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Julian Lage Shares His Advice For Improvisation

Julian Lage
(Image credit: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

“Improvisation is thought of of as something you can’t cultivate,” Julian Lage says. “And yet anyone who’s an improviser and thinks of themselves that way understands that improvisation is one of the strictest musical territories.” 

With that in mind, Lage sat down with Guitar Player to share a few great tips for incorporating improvisation into your playing.

Strategize Before You Mobilize

”As a piece of advice, understand that you have permission to strategize as an improviser. And that doesn’t necessarily mean working up a solo ahead of time. [Famed jazz vibraphonist and composer] Gary Burton used to talk about this: If someone says, ‘Take a solo,’ you’re allowed to decide how you want it to go. For instance, you can decide how many choruses you’re going to play.

”You don’t have to just play until something bad happens and then you have to escape. [laughs] If you say, ‘I want to play one chorus, not two,’ you already have a leg up as an improviser because you have a chronological framework to work within.

"Then you can get down to the brass tacks of, ‘What do I want to play?’ Otherwise, not only do you have to play a solo you like but you also have to do it without knowing when it’s going to end. And that’s kind of like asking someone to get in a car and just saying, ‘Drive. You’ll know when to stop.’”

Improvise What You Play… And Also What You Don’t Play 

“Improvisation is not synonymous with generating ideas. And I think people think that it is – to solo is to make up new content. And simply put, no. You can do that, and that’s a feature of the craft, but improvisation might also be you saying, ‘I’m just going to play the melody of this composition, and all I’m going to improvise is where I leave parts of the melody out.’ So the improvisation becomes the things that you don’t play. 

“It’s a subtractive form of improvisation. And there’s a lot of great solos that are created in that image, right? Duke Ellington, Ben Webster – they’re masters of omission.” 

Listen To Your Surroundings

“The great improvisers that I’ve been around, their number-one thing is that when they start improvising, it is so obvious that they’re also listening to everything I’m playing. Everything. 

"So in a way, you can say the definition of improvisation is almost being interdependent: ‘I’m going to listen to you so hard and get all my ideas from you and be connected to you.’ It’s very fun that way, because it means you can show up and say, ‘The pressure’s not all on me. I just have to know what questions to ask musically.’”

Improvisation Is Not Just “Winging It”

“It’s really important as an improviser to know when you’re not actually being asked to improvise. If you’re in a rock band and they say, ‘Come up with a solo break that’s awesome,’ well, let’s for a second suspend the notion that that’s improvisation and think of it as you’re being asked to be a composer. 

“That’s the way I think about George Harrison. Obviously, he and the Beatles were improvisers as humans and musicians, but you could also make the argument that George Harrison was one of the great arrangers, orchestrators, and composers with his solos.  

“And my experience is that the people who really call themselves ‘improvisers’ think about improvisation the way that people think about producing and composing. They’re obsessed with it. There’s obsessed with parameters. They’re obsessed with limitations that inspire them to improvise stronger. Improvisation is a legitimate study.”

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Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.