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How I Have Fun Practicing Blues Rock Improv

How I Have Fun Practicing Blues Rock Improv

One of the difficult things to overcome when you’re learning an instrument is enjoying your practice sessions. Remember, it’s called playing the guitar, not working the guitar. Nonetheless, there is work that needs to be done. But, you can get to a place where you will not only want to do that work but enjoy doing that work.

I will share with you how I make my practice sessions more enjoyable. 

Have a Plan

First, I need to know what I will work on. So for this example, I need to set up some context.

I work on multiple things at the same time. And many of you probably will be doing the same. So let’s outline my goals for the session.

  1. Technical Goal: Get more comfortable using my fingers (instead of a pick) for single-note phrases. 
  2. Musical Goal: Create better improvisational ideas. 

So, let’s unpack these one at a time.

Technical Goal

I just recently decided to use my fingers instead of a pick because I like the tone, and there’s also a physical limitation that I’m dealing with. For the past few years, I’ve been struggling with arthritis, bursitis, and tendonitis in my left shoulder and both of my hands.

I’ve also been listening to Derek Trucks, Jeff Beck, Jared James Nichols, Wes Montogomery, Mark Knopfler, Richie Kotzen, etc. What all of these players have in common is that they use their fingers instead of a pick. Then, I spent a practice session only using my fingers and was surprised I wasn’t sore when it was over. I’ll outline this aspect in more detail in another video for those interested.

For our purposes, I will work on playing single note lines with my thumb, middle, and index fingers of my picking hand.

Musical Goal

To play deliberate phrases or musical ideas, I apply two concepts, motifs and pacing. Motifs are short musical sentences that many guitarists call licks or riffs. I use motif because lick and riff are overused and can be considered nonsensical noodling. Motif automatically makes it sound more serious and helps me get into the practice mindset.

Pacing is the deliberate use of space. We guitarists are guilty of playing long-winded, run-on musical sentences. We need to surround the motifs with space to create purposeful musical ideas that tell a story. My goal is to communicate effectively. This is how I practice this.

A Word About Improv Practice

whats improve practice

Many guitar players are guilty of connecting licks and creating meaningless solos. And, even though I work on not doing that, mindless riffing and flashy licks creep into my playing more often than I’d like to admit.

In the blues and jazz world, the rhythm section typically plays a steady backdrop that makes it easy to create motivic ideas. This is more difficult in the blues/rock or classic rock world because the rhythm section plays chord riffs, or what I like to call riff rock. And this can be challenging. 

Here’s a tip: Use the first lick or licks in the solo to establish your rhythmic motif.

Let me explain what that means. In this example, I will use a backing track in the style of Cream’s “Strange Brew.” In the original recording, Eric Clapton plays a pickup that starts with a short phrase on the ‘and-of-3’ and follows that with a rest for almost a full measure. He then responds to that first idea (2 beats) with a longer phrase (6 beats).

I’m going to use something similar. Here are the restrictions that I’ll apply to this practice session:

  1. “Strange Brew” is a 12-bar blues in A.
  2. Play a 4-bar phrase made up of two smaller phrases
  3. Phrase 1 is short, and Phrase 2 is longer.
  4. Separate the two phrases with a rest of about four beats.

blues rock chart

Here’s a rhythm chart of what I’m going to aim for. But my main goal is to play 4-bar phrases. And each phrase gets broken down into the following elements: 

  1. Short Motif (2 beats) 
  2. Followed by a Rest
  3. Medium Motif (4 beats)
  4. Followed by a Rest

BTW, I got this backing track from Truefire. It’s one of their multi-track audio Jam Packs called “Blues Rock Classics.” I love these because they’re recorded by real musicians and provide more of a live feel for practicing.

Practicing improvisation doesn’t always sound good. These concepts may sound awkward and predictable as you work on them. But, as you get comfortable with these practices, you’ll begin to hear the results at the jam, band practice, or, when it counts, on the bandstand.

My challenge here is staying true to the motif and pacing concepts. I naturally want to deviate from the restrictions and let loose. 

walrus Ages Five-State Overdrive

A Word on Gear

BTW, I want to get more comfortable with my gear, and I like the session to be fun. So, I will use my new Epiphone Les Paul, the Walrus Audio Ages (an overdrive pedal), and the Pete Thorn Amp Sim to record this in Logic. Here goes.

Pete Thorn Amp Sim

Final Words

Practice sessions can be fun, and I enjoy this process. But it’s essential to be clear on what you need to work on and want to achieve.

  1. Make a plan
  2. Use backing tracks
  3. Plug into your gear

I hope you enjoyed this month’s trade secret, and I thank you for watching.

Till next time, practice smart and play from the heart.

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