As a jazz guitarist or any type of musician and artist learning how to use the right side of your brain will help you improvise with ease. It will allow you to tap into a universe of creativity. One of the first things I teach my new students on the guitar is how to play a 12 bar blues. We usually pick the key of A. The first week they practice all three of the dominant 7th chords that are in the song. The 2nd lesson I introduce the A blues scale and this is where the magic starts. As soon as they get the scale and the notes under their belt and begin to feel and hear what the notes sound like against the chords. It is immediately followed by a smile and the sheer look of bliss on the students face. This is what is called the right brain effect and what my jazz guitar hero Joe Diorio, called the creative side of the brain (right brain thinking). When we tap into this side of the brain we are relying on our intuition and the subconscious mind. This doesn’t mean we want to give up on the mathematical side (left brain) because we need that side to learn our scales and modes. The key is to internalize all these musical devices so you don’t have to think once you start to improvise. The execution of creativity starts to get more difficult once you get into more complex music. For example, to solo over “Giants Steps” or a jazz standard such as “All The Things You Are” requires you think of the changes so you can apply the appropriate scales when improvising over these tunes. So how do you express yourself creatively over a set of complex chord changes? Or how do you develop the skill of being creative without left brain from taking over?
Here is a list of ideas you can incorporate into your practice schedule. These ideas will free you from sounding stale and boring.
1. Memorize the changes or chords to the whole song: This will turn off the left side of the brain, which will force you to start relying on the right side of the brain, the creative side. Remember, don’t look at any sheet music, just memorize the chords. Looking at the chord symbols turns on the mathematical part of the brain. Which is something we don’t want when you are trying to be creative.
Ex. “All the Things You Are”: week 1 practice soloing only on the first 8 measures. Week 2 add the next 8 measures’ plus review the first 8. So now you have 16 bars by the 2nd week. Now you should be doing it all from memory. Continue like this for a couple of months until you feel you know these 16 bars by heart. Once you take your time like this with a jazz standard it will start to feel like your soloing over a simple “A 12 Bar Blues”. Continue this process with the rest of the song. This may seem time consuming, but this is one of the things you need to do to have mastery over a piece of music. Don’t rush into learning everything at once. Your mind can only handle so much and a little at a time is the best way to go.
Ex 2. Do some relaxing exercises such a yoga or meditation. When you are relaxed your creative process works better and you can tap into the subconscious mind with ease. This is what you want when you are creating music on the fly. Kenny Werner, has a great book that goes into great deal about how to get into a relaxed state of mind. Knowing how to do this can be beneficial for your creative inner self. It also comes with a CD of meditation exercises that is tailored for the improvising musician. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it for anyone who is looking to take there playing to the next level towards greatness.
Ex 3. Noodling: Is musical improvisation without thought, to be childlike on your instrument. Studies have shown children under 5 have more control over their creative side. Once they enter the education system and are told to do things a certain way and to follow the rules they begin to lose their creative side. Our schools teach us about how to train and exercise the left brain. Pick up your guitar and play whatever ideas come to mind. They could be chromatic phrases or one string licks with lots of vibrato and bends. Doing exercises like this will help stimulate the right side of the brain. Once you go to improvise with modes or scales and arpeggios you already know you will surprise yourself. You will be amazed of how different your solos sound. Your thought process will be more creative and rhythmic, thinking in ways you would have not thought of before.
Here is a list of activities you can try to stimulate the creative side of the brain:
1. Apply the “Kitchen Sink” Strategy to stimulate creativity: If you find yourself stuck with an issue (for instance, needing money for a renovation project) and hoping for a light bulb moment, expose your conscious self to quick tiny bits of information and then letting your mind relax. Read a paragraph or two from a half-dozen or more unrelated but engaging books, articles, or web pages, or listen to snippets from audio books or podcasts. Then, do a relaxing activity like taking a walk, gardening, or knitting for a half hour or so. Repeat the process as needed. Some people believe this method helps to jump-start brainstorming and can help you reach creative solutions faster.
2. Take part in a creative skill: You might also call this technique “weakness in productivity,” as it involves trying something new, exploring your shortcomings in relation to your ideal result, and trying again. For instance, if you wanted to take up painting, you’d:
- Grab some paints and a canvas and give painting your chosen landscape, still life, portrait, etc. your best shot.
- Accept that the finished result is almost certainly not the result you hope to achieve and embrace this “failure” as an opportunity.
- Compare your actual result to the result you visualized beforehand.
- Practice some skill-building exercises, like taking a class, watching videos, or reading about painting techniques.
- Repeat this process over again until you feel you’ve reached the creative result you seek.
3. Give a simple duty a challenging try: For example, you probably sign your name without thinking, but what if you try to sign it backwards? Or upside down? Or backwards and upside down? Practice challenging your creative mind until you can master all three.
- Or, try engaging both sides of your brain by writing a simple question to yourself (e.g., “What are you thinking about?”) with your right hand (which is controlled by the left side of your brain). Then, immediately switch the pen to your left hand (controlled by the right side of your brain) and write the first answer that comes to you (e.g., “Eating chocolate cake”).
I hoped some of these ideas presented here will help you feel more confident with your guitar playing. The most important thing is to feel relaxed and at ease while making music so the creativity will flow through you.