Matt-Gerry_webA Day in the Life – Improvisational Magic

This week in guitar class at Salina South Middle School, I teach the students the magic of the minor pentatonic scale. Our concert this last week was a perfect segue into improvisation as I had two students from last semester join us to do improvisational solos. The students were astonished when I pointed out that both of these soloists didn’t have their solos memorized, but instead were using the minor pentatonic scale to just “make up” their solos as they were playing.

I have always used this version of the pentatonic as I think it’s easy for students to remember with the index finger always returning to the same fret.

Here was my sequence for introducing improvisation this year.

1. Teach them the scale (making sure they were using correct fingering -including pinkies). For the sake of consistancy…this whole week we keep the scale on the 5th fret and I hammer home the fact that 5th fret is Am. I choose the key of A minor because I find if students can start from the beginning of the alphabet and work either forward or backwards they’re more successful.

2. Take just the first string notes of the scale and had students echo a solo I would play for them.

3. We did the same as #2 but added notes of the second string.

4. Then I gave them time to practice creating their own solos with those two strings. From here I would play an Am chord and have each student do an eight beat solo, and in between their solo and the next person I’d play a D and then an E chord before returning to Am for the next soloist. I make every student do a solo stressing that they CANNOT make a mistake if they are using the notes of the scale. I even go as far to say, if you just play one note of the scale and make your rhythm interesting that that is okay (and I always have a few kids take me up on that).

5. The next day I like to use Peter Vogal’s ”Let’s Jam” CD and have them all make up solos on their guitars while I pass around the electric and have students have a more prominent solo.

6. We talked about roots and their importance. I explain how roots give solos a sence of finality. I also starting showing them some little tricks like the Chuck Berry Double Stop and the B.B. King slide. I have to admit…I need to learn some new tricks…these are great, but I need more! These were tricks I learned at the Teaching Guitar Workshop -Level II up is Reston, VA from Ed Prasse. What a fabulous teacher he was. I need to get in touch with him.

7. The last step is we start jamming to popular songs. Yesterday we jammed to Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives” which is in the key of Am. I try and pick new songs daily to jam to – give students some exposure to new music (to them) and also to hear how solos fit in different genres of music.

That’s where we’re at today. I’ll update you on our progress as we continue to improve on our improvisation.