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How to Improvise Better with a “Mental Menu”

Improvisation: the Final Frontier for every jamming musician. Now that you have reams of TAB memorized, more hot licks than you know what to do with, and piles of scales and arpeggios ready for battle, how do you make that leap to actually “saying something” when you improvise? It is one thing to be able to keep a stream of notes emanating from your instrument, but another thing entirely to create solos that have personality. One of the things that we notice when we listen to the greats play improvised solos, is that every solo they take is different from the previous one. Each solo sounds like it was written ahead of time, it is so smooth and logical. How do we develop this same ability?

Well, the answer is twofold. First, the “bad news” is that, you guessed it, many hours of wood-shedding are necessary to be able to “speak” freely on your instrument. You have to get to the point where you don’t have to think about your hands anymore, and instead your focus is on playing what you feel. Yes, this does take a bit of time, but it is worth every grueling hour spent practicing. So, don’t slack on your practice sessions, and keep taking lessons and jamming with other folks. This is the path. (And best yet, sign up for some lesson on “how to improvise” here with JamAlong, we specialize in teaching this! Email or call us and mention this blog and get a FREE 45 minute Live Video Lesson…go on, do it!)

But then there is the good news: we have a very cool trick you can employ, that will power-boost your improvisation and make you play things you would have never played before, without spending years bent over your fingerboard…we call this the Mental Menu. Let’s get started.

In short, what the Mental Menu really means is this: when you’re in a jam, and you know you have a solo coming up, don’t wait until you’re already playing before you think of what to play! Sounds reasonable enough, right? Sure, but in the heat of the moment, when you’re trying to hear the guitar players lead and ignore the lady with the tamborine, it’s more easily said than done. What usually happens is that your solo is on you before you know it, and you just play all of your usual stuff. Now there’s nothing really wrong with this, unless you want to start doing something new when you improvise. Or maybe you want to want to have that more polished sound that you notice in the playing of the greats, where each solo sounds like it was thought out before hand even thought they just made it up on the spot. Well, this is where the Mental Menu comes in! To use the Mental Menu, you first meed to memorize the four categories of the menu. Shouldn’t be too hard, as there are just four of them, but let’s go over each of these menu items in detail…

The Intro

Think if this as your entry into the party. Remember how Kramer would come through the door in every Seinfeld episode? This is how you should start your solo! The trick is to think of your options for starting your solo, and then pick one, quickly. Although ever instrument has different possibilities, there are certain options that are universal:

                                                                – Starting either low or high

                                                                – Starting with a particular “Intro Lick

                                                                – Staring with either the melody or improvisation 

So no matter what instrument you are wielding at the time, you have the choice of either launching in a lower area or higher up, or you can decide to come blazing in with a pre-selected hot lick, or you can state the melody at first before you go off into outer space (which is actually the classy way to build a solo).

Lower or Upper Neck

Generally most breaks are played either lower on the neck (using a lot of open strings), or higher on the neck, meaning past the fifth fret and going as high as you have frets (unless you’re a fiddler, then you can go high enough so only dogs can enjoy your solo!).  So it really adds personality to your improvising when you choose a particular area to create your solo in. Make a conscious effort to play an entire break in the middle or upper neck, and you will definitely be noticed! This distinction is also very effective for pre-arranged breaks, and we highly recommend that you invest in upper-neck versions of as many of your tunes as you can. We make this easy for you because all you have to do is order up an upper-neck solo for any song you wish, and we’ll send it right out to you! You can do that on our Custom Lessons Page, and choose a variety of formats…

Featured Technique or Style 

A technique is a particular musical tool, like a scale, or an arpeggio, or a combination. A style is more instrument specific. For example on the banjo you could choose to play in Scruggs Style (three finger bluegrass), or frailing, or melodic style, etc. On the mandolin you could feature tremolo, or crosspicking. On the guitar you might want to try Carter style strumming or crosspicking as well. And the list goes on. It’s not so important that you know a long list of styles, what is key is that you actually select a particular style to highlight! This makes all the difference in the world. This is what gives your improvisations that “I really know what I’m doing” sound”, that you hear in the playing of all the greats. It’s not so much “what you know”, it’s all about “remembering to do it”! And if you are unclear on any of these styles, or want to learn more about how to play them, then just book a Live Video Lesson with us and we’ll get you started!

Featured Licks 

In bluegrass and folk and country music, there is a long established tradition of collecting and inserting musical phrases into your playing. These “licks” are like musical quotations, that match a particular key or chord, and when you get enough of them you can literally play entire solos by just stringing the licks together. Licks can also feature a style, like blues  or crosspicking, or they can be higher or lower on the neck as well. The trick is to make sure you have some licks in at least the keys of G, C, D, A, E and Em and Am. That way you can crank out solos for most of the songs you will run across at jams. We offer “lick packs” for guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, dobro and ukulele, just call or email us and we’ll get you all set up!

So the moral of this story is simple: if you plan ahead and choose a direction for your improvised solo, you will always sound more polished and ad more expression to your playing. And you will also reap the reward of learning new techniques on your instrument that you might not have otherwise thought of. This makes it so that every time you go to a jam session, you are not only having a great time, but also improving as a player as well because you are pushing yourself beyond what you normally do. Use your Mental Menu, it’s a win win!

One thought on “How to Improvise Better with a “Mental Menu”

  1. Hello, Just a quick note on my path towards Improvisation. I’ve been playing mandolin for 35 or so years but have always shied away from improvising. The backing tracks at Jamalong have really helped me break free of my old habit of memorizing everything I played. Brae’s good natured nudging has taught me some new ways to approach taking breaks at jam sessions. (Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!) I regularly attend open bluegrass sessions now and am asked to come back to some of them! (lol) I have taken lots of lessons over the years and The Jamalong Method has worked the best for me.
    Dennis OHern

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