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Improvisation

Probably the reason most of us got involved in playing music was so that someday we'd be able to play anything that came into our heads, just like that - or to spontaneously invent a complementary guitar part to someone else's song. I know that was my goal.

"When you learn how, you can play everything different every night, every performance. Indeed, you strive for this freedom. It's what keeps it fun."
I remember being in a rehearsal studio in London in the early 70's. I was still at a stage where I had to learn my parts, memorize them and play them the same every time. I had no idea what I was playing; I was just playing. I was just beginning to form a mental picture of how music connected up. I wound up listening to another band rehearsing -- I forget who they were -- but I do remember they were trying out a new guitar player, a guy called Henry McCullough (sp?). He wound up in Paul McCartney's Wings. A great player. Anyway, I was aware he'd never heard any of the tunes yet, but when he plugged in, he instantly launched into this fantastic part - lifted the whole song through the roof.

I was impressed. How the hell did he do that? I wondered. How did he know what the chords were? How could he possibly know in a split second what to play? I decided my goal was to get my playing to that stage, which I'm happy to say, I did. Not that I play like Henry, don't get me wrong, but then he doesn't play like me.

The term 'improvisation' usually implies taking a solo. In fact, when you do arrive at the stage of being fluent with music and your instrument, the whole piece of music becomes improvised, except perhaps for a phrase that's played together with others. Every part of the tune - rhythm in the verses or choruses, turnarounds, licks between vocal lines, solos, intros, outros - everything becomes an improvisation. When you learn how, you can play everything different every night, every performance. Indeed, you strive for this freedom. It's what keeps it fun. You find that after experimentation, your part does settle into an almost set format, but the details are always changing. You're always looking for that slightly better adaptation.

I play in a number of line ups. I have a Sydney band (The Train), a Brisbane band (MumboGumbo) and I play in a few other peoples bands. I often wind up performing the same songs with these different bands. Naturally, each lineup approaches the same song in a different way - the drummer might hear the feel differently, or the bass might hear a different accent, or whatever - and of course, I have to adapt my part to the new grooves. I can't just stick rigidly to a set part. I have to improvise a new one with each line up.

Kirk Lorange writes a weekly column for GuitarSite and is the author of the instructional book, PlaneTalk