What are some ways to break out of “ruts” with improvisation?

It’s easy to get stuck in a routine. You find something that works and you want to stick to it. You rely on the same few riffs for your solos and they get you through the gig–but ultimately you want more. We have seen many students go through this; even veteran musicians feel stuck from time to time. We’ve had those moments ourselves. To that point, here are a few ideas about how to break out of ruts and come up with fresh new improvisational ideas.

Practice the chord progression slower.   When you take a familiar chord progression – a 12-bar blues, a jazz standard, a modal progression – and play it slower than you are used to, you will hear it differently.  Your phrasing and note choice will automatically sound unlike how it sounded before.  Riffs that sound good at 120 beats per minute might not sound as good at 80 and vice versa.  You may find it awkward and not like how it sounds, but as with any part of your musical experience, ideas and concepts often have to feel uncomfortable before they feel comfortable.  You can also try playing the progression faster than you are used to, but since it’s usually more of a challenge to play slowly, try doing that first.

Practice the chord progression in different keys.  Being comfortable improvising in any key is a great benchmark for any musician to attain.  Certain instruments are aligned to play well in specific keys – “C” for the piano; “E” or “A” for guitar; “G” for banjo; “B-Flat” for trumpet, etc.  If you are playing in a key that is friendly to your instrument, it’s easy to revert to familiar riffs.  If you force yourself outside of that comfort zone, you may discover new ideas that you can translate back to the original key.

One note. There’s a lot of focus on: “What scale should I play?  What tensions should I use?”  This is important stuff, but there’s plenty more that goes into an effective solo.  By picking just one note and creating a solo with it, you can focus on dynamics, phrasing, articulation and other elements of improvisation that sometimes take a back seat to note choice.

Two on, two off.  Solo for two measures; leave space for two measures.  Get used to the sound of space; it is a valuable improvisational tool.

Sing along.  If you are playing piano, guitar or any other non-wind instrument, sing along with yourself as you play.  It will force you to play lines that are more purposeful.  If you play a wind instrument, try singing along to the chord progression and then improvising over it; you may find that singing, instead of being tied to your instrument, gives you new ideas.

W.W.T.D.? What would Trane do?  Or Miles?  Hendrix?  Metheny?  Stevie Ray?  Listen, transcribe and find out.

Take a break.  You don’t have to solo on every single song your band or ensemble plays.  If you knew that during your set you would only have one or two solos, you would likely save your best ideas for them.  Plus, allowing other people the chance to solo in your stead will make you very popular on the bandstand.

Do you have any improvisation tricks or tips you’ve found helpful that you’d like to share?  Feel free to share them with us.  We’re all in this together!