Improvising is essential for a steel guitarist. Because we are accompanying musicians, most of what we will be doing is playing along with other musicians. The rhythm instruments (bass, drums, guitar, etc.) will play a chord progression and you will have to come up with a melodic or harmonic line to accompany that chord progression. Or you're part may even make up part of that same progression. In any case, you will have to be able to improvise.
Once you know how to compose, improvising parts for the steel guitar is a matter of listening for the chords and playing the notes that fit the best (chord tones and the pentatonic scale) while occasionally mixing in the ones that are more dissonant (non-chord tones of the key center and non-key center notes).
Hearing Chord Types
But before we can improvise, we have to train our ears to hear the different types of chords and chord changes. Detecting the difference among them is a matter of practice. Practice enough, and eventually you'll be able to pick them out in the music of your record collection.
The Four Main Triad Sounds
The Four Main Seventh Sounds
Once we can detect different types of chords, we will more easily be able to hear the changes in a chord progression.
Hearing Chord Changes
The trick to successful improvising is training your ears to hear chord changes. It's easier than you think. I mentioned in the CHORD THEORY section about I-IV-V being the most common chord progression. We'll start there.
As a reminder, here are the primary triad chords of the diatonic scale:
Here is a recording of the diatonic triads ascending in order from a low C triad to a high C triad:
Each chord is sounded twice.
Now here are some recordings of common chords changes:
Got it down yet?
Now I’m going to change keys. It doesn’t matter which key I play in, the changes are the same and will sound the same, albeit in a higher or lower pitch.
Now here are some common progressions that include the I IV V pattern:
Start listening to your music collection and try to listen for these changes. Then check the internet to see if you were right (there are numerous websites which have the chord progressions for popular music). Obviously the keys will be different but the V I cadence always sounds like a V I cadence no matter what key you're in, and likewise for the other changes.
Here are some examples of songs using the I IV V pattern. The chords are spelled out for you. Just listen to or play the songs and read the chord changes. Do this enough, and eventually your mind will make the association between what you hear and what the chord is called.
Once you can hear the I, IV, and V changes well, try hearing the vi when it's thrown in there. Then listen for the secondary chords (ii iii, or vi). The vii° isn't used all that much, by the way. When it is used it usually functions as a partial V7 chord (e.g. In key of C, GBDF is a V7, BDF is a vii°).
Here are some examples including secondary chords.
Here are some examples of songs using secondary chords within the I IV V pattern. Many times, you will find the secondary chords made into Major chords, particularly with the ii chord. As a II or II7 chord, it propels the progression towards the V or V7 chord.
Playing along with recorded music
One of the best ways to train your ears to hear chord progressions is to play along with recordings of your favorite music. When you play with the music, you not only train your fingers to match what your ears hear, but you also train your mind to detect certain commonly used chord changes.
The easiest way to do this is to print out the chord progression of a song from a tab website. Then play the song on your stereo and play the chords that you read from the sheet. Do this multiple times for several songs. Gradually your ear will be able to hear the chord changes in songs and you will know what they are called without even playing along.
Learning Songs by Ear
If the chords for a song aren't available online you can figure them out yourself. Here's how:
Figuring out the chord progression:
Play the music on your stereo. Then sit at the instrument and try to find the key center. Run your bar along the fret board while picking at the 8th string or 4th string at each fret. The key center is the one note that sounds good throughout the entire song, no matter what chord they're playing (unless the song modulates to a different key. In that case just find the new key center in the same way).
Once you find the key center, the rest should be pretty easy. Listen for the I chord, it’s the one that comes up most often and that the other chords return to. Play the I chord over and over until it matches the I chord from the recording. You will then know which chord is the I chord.
Then try to figure out the other chords; they will likely be V's or IV's. Play around with different chords until you find a match. Eventually you'll figure out the whole progression. This skill comes slowly at first, but after some practice, it will be a breeze. Plus, it's an invaluable skill to have.
Figuring out the melody:
Deciphering a melody is easy once you know the key center. The melody often comes from the diatonic scale of the key center. Just play along in the key of the piece and move through the diatonic scale. If the diatonic doesn’t work, try the pentatonic or the harmonic minor. These are the next most common scales used in popular music. If you apply the four levels of composing melodies over chords, as discussed in the COMPOSITION section, you will likely have an easier time figuring out the melody.
Once you start hearing the right notes try to fit them into the rhythm of the melody. Of course some searching will be necessary at first, but if you do this enough, you will be able to figure out recorded melodies very quickly, even in one listening.
Now that you know how to figure out songs, improvising will become a lot easier for you. Ultimately the best way to learn to improvise is to play along with a lot of different types of music. Set your mp3 player to shuffle and start playing notes until you find the ones you like. Keep these notes and play them more frequently and abandon the notes that sound sour. But, don't be afraid to experiment and create new dyads or other harmonic moves. Music is an art that mustn't constantly regurgitate typical motifs and progressions. However, music is also a language and you are the orator. It is up to you to find the balance between what sounds good to you and what makes logical sense to your audience.