years figuring out the correct order to explain the stuff in so that folks can grasp the concepts quickly and easily. Music theory is actually a fascinating and easy subject to understand! The first thing you'll learn is that music is a language and, like any language, you have to know how it works in order to do anything interesting and creative with it. Take the English language. What if you wanted to write poetry? How could you ever write a poem if you don't know how to spell the words or construct sentences? Yet this is how so many unfortunate souls try to pursue music ... trying to solo and be creative without really understanding how the language works.

To truly jam with power and passion you'll want to learn to improvise the smart way and a lot of people are simply never told what that involves. As we said before, you have to understand music in order to really do creative things with it. You owe it to yourself to learn at least the basics of music theory. But that alone will not get you to be a decent soloist. So what is the secret to great improvisation? Two words ... ear training

Ear training, what is it?

Ear Training ... the two most important words you will ever hear me say. Have you ever heard of ear training? Do you know what it is? Most folks don't ... which is strange because, if you went to any real music school anywhere, you would find that ear training is the second required course after music theory. All real musicians have trained ears. So what is it?

As we said before, music is a language and, like any language, it has an alphabet. In the English language, we select units out of the 26 unit English alphabet and arrange these units in different patterns. We call these patterns words. There are all different types of words like nouns, verbs, adjectives and so forth. These words have spellings and we can type these words on a typewriter. Think of your guitar as a typewriter that types the musical alphabet.

Music is very similar. We select units out of the musical alphabet and arrange them in different patterns. But we don't call these patterns words. We call them things like chords, scales, melodies, harmonies, intervals, progressions and arpeggios. When you are moving your fingers around on the neck of your guitar, you are "typing" these patterns. I'm fond of saying that there are about 50 of these patterns that all pop/rock musicians should know. So what's the big deal? Music is really a very simple language.

...this is how you become a good soloist. You hear the solos in your head before you play them!...

Here's where the ear training comes in. Each of these 50 patterns sounds like something and it sounds different from the other 49 patterns as surely as the word "cat" sounds different than the word "dog". With a certain amount of work, you can learn to recognize all of these patterns by ear and your musical life will never be the same! You will be able to do stuff you never even dreamed of. This is how people learn to figure out even the most complicated music by ear. This is how the really great composers write those great songs... and, above all, this is how you become a good soloist. You hear the solos in your head before you play them.

Scotty West and the legendary Dick Wetmore photographed outside.

Scotty with the late, great Dick Wetmore — legendary Jazz Violinist, teacher, mentor and dear friend.

I am reasonably happy with my own ability to improvise these days and I think most of you would be fairly impressed with my playing. Why? Because I have done many hundreds of hours of ear training over the course of my career, and I have been privileged to have many fine ear training coaches, including legendary jazz violinist, Dick Wetmore. I have worked very hard at it. The rewards are there. Take it from me!

All improvisatory players cultivate an ability to force their minds out ahead of the song by a few seconds. What they are really doing is hearing the notes to play inside their heads. That's how you actually choose what notes to play in your solo. You choose them "by ear". Then you have just a split second to figure out where to put your fingers on the neck of your guitar to reproduce the sound you just heard in your head. That's why it's important to also understand your fretboard layout ... and that's what it's like to really jam!

Most people think that jamming involves learning more and more scale fingerings on the neck of the guitar and maybe more scale and mode theory. Indeed, that stuff is very important. But ear training is the key to becoming a really great soloist. You can believe me now or believe me later. I'm sorry to have to tell you that the process of learning to improvise is perhaps more complicated than you thought, but the rewards are there for those willing to put in the work. You could eventually learn to play as well, if not better than, your great guitar heroes!

So let's get to work! If you think you're having a good time playing music now, just wait until you really understand what you're doing and have your ears trained! You'll have even more fun than you can imagine. Best of luck to you!

-Scotty West, guitar teacher and creator of the Absolutely Understand Guitar Video Lesson Program