It is likely that you may have mastered all of the right tools for improvising, such as scales, interval skips, and have your favourite phrases and motifs that you have learned from other guitarists, but yet still your solos sound fragmented. You may spend a lot of time trying to assemble all of the improvisational methods into a performance but find that the solo sounds unintelligible and never really gets going.
Problems can often arise at those points in the progression where oblique chords crop up or a sudden modulation to another key appears. These are typical points for a solo to begin to break up and sound disjointed. The following methods outline ways in which to overcome these problems, with the main objective being to preserve the melody at all costs. In so doing you will ensure that what you play really flows and that there are no sudden harmonic disasters.
The first solution is to try to find common tones that suit all of the chords in the progression, or at least as many of them as is possible. The aim here is to try and play over the progression using as few notes as possible. Begin by simply playing the root note of each chord, then try playing the third, and the fifth, before a mixture of all three.
At this point, it is important to notice the relationship between the notes that you are playing and the chord underneath. You can complement the progression by playing the key notes of each chord, without having to ‘shred’ notes over the top, and it is much more effective to suggest the chord rather than trying to play all of the notes until you find one that fits with it. By playing just a few notes and leaving the space you will begin to get ideas for what notes should go into those spaces. A tip for you would be that as you play the key notes, say each note out loud so that you mark its position and significance in the scale and progression.
Now that you have outlined the key notes of the chord progression begin to add other ‘passing’ notes so that you start to build on the foundations. Start by adding only one other note at a time so that you ‘link’ together the key notes from before. At this stage you will start to notice that your phrases will begin to gradually flow uninterrupted into one another. Don’t worry if you feel that your phrase may be taking you into a dead end. Don’t panic, just keep going and try and resolve what you are playing.
When you reach a point where there is modulation, that is a chord borrowed from another key, be sensible. Don’t try and mould lots of notes from your existing solo to it. Instead just suggest the new chord by playing one note. Modulations often have a very powerful musical effect so often adding one key note is effective enough to help pronounce it. For example, if the progression borrows a 7th chord from another key, hit that 7th note. You’ll find that it will be far more satisfying to listen to listen to.
Finally, as you now build up key notes and are more confident in how you construct a solo return to some of the phrases that you have learned form studying other guitarists. Try and fit these in to suitable places ensuring that you are using what is suitable for the progression. After all, you don’t want to be trying to impose a finger tapping solo over an old jazz standard. Make sure that what you use is stylistically accurate!
Remember, that when a good improviser plays solo you should be able to hear the progressions from what he plays whether or not there are other instruments playing the chords underneath his part. This is called harmonizing and a simple function such as just pinning down the key notes of the chord can work as anchor material that you can always rely on over a chord progression.