Musician’s Building Blocks: Improvisation

It’s nice to be back and writing again. My absence allowed me to accomplish a few things:

  • Concentrate on the previous semester’s finals,
  • Move into a new apartment,
  • Prepare a home for a new pet,
  • Start and finish a class,
  • and most importantly, listen and learn to play some new music.

But enough of that, on with the long delayed post.


Tonight I was attempting to figure out what I wanted to post on, having been away for so long. I’d debated writing something about an artist or song or genre, but nothing really struck as being a good idea, until earlier that is. One word came to mind, and that word is improvisation. I considered for a moment, playing with the word in my mind and on my tongue, and then got some ideas. Here they are.

In the world of music there are two scheme’s or formats of playing that I’ve experienced as factions fighting against one another for a musician’s talent. On one side of these battles I imagine traditional rehearsal. I see the orchestra that I played in during high school during a performance. Sitting on stage, all wearing matching tuxedos and dresses with instruments in hand – everything is coordinated. Even that tuning that the orchestra does before the director is on stage, yeah that’s planned, too. Most of the time everyone’s already completely in tune anyways.

Now the enemy, or other side of this group, is spur of the moment improvisation. This is the guitarist who steps out mid song, turns his axe up, and then moves his fingers across that fretboard, his fingers like magical spider legs tapping elegantly everywhere in some erotic dance of auditory magnificence.

Yeah, so it might be clear already which method I think is more important but honestly each of these methods are vital to the creation and production of music. For the time being, let’s look at improvisation within music and what it adds to the mixture.

I asked a friend earlier what he thought of when I mentioned the word improvisation. Outside of a musical context he mentioned acting and Whose Line is it Anyways (I wonder if that’s on Netflix?), as well as an engineering competition he was at where he was requested to take a bunch of random components and items and design something with them. Truth is, when it comes to music, improv is almost identical to his second example. The beauty of both is that with seemingly random components, musicians demand to create something by ripping something else apart and combining stuff together until it works again.

It’s really quite elegant. For the most part, music theory teaches us how chords and progressions work together to sound good to the listener. Improvisation is what allows a pianist or bass guitarist to take this knowledge to the next level by ripping apart the chords and finding those sweet notes. Of course, improvisation goes far beyond just playing music and delves into styles, technicality, and engineering, too.

Rubber Soul Album Cover

The Beatles' Album Rubber Soul is an example of their broadening improvised styles.

For instance, The Beatles were renowned because they bridged the rock gap and moved on to different styles during their impressive career. I’ve heard it said before though that the reason The Beatles played the way they did was because they weren’t good classical musicians. In fact, I can’t remember any classical guitar songs amongst their collection. In addition, look at Jazz music which is formed on a key signature and chord progression. From here the instruments of choice generally do 1 of 2 things. All instruments except one play the chord progression while the last instrument is left to solo and improv over everything else.

Honestly, improvisation is why fans go to concerts. When people complain because their favorite musician’s didn’t play their songs according to the cd then they as fans are missing the point. Concerts and live shows allow a band to break free of the restraint that cd production places on them. This is where a band can truly show off. Guitar, drum, and bass solos galore! And that is only with a traditional 3 or 4 piece band. And what about stage hijinks? MAE played a Halloween show in Grand Rapids this last fall and they came out in costumes, of course, and toilet papered another band (whom they knew well) while the band was on stage performing. The result was hilariously spectacular; toilet paper hanging off of instruments and tangled around the microphones while the musicians looked like mummies. This was one of my favorite shows ever and I’m never going to get the same thing by listening to their music driving down the road.

Now look at other musicians such as The Gorrilaz and OK Go! It was many years ago when I was first introduced to the Gorrilaz, yet I was too young to appreciate their music, let alone research into it. Now that I know more about this group I realize that The Gorrilaz took music performance and twisted it in a new way so that they could do something unique, and successful. Their live shows become a story, while the band is just a group of bards relaying the tale. This is poetry in song format. And Ok Go!? Ever since their original music video for “Here it Goes Again” they’ve been on the top of improvised video production. Most recently their enormous Rube Golberg machine in the video for “This Too Shall Pass” has continued this legacy.

Then there’s the knitty gritty of sound productions. Rappers rely on fresh lyrics, improv’d and freestyle’d as fast as can be. But in the studio sound has to be thoroughly planned out to make the final product as powerful as it can be, and yet it all started somewhere. For instance, the industry standard of multi-track layering dates back to Les Paul’s work improvising with sound recording techniques. Along the same lines is a bit of work I did recently. Ok, it’s not the same exact lines, but this is what musicians do, we take something that doesn’t work and make it work with sound any way we can. My brother found a used Digitech RP200 pedal while rummaging around MSU when students moved out last semester. He passed this along to me, in box, with instructions and power cable, not knowing why it was discarded. I readily took the pedal and plugged it in back at my place to start jamming when I found out that the foot switched didn’t work. What did I do? I did not throw it out, that’s for sure! I unplugged the thing, grabbed a screwdriver, and busted the pedal open as quick as can be. I soon found out that the footswitches were simply no longer making contact with the buttons they were supposed to be hitting, so I folded up some index card and shoved that in there. Now the pedal works like it was brand new! That is improvisation.

Ultimately improv goes far beyond music and sound and into general problem solving as is evident with my tale. However, within the realm of music it is a vital component for bands who are looking for something fresh and guitarists who are looking for their own signature licks. But, what one must realize is that without the foundation of music theory and understanding improv wont get you as far as can go.

As always, Find the Beat or The Beat will find you.

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  1. #1 by thejambi on June 6, 2010 - 7:59 pm

    There’s definitely something disappointing about going to a live show and the performance is stiff, the performers aren’t energetic, and they aren’t excited for the audience. Good thoughts on going beyond simply solos and simple creative acts and showing that improv is a mindset an artist can have.

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