Curt Sheller is a musician, author, educator, artist and computer program- mer residing in Pennsylvania. He hosts a top ten ukulele website as well as authoring a number of ukulele and guitar books through Curt Sheller Publications.
1. How does one go about learning to improvise?
One of the easiest ways to start to improv is to phrase the melody differently than the original by adding some notes or changing the rhythm of the melody. If you know the scale the melody came from choose notes from there. If not pick a note above or below the note a fret or two. All music comes from scales. You have to start with a scale.
A scale is simply a collection of notes used to create melodies and chords. Scales are the alphabet of music. Scales are one of the four sources for improv. The other three are, arpeggios, intervals and sequences. And, they all come out of scales.
For getting into improv, I recommend the pentatonic scales. Start with the Blues or Minor Pentatonic and Major Pentatonic . Master these in several common keys or all the keys if your really ambitious. C Pentatonic (C D E G A C) will work over the progression mentioned in question three. If one of the notes in the scale doesn’t sound great against the chord, quickly move to the next higher or lower note in the scale. the quicker you can do this and the more it sounds like you did it on purpose. If it really sounds bad, play it two more times and louder. Then the audience thinks they where wrong. Nobody plays three wrongs notes on purpose.
When learning to improvise, keep it simple. Simply by varying the duration of the notes in a scale run it will start to sound like music. Make some notes longer and some shorter. Play a note several times. Add dynamics, louder softer, legato, staccato, glissando, hammer-ons, pulls off, etc.
If it still sounds like a scale pick a few of the notes and create little motifs, licks or riffs. If you keep the notes on the same string or adjacent strings the melodies will have a better shot of sounding good. Wider string skips or intervals in melodies or improv can sound strange at first.
Target a note of the scale. Start or end on the note. Overplay it. Really hear how it sounds against chords. Explore how many different ways you can play just a few notes. Think of it like the game of Scrabble . Your draw a set of letters, or notes in a music sense. You don’t have to use all of them and you can use the same note over and over. Then create as many words as you can.
Be sure to try all of these suggestions against a chord progression. Or, even a song on CD or the radio. Just noodle in a Blues or Pentatonic scale till you find something that sounds good to you.
I’m a firm believer that you’ll try out hundreds of you own licks and ideas and keep a few. Some just plain sound bad and others you just work at or give up. Some will actually grow on you. Also try different rhythmic placement relative to the chord or chords.
Knowing the notes of a chord can help with target note selection and cutting out any clams that you might play. Arpeggios are great for that, as they are the notes of the chord. If you play C, E, G for a C chord and as D for C D E G. There are 24 possible ways to play C D E G. Let along the rhythmic possibilities and playing notes more than once.
These exercises are a great way to learn to play by ear. Train the ear and the hands will follow.
2. What is a good jazz chord progression to practice?
You can jazz up a basic I-V-I-IV-V progression by making it a I-VI-II-V progression and using 4-part, a.k.a jazz chords . An example, in the key of C would be to take C Am Dm G and make it Cmaj7 Am7 Dm7 G7. Then try 9ths, 11s and and some altered chords for the G7, like G7b9, #9, 5b, #5, 13b5. Cmaj7 Am11 Dm9 G13. A lot of possibilities.
When venturing into jazz you soon realize that there are just too many chord shapes to memorize. You really need a system for creating all the chords you want to use and play. There shouldn’t be any chord you need to look up. You should be able to create any chord from a firm foundation of core chords and a few chord building principles.
My book Exploring Jazz Chords on Ukulele has chord progressions based on standard jazz songs. It explores one way to play through the progression. It is a good start to the core chords needed for playing jazz.
3. Can you suggest some useful practice exercises?
Exercises that develop the relationship between the ear, hands and the brain are the best. The ear part is easy for simple melodies and chords. You don’t need to hear simple things but for a few times before your ear has it. The brain can memorize or figure things out in a few reps. But, it is the fingers that need all the work. Developing the muscle memory and coordination needed takes a lot of work and repetition. Think of it like running a mile on a track. You put one foot in front of the other. You go around four times or so. Sounds simple. Do it once or twice and you still might not be good at it. You need to put in the time and practice when learning anything new.
To develop finger strength and independence for the fretting hand, I have all students, guitar or ukulele, do 1, 2, 3, and 4 note single string drills on each string. And, do them accurate and under control. I call these drills, finger gymnastics. Here are some examples.
Most players hate to do these drills and exercises. They feel they are not vary musical – but, they do contain all the motions that are need to to play single notes. Technique is where the most work is needed. Students that actually do the technique drills I give and memorize the notes of the neck, progress pretty well. It takes a lot of time and effort to get your chops up and maintained.
There is a famous quote attributed to jazz guitarist George Van Eps. When asked about practice. He said, and I paraphrase. “If I don’t practice one day, I know it. If I miss two days, fellow musicians know it. If I miss three days, everyone knows it.”