I’ll explain an approach I find helps with a lot of people. The first principle is to make it simple. When you are improvising, I find any real thinking gets in the way, what you want to do is connect with the musical moment, your imagination, your gut feelings, and of course the other musicians. I find thinking generally gets in the way of these things, so keeping it simple is essential. So if you start with making things as simple as possible, distilling what you need to know as much as possible, you’ll have more of a chance of being able to make use of what you need without engaging “the thinking brain” too much. From there, as time goes on you can expand, learning more, hearing more, knowing more. But it builds gradually on top of a solidly learned, simple basis. In other words, when improvising, in terms of theory and fretboard knowledge, you can only really use effectively, what you know automatically. A very experienced player, who draws on a vast knowledge when playing, can only draw on it because they know it so well, that its ‘built in’ and doesn’t really need to be thought about anymore.
Training your ear to know your “sound pallet” is the main point of what I’ll now explain. I’m centering on this because of all the things you can learn as an improvisor, this is by far the most powerful. And in a very real sense, anything else you learn just feeds into and supports what your ears know. If your ears don’t really know what’s happening, then learning other theory or techniques, are not really going to help your improvising much.
The first thing you want to make sure you know is the 12 interval sounds against a root. I suggest you learn this really solidly from the start, so if someone tested you, you’d instantly be able to name them all. Then your ready to begin the following exercises.
So keeping it as simple and distilled as possible, what I suggest is start by dealing with just three types of chords, Major 7, minor 7 and dominant 7. Start by keeping the root note the same for everything you practice. And learn the sounds of various intervals over these three types chords.
Keep in mind, there are numerous ways to approach ear training, no one way covers every angle. I have chosen the follow approaches because I find that once you’ve learned these, your ears will naturally be able to fill in the gaps with minimal effort.
So start with a CMaj7 chord. Set your DAW to play this chord continuously, or make a recording of yourself playing the chord, or even play it on a keyboard and keep your foot on the sustain pedal. However you do it, you need the chord to play indefinitely, either sustaining or playing repeatedly.
Then, while listening play the following intervals over this chord: Root, 2, M3, 4, #4, 5, 6, M7
Most people will not like the sound of a 4 over a sustaining Major 7 chord, though in context, it is used all the time. So its worth really having a good listen to this sound even if only to know that you don’t want to use it. Some people like it. I’ve left out the b2, b3, #5/b6 and b7 as they are very dissonant. You may want to return to the #5/b6 later, when you’ve got the others solidly learned.
Then do the same with the C minor 7 chord with these intervals:
Root, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 6, b7
Get these learned solidly and don’t worry about the b2, M3, b5. However you will need to return later and learn the M7.
Finally the C dominant 7 chord, here you have more to learn because so many intervals sound good over this chord:
Start with these:
R, 2, M3, 4, 5, 6, b7
Then move on to these:
b2, #2, #4/b5, #5/b6
With all of the above, its very important to sing or hum these as you learn them as well as playing them on the guitar. The voice has a special connection to the brain which greatly helps learning the sounds. In fact, if you can’t hum a given interval without playing it on the guitar, that’s a sign that you don’t know the sound well enough yet.
While you’re learning the sounds of the intervals over the chords above, once a week move the root note to a new note. Eg: E Maj 7, E min7, E dom 7. But keep the root the same for all three chords. The next week move them all to G or Bb etc…
Most people find, that by the time they’ve learned the sounds of the intervals over the three chord types above solidly, they can already hear the intervals over other chord types, like diminished and sus or can do so with just a little bit more work.
When you have all these solidly learned so that if someone tested you, you’d get them all correct, try this exercise:
Play a II V I chord progression in C and sing/hum the root of each chord as you play them. Move the progression to another key and do the same for all keys. Next do the same exercise but singing the 3rd of each chord, then the 5th then the 7th. Then sing the 2 over each, then the 4s and the 6s. In all keys.
The third exercise, which you can start at the same time you start learning the intervals over chords is to spend an hour a day learning tune fragments. This exercise consists of turning on the radio, TV or CD and figuring out three or four note fragments of melodies on the guitar. The object of this is not to perfectly learn whole melodies. The object is to pick out as many notes as you can – as you listen. So to begin with, choose something easy, pop songs on the radio, CDs which are not too complex etc…
Start by just finding two or three notes of the tune as you listen, on the guitar, and work up to more over time. If you find this impossible, start by using a CD or computer where you can press pause and rewind as many times as you need to, to figure out a melody fragment. Eventually, when you’ve done enough of these, and the interval work is progressing, you will be able to start finding the notes on the guitar without stopping the music and rewinding. Your aim is to get to a stage were you turn on the radio, hear a simple pop tune and play it, or at least part of it, after hearing it once. Or follow along echoing the notes as they are played on the song.
I find that once you’ve master these things, or even just the intervals over chords, you will begin to be able to hear what things are going to sound like on your fretboard before you play them. Then with any new thing you learn, a cool lick from this person or a nice phrase from that, you’ll very quickly know what it is and it will very quickly become part of your pallet of sound colours, because your ear understands what it is.
I have an app available on the Apple App Store which covers some of the topics above that may be of interest. The App deals with understanding modes and includes detailed exercises, diagrams and plenty of videos where I demonstrate the concepts.
Or just go to the App Store and search for Understand Modes.