Ramblings on Improvising, Outside Playing, and Robert Fripp

Last night, I had a pretty significant breakthrough on guitar and I want to share my thoughts about it for no particular reason other than it was… well, a pretty significant breakthrough for me. Maybe it’ll be somehow useful for another person.

Basically, I finally took to heart Robert Fripp’s aphorism “Abandon concern for hitting the right note; then, hit the right note” and gave myself license to just improvise over a looped chord with no regard for which scale to use.

You’d think that after more than ten years of playing guitar I’d have started trusting my ear and instincts by now, but my method of improvising has pretty much always been characterized by the thought “okay, which set of notes is correct here (and can I play that set across the fretboard with some degree of fluency)?”

But I realized that, particularly for lead playing (and especially given the harmony that emerges from side-stepping and generally playing outside like some of the guitarists I like the most, Holdsworth in particular), the risk of playing “incorrect” notes is basically zero.

Given diatonic harmony, there are more “correct” notes than “incorrect” notes, so any given fret on any given string is better than 58% likely to be “correct”. Even if one plays an “incorrect” note, it’s either adding an unexpected color to the harmony of the moment (for example, giving a Lydian feel when playing over a major chord) or it’s providing some tension to make a “correct” note sound all the more consonant. And, in terms of getting from an “incorrect” note to a “correct” note, you’re never more than a half-step away (again, given a diatonic scale).

But the whole idea of “correct” notes is bound up in music theory and a fairly conservative application of it. What I just explained is mostly a limited justification for an attitude I hope I can continue to have about improvising.

To return to Fripp’s aphorism: “Abandon concern for hitting the right note; then, hit the right note.”

Intellectually, I need to have the “security blanket” of a music-theoretical foundation for a less structured approach to improvising (which is a bit paradoxical), but—once I have the guitar in my hands—knowing that I’m only a half-step away from a “correct” note gives me confidence to abandon concern for playing a “right” note and instead just play the right note. More importantly, I finally trust my ear and instincts and I’m not afraid to play outside of a prescribed scale.

Part of what’s so exciting about this is that I ultimately have a very liberal view of music, but my guitar playing has been relatively conservative for a long time. To quote Robert Fripp again, “The musician has three instruments: the hands, the head and the heart.” To use his terms, I’ve finally unblocked the boundaries between these three, and I expect it will allow me to make more honest, raw, and interesting music.