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:

Danny Speaks:

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


Posted on June 28, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. excellent–two of my very favorite people

  2. Having been brought up with many sounds, I always loved the way singers would scat, or doo-wop… add to that the sounds of jazz and African choirs, I can just imagine how putting this advice to use improvising guitar lines would work… I sing, so I will play as if I am singing, or at least try to. Thanks Danny, and Rolly too!

  3. This is something I have seen other players doing. For me, I may need another step – translating what I would sing if I could get my vocal chords to reproduce the notes I hear in my head! Thanks a lot Rolly, for all the excellent guitar information you so generously offer!

    • Hi, Gary,
      You may want to try reversing the process for awhile: Play a note on your guitar; try the open D string. Then take a deep breath and try to match your voice to the guitar note with a nice long “oooooh”. Keep hitting the string as you try to match the note. Practice makes perfect. If at first you can’t tell whether you’re matching the note or not, try recording the process, then listen back…then try again. Once you get one note, try for two, and go on from there. You CAN teach yourself to carry a tune. When I get a minute, I’ll write a new blog post to add my .02 to what Danny said.
      And you’re welcome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: