Guest Column: Danny Gotham on improvisation
When I started writing this blog, my old friend Danny Gotham offered to write a guest column, since he has a lot of very smart stuff to say about guitar playing but didn’t have the motivation to start his own blog.
I’ve known Danny for 31 years, and consider him one of my “guitar brothers”…We went to different schools together. So here is Danny’s offering on beginning to learn improvisation:
One of the most common requests I get from students is to teach them how to
Here’s some of my basic thinking about this topic.
First of all, improvisation requires a particular attitude, or mindset. I
believe that the true improviser has to be somewhat fearless–they have to
be willing to jump in to the deep end, and believe that they can swim. That
doesn’t mean that one can play with no rules. There are parameters that must
be observed, regardless of the setting for any improvisation. If a player
has no idea about these parameters, that fearlessness becomes recklessness,
and the music will crash and burn.
I get a great number of students who take this approach to improvisation:
they begin by buying one of the hundreds of books out there—something like
“10,987 scales for all purposes” or something like that—and proceed to learn
their scales, one by one.
Here’s my suggestion. If you want to learn how to improvise, you need only one scale to begin with—and that is the pentatonic. Of course, you will
eventually need to know much more than the pentatonic, but what is essential
when learning how to improvise is not how many scales you know, but what
you do with the ones (one) that you do know.
I use an analogy regularly when I instruct on this subject: think of a scale
as a vocabulary for a new language you are learning to speak. After you have
required enough basic vocabulary, what happens with it? Do you:
A. spill out your entire vocabulary every time you speak in that language?,
B. you use just a few words, and create sentences.
The best advice I have ever heard about improvisation came from Herb Ellis.
He was the guitarist in the great Oscar Peterson trios of the 1950s. Herb
was the first jazz guitarist I listened to. As the years have gone by, I
have heard many players with richer ideas and better technique, but in my
book, no one ever will swing like him—his playing is so full of life, and
it has an irrepressible joy that is unique.
I used to notice that when Herb played, he would move his mouth—but wasn’t
really singing–as he improvised. I could never figure out what he was
doing, until in the late 1970s, when I watched him conduct a class for a
roomful of young guitarists. Someone asked him about his choice of scales
and modes, etc. “Do you use the augminished Hungarian? The Neopolitan mode?
With the raised 9th and the drunk 5th?”
I can’t remember the exact wording of the question, or his exact words in
reponse, but essentially, he simply said this:
“Play like you are singing.”
It suddenly clicked. When I was watching Herb move his mouth while he was
playing, he was “singing” through his guitar. Here’s a very simple way to
determine if your improvising is getting anywhere. Sing—or at least, imagine
yourself singing—what you have just played. Go back to my analogy. Are you
running your mouth, or are you making sentences? If we go with that a bit
further, substitute the words “a scale” for “the words” you have learned to
speak in the new language. Now, are you merely running up and down the
scale, or are you creating phrases? If you are doing the former, you
aren’t really doing anything except playing notes in a scale. If you are
doing the latter, then you are creating musical “sentences”—in other words–
singing. That is the first step—and the most important—to becoming an