Improvisation: myth or ideal?


One day a few weeks ago, while I was flipping through YouTube, I found this video and it sparked an intellectual debate in my musical mind:

In the video Anthony Stauffer, a blues guitarist and teacher at, says, and I’m paraphrasing, that improvisation is a myth. You can fast forward to his definition at 4:57 in the video. He contends that players don’t play notes or phrases that are new to them when they improvise, but rather replay licks that they have memorized. Mr. Stauffer’s brand of improvisation involves learning lots and lots of licks. When it’s time to improvise, he simply strings lick after lick together to create a solo. Behind the scenes, Mr. Stauffer has to know when and where each lick can be played. In other words, he studies the licks to know which chords they are harmonically relevant to and how to move them around to fit the harmony.

Before I give my two cents, let me say that I respect Mr. Stauffer and what he does at He’s a great player, and certainly a better blues player than I am. Additionally, anyone who makes a living playing and teaching guitar in this economy deserves a badge of courage. Mr. Stauffer is A-OK in my book.

That said, he’s wrong. Well, mostly anyways.

I use licks like any other guitarist. They are pre-packaged series of notes that are time-tested to sound great. But I’ve always tried to avoid using them whenever possible. Why? Because they aren’t original. They aren’t mine. I didn’t make them.

I play guitar because I’m an artist. And as an artist, I want to create, not regurgitate (Hey, that rhymes!) I want to see what new things I can create every time I improvise. When I’m grooving with the music and the notes start coming from the nether regions of my mind, I get a sort of high. I’ve entered another plane of playing…blah blah blah, enough with the stoner crap. The point is, there is an in-the-zone feeling I get when I improvise. I never get that when I play licks note-for-note.

Now, where Mr. Stauffer is right is that licks are part of the musical vocabulary, especially if you’re a blues player. Blues sounds like blues because of the notes we choose (Hey, that rhymed again! I’m on a roll!) So if you want to sound like a blues player, you have to play licks. No doubt about it.

Don’t play licks exclusively, though. If you do, you’re just a bluesy parrot. Or worse yet, a DJ with a guitar-shaped turn-table and a library of bluesy samples ready to scratched in when its your turn to improvise.

When I play the blues, I only use licks in two scenarios: I’m out of fresh ideas, or the lick seems so natural to play at that moment that it would be sinful not to play it. In no way, however, am I stringing lick after lick together.

To me, improvising is another form of communication. I’m trying to say something when I play guitar. So let me use an analogy here since I’m halfway there anyways. An author would never take entire sentences from the novels of other authors and string them together to write his book. Why? Because his characters have their own story and the author needs the freedom to let them say and do whatever they want.

The same goes for improvising. If you’re truly interested in creating, in telling a story that is new and fresh, then don’t let yourself be bound to the idea that improvisation is just rote memorization and regurgitation. Improvisation is freedom, and licks are shackles. Simple as that.\

My bet is that Mr. Stauffer improvises with both licks and with musical intuition. He sounds too good to be DJ Bluez Parrot.

I could go on and on about this, so I’ll let Guthrie Govan, one of the world’s best guitar players, get the final word:

For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit

5 responses to “Improvisation: myth or ideal?

  1. agreed. even though I’m a beginner I improvise more than anything else. somehow it’s more satisfying to me than staring at a tab and fumbling through it with improvising I can never be wrong.

    but since I mostly improvise within certain scales as a framework though there is definitely a “knowing” of what notes come next, what notes will sound good as a group etc. but I only intermittently mix in true “licks” that I had already learned and that my hands and ears already know by heart. if anything, as I improvise I often come across new licks that sound pretty cool and I always tell myself “wow…I should write that one down” but I never do haha.

  2. As I writer, I appreciate your analogy comparing improvising on the guitar to writing a book. Makes your argument clear to my non-music brain. 🙂

  3. I have mad respect for you ~! I paint from the heart, from a pulse & am not wishing to diminish, nor duplicate anything that ever inspired me to pick up an instrument, only sweetin the air, from where i stand, and enjoy every note..

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