Starting to learn how to solo and improvise on the piano can be a daunting task. Improv is a unique way of approaching playing an instrument and is completely different than reading sheet music. However, anyone, and I mean anyone, can learn to solo by following some basic steps. Ask yourself, “What, where, when, and how?”
Step 1: Learn your scales (What)
Learning your scales is by far the most important piece of the improvisational puzzle. Scales are the blueprints that inform what notes work and what notes don’t work when soloing. While there are hundreds of scales out there, only a few are frequently used. Many (dare I say, most) successful musicians have made careers out of soloing using only five scales: major, minor, major pentatonic, minor pentatonic, and the blues scale.
Step 2: Learn how to apply your scales (Where and When)
Now that your essential scales are second nature, you need to know when and where to use them. The key and the chords over which you are soloing determined the scale you will utilize. Match your scale, major or minor, to the key. If you are playing in E minor, then you can use the E minor scale or the E minor pentatonic, for example. But be careful! As you play over more advanced songs, the key can change mid-song. This is a good subject to speak with your instructor about.
You will learn through experience to identify the key based off of the chord progressions, and what scales fit best of those chords. As a rule of thumb, whatever notes are in the chords being played at the moment are fair game. The best place to start is the blues. You can play a blues scale over a 12-bar blues every time! Once you’re comfortable with the blues, start branching out!
Step 3: Practice! (How)
Once all the pieces are in place, start practicing. Running up and down the scales as quickly as possible is a common mark of a beginner soloist. Avoid this instinct. I always recommend to my students to start slow. Focus on experimentation instead of speed. Create melody. Figure out what sounds good. You know what notes are available to use, so try putting them together in new creative orders and rhythms. Once you are good at creating pleasing melodies then you can add in speed. A beautiful combination of notes is just as impressive to the seasoned musician as a speed.
Put into action what you have learned. Practice will help you refine your soloing skills. Listening will also help. Become familiar with the soloing greats and try to emulate them. In music, plagiarism is encouraged! Borrowing riffs and tricks from the greats is a fabulous way to build up your chops.
Lastly, don’t be afraid! Miles Davis famously said, “There are no wrong notes.” Charge ahead and don’t worry if you hit a wrong note here or there. That’s part of it! Improvisation is the most rewarding and dynamic part of playing music. Enjoy it!