Improvising with Restrictions

By Zack Uidl

When most people sit down to practice improvisation, they just throw on a backing track and start just playing whatever comes to mind. While this is a good idea some of the time and great in certain situations, it definitely should not be the only method you use to practice improvisation. One of the best ways to advance your playing while practicing improvisation is to give yourself a specific restriction. By doing this, it will force you to apply specific techniques, you will think differently and become more creative, and it will expand your comfort zone.

When choosing a restriction, it should be something that will help you with something that you are having problems with or something that will challenge you to expand upon something that you are already getting comfortable with.

Improvising Using One String Only

Improvising using only one string can be difficult, especially if it is over a longer section of music. The great thing about practicing with this restriction is it will force you to think differently and much more melodically. For example, the lead guitar uses techniques to help maintain creativity. Things like slides, bends, legato and picked notes can be used to keep things interesting and fresh. 

When doing this, solo for at least a full minute using one string only. Then you can switch to another string, again, for at least a full minute. Start with the high E string and end on the low E string Since the lower strings are closer to the range of the rhythm guitar parts most of the time, it is slightly more difficult to solo using them. 

Improvising Only Using Arpeggios 

Many people struggle with applying arpeggios and sweep picking when improvising. This is mainly caused by two reasons. 

  1.  People begin improvising using only scales and get more comfortable with that.
  2. Applying arpeggios uses a greater thought process rather than scales for the most part. 

The reason it takes more thought power is you have to match the chord that is being played in the backing and play it as an arpeggio. For example, if a Bm chord is being played, you will want to play a Bm arpeggio using the notes B, D and F#. 

It is also important to point out that when applying arpeggios, you do not only have to use sweep picking. An arpeggio is a simple chord played one note at a time, so there are many possibilities as to how you apply your arpeggios. 

Improvising Without Playing Two Adjacent Strings 

Improvising without playing two strings in a row can be very awkward from both a phrasing perspective but also from a physical perspective. 

Soloing in this way really allows your guitar playing to have an exciting new sound where you are not thinking like a “standard guitar” player. Most guitarists think very vertically, meaning that they play scales and sequences up and down very much in order. Instrumentalists like saxophone players, pianists, and other instrumentalists do some very cool things with their phrasing due to the fact that they do not play things all in order like many guitarists do. 

Other potential restrictions that you could try:

1. String Skipping

2. Specific Rhythm

a. 8″ notes

b. triplets

c. quarter notes, etc.

3. Bending every note or every other note

4. Slide to every note

5. Using specific strings – Examples:

a. Only low E and D strings

b. Only G and high E strings

c. Only A and B strings

d. Only D and high E strings

Of course, you can come up with many other possibilities. When you do this, make sure it will directly benefit what you are either struggling with or are looking to take a step further.

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