Session Guitarist Explains Biggest Challenges and Importance of Humility in Improvisation

Mike Keneally, a session and touring guitarist for some of the biggest names in rock music, shared his experience with improvisation, sharing some of the most important aspects that make a great improviser.

While Keneally isn’t one of the names you’ll hear that often, to say that his portfolio is impressive would be an understatement. Apart from his own original material — which there’s plenty of — Mike has worked as a backing guitar player for Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Dethklok, Mike Portnoy, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and even Frank Zappa, just to name a few.

With this in mind, we’re safe to say that he’s qualified to comment about improvisation. Recently, during his appearance on Devin Townsend’s podcast, Mike Keneally discussed some of the ingredients that make for a great improviser, namely the balance of confidence and self-awareness, as well as having proper technical skills.

Devin Townsend Podcast #5: Mike Keneally

“Some personalities do emerge from the womb ready to do that,” Mike said (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs). “Just pick up a guitar, and all of a sudden, you’re like Elvis Presley — in terms of having zero insecurity and, apparently, just being extremely confident.”

“But you do have to make sure that you have your chops together to a certain degree in order to imagine the type of musical statement that you want to make and then have the statement just come out. Because you could exude tremendous self-confidence, but then not back it up musically — which people see through that, and ultimately won’t do you very good.”

But it’s not all about confidence and technique. He added:

“So I think humility, even while being super confident, is very important. You do have, to a certain degree, feel like you are extremely capable, and that’s wonderful. But I also think that there are many factors at play that made you that way that don’t all stem from yourself, so you can’t take full credit for whatever kind of player you are.”

“So you just need to put [in] the time and play for probably years and years unless you’ve been blessed with the type of personality that is just extremely confident, and then you can back that up with whatever technique is required.”

“It’s not easy,” Mike said. “And for most people, it’s not something that you can start searching for from day one. You need to lay the groundwork as a player before you can start to get out of your own way, which is the single key thing.”

“Because where there are mistakes of execution or maybe long strings of uninspired playing, it’s usually because you have stopped yourself from tapping into the magic that music can offer.”

Steve Vai - Crossroads Duel Live With Mike Keneally - HQ

“Because I do feel like that music is always ready to be served and to serve you, no matter what the circumstances of a gig might be — maybe the monitors do suck, maybe the audience is a bunch of assholes, maybe you are mad at the bass player — whatever is going on, there’s still a way to tap into what music has to offer and what you can do to serve it.”

Of course, you shouldn’t be overconfident either, but a healthy dose of belief in yourself is always a welcome trait. Otherwise, as Mike explains, you might “trip over yourself.” He added:

“A certain amount of self-confidence is crucial in those moments because the moment you start to doubt yourself, that’s when you trip over yourself. That’s when you start thinking that you have to impress people, and then your fingers trip over themselves. You kind of forget about what is going on here, which is there’s an opportunity to create a musical moment that will never be repeated.”

Mike Keneally: Celery (feat. Steve Vai), official video

“And that musical moment could be very important to the people in the audience. You could be creating a memory in that moment that will stay with these people for a lifetime. Even if it’s just one night out of 40 on a tour that you’re doing, it’s only one night for those people in the audience, and that’ll never happen again. So it’s an important responsibility to be there for that.”

During the same chat, Mike and Devin also addressed the issue of panicking and improvising. These two things feel inseparable — it’s only a matter of time until, at least once, you’ll feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and just get stuck.

“Panicking doesn’t ever sound like the right answer to a question,” he said with a laugh. “‘Oh, what should we do right now? Let’s panic!'” As Mike says, there’s a simple solution to this:

“But you do have a choice to just stop, even if you’re feeling panic. If you just stop playing for a second, you give yourself the opportunity to allow that panic to subside.”

Mike Keneally Guitar Solo for The Spirit of Radio - Sonic Elements

“And I understand that if you’re playing a composed piece of music, you can’t just stop executing your part, you’ve got a job to do. But if you’re in an improvisational moment, that’s the perfect opportunity to stop.”

“It’s almost like your duty. Nobody wants to improvise with a guy who never stops playing — that sucks. By definition, you need to allow the other players onstage the room to make their statements, and to serve the music in their own way. And that’s part of your job as well. An important part of playing is sometimes not playing.”

Photo: Hreinn Gudlaugsson (Mike-keneally DSC05001)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.