‘How do I improvise?’ I am still looking for the ultimate answer to this question but I think I have a workable solution for now.

Honestly, I think ‘improvisation’ is overthought. It’s like oh, I need to know this scale, that lick, transcribe a lot etc. then I can improvise! Or something along those lines. That’s too academic to me and lucky for me, I figured things out a little differently.

After few years of playing the guitar I started to improvise a little, funny thing is I didn’t even know what it meant. So what was I playing in my ‘improvisation’? Simple melody but I paid lots of attention to the phrasing e.g. vibrato, bends etc.. I couldn’t quite link the fast passages as well as I do now so my improvisation started with simple melodies. No 16th notes or sextuplet runs like what I’m working on obsessively right now.

But how do I create a melody? I hear some voices asking. Here’s the fun part. I didn’t really create any. My hands just played those notes on their own. It’s lots of muscle memory. How so? Because I played lots of other songs’ melodies!

Every morning to and fro school I would be bombarded by Chinese pop songs by Jay Chou and friends. Family outing wise I’d sometimes be fed English pop songs. No matter how much I tried to reject them (I was all about metal and metalheads must not listen to pop!) I ended up knowing quite some tunes and was even able to play them (and liking some of the tunes oh the blasphemy). This is really cool because I didn’t learn these tunes from charts but from ears, memories. Isn’t improvisation a lot about playing by ear anyway so this was a good way to start.

This was a big hit then. 

I was younger back then and I didn’t question anything. That’s the awesome thing being younger. We would just do it. No questions. I didn’t question about improvisation. I only wanted to play things I thought were cool. All that ‘unfortunate’ pop songs brainwashing in the end helped me in forming my phrasing and listening. It’s similar to learning languages I guess, we would learn different grammar and vocabulary the ‘stiff’ way and suddenly one day we start building phrases our own way smoothly. I’m Malaysian so my languages would influence each other and come out with bizarre phrases.

By knowing more and more songs, subconsciously, I knew what notes to play over specific chords in an ‘improvisation’ setting. What about feel? Yes feel is important but there is nothing to feel if our hands have nothing to play. So what’s your favorite song? Time to break down the melody and chords! No Googling for charts please. Here’s Taeyeon’s ‘I’ if you’re into a something a little more dynamic. Try matching your instruments dynamics to her voice, it will be fun.


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