The text book type response to this question usually goes; " The spontaneous creation of new melodies over a predefined chord progression. " Well great, but to me improvisation is a very grey area, that has many facets to it. Here I am going to mainly rave on about what I feel are some key points concerning improvisation, so stick around if you wish, I might even come to a conclusion.A couple of personal observations are that:
- A good solo enhances the feeling and mood of a song.
- Some people can improvise without knowing a lot about Music Theory .
- A lot of improvisation is actually just worked out solos that vary slightly each time they are played.
- Too many guitarists think with their fingers and not with their heads.
- The underlying chord progression will determine to a large degree, how much flexibility an improvisation can have.
- It is important to keep your solo in context with the song.
- Many solos consist of notes,phrases & sounds that the audience expects to hear from the soloist.
- Improvisation is also about expanding the audiences perception of what is or isn't musical.
- Musicians must have the technique to enable them to instantly create the sounds they hear in their head while improvising.
- Listening to the rest of the band is just as important as your own playing.
- Constant experimentation/trial and error, is essential to develop & expand ones improvisational skill.
- Improvisation is really about creativity,imagination and the interaction of sounds.
- To practice these skills a musician must be in a creative environment where experimentation is encouraged.
- Playing constantly in a live setting enables musicians to develop these skills and to be comfortable and relaxed while performing.
- You will never get rich by pursuing any of the above.
These are just my thoughts at this particular time, you may or may not agree with any of them. As much as we all like to think that we can learn to improvise by studying and practicing, improvisation also requires a Natural ability , similar to having rhythm or being able to sing. Actually both these attributes are what improvisation is really about. Aren't we just singing using our instrument as our voice ?
One of the best ways to learn improvisation is to try and play what you sing, the only problem with this concept is that we will only try to sing what we have previously heard. This is where a good improviser must experiment with new sounds, explore new scales/modes and intervalic patterns so that these new sounds become familiar and can then be incorporated into their playing. As mentioned before, the catch 22 is that any really new ideas will sound unfamiliar to the listeners ear and will take time for audiences to accept.
I have found on many occasions that my ears have had to be gradually attuned to some of these more exotic modes and scales before I could appreciate the music properly. Once I understood these sounds I could then hear where I could use them in my own playing. So one of the key elements to becoming a better improviser, is to broaden our musical tastes and listen to a variety of music.
So now I have at least some idea as to what improvisation means to me, if any of this makes sense to you, it is purely by accident, and any similarity to persons known or unknown is pure coincidence.