Being able to come
up with great sounding music on the fly is the Holy Grail for
guitarists. However, if you're used to meticulous writing processes or learning directly from
tabs/songsheets, improvisation can seem a distantly advanced skill.
How on earth are you supposed to come up with something musically coherent,
emotive and original in a mere flash of thought? How do
the great guitar players bang out such jaw dropping music so effortlessly and spontaneously?
To help answer these questions, we first need to understand what improvisation is.
Pure improvisation Vs pre-rehearsed ideas
Many debates have ensued around what exactly constitutes an improvised
piece of music.
general consensus among musicians boils it down to a combination of
pre-rehearsed composition (i.e. licks you already know)
and spontaneous exploration of related notes (i.e. scales and
Let's think about this for a moment...
there really such a thing as a pure, 100% improvised piece of music?
How do we know that the musician hasn't simply strung
together a bunch
of pre-rehearsed licks, albeit very fluidly? Is it even
avoid using bits of pre-rehearsed music, whether consciously or
After all, our minds naturally gravitate towards what is familiar, what
It's probably more realistic to conclude that there are varying degrees
of pure improvisation and pre-rehearsed composition
in every improvised piece.
It's common for guitarists to create a "bank" of lick ideas that can be used at the appropriate time.
In that sense, a lot of the skill of improvisation is knowing when to use a lick
or passage - the skill of being able to access and apply the right
musical idea at the right moment.
Think about how you might
approach writing an original solo, for example. Part of it will come
from ideas you've learned or "borrowed" (nothing wrong with that!) and part from ideas of your own. Sometimes that line will be
blurred, and an old blues lick will be given a new twist.
exactly the same with improv - sometimes you'll "borrow" licks that
already exist, sometimes you'll invent something new on the spot
(which, if you remember it, will hopefully be added to your bank of
that in mind, let's look at some practical ways in which we can develop
and aid our approach to improvising music on guitar, both for generating ideas
and on-the-spot playing...
Don't be afraid to make
mistakes when jamming because, like in life, we do learn
repeating short phrases you come up with, modifying and adding to them.
A good jam track will give you space to do this and will
your "mind's ear" to react intelligently to each note you play.
more you jam, the more you'll learn how to connect what you're playing
to other musical elements (percussion, bass, backing guitar etc.).
Improvisation is not just about hitting the
right notes - it's also about timing, and while a metronome
can help with basic timing skills, it's often a whole different
experience when you have real percussion accompanying you.
tracks also tend to be written around the most commonly used forms and
progressions. The more jam tracks you use, the more your ear will be
trained to pick up on the signals that tell you exactly what scales,
notes and licks will work.
Learning theory and technique is important, but jam tracks encourage
you to put what you learn into practice and into context. Only then
do you truly make that connection between what is being played and what
2. Know the key (and ideally the chords)
no need to make things more complicated than they need to be - try to
get as much info as possible about the music you'll be accompanying.
you're in an informal jam session or you're adding some improv to your
on-stage solo, make sure you know the key(s) you'll be playing in and
the chords you'll be playing over. Knowing the key gives you a root
note to find your bearings on the fretboard - a "starting
See the chord shapes on the
fretboard (e.g. how you'd play the progression using barre chords) and
you'll have additional, visual points of reference to
(more on this later). The more of these visual markers you have, the
less chance you have of wandering aimlessly out of key.
Keys and chords tell you which scales and notes
will sound harmonious. For example: playing in the key of A minor?
on the fretboard so you know where that root of A is
and work on familiarizing yourself with minor
scale harmony and some common minor key progressions.
sounds more complicated than it actually is! Most music uses systems
formulas, with key being the "starting point" - if you can spend time
familiarizing yourself with key, a lot of other theoretical elements
will come together.
3. Use scale patterns as your roadmap
often over-complicated by musicians. In practical terms, they are
simply a roadmap that gives you a convenient, memorable pattern of
key-related notes on the fretboard.
Whether you stay around five or
six frets (e.g. box or 3 notes per string patterns) or you prefer to
explore the entire length of the neck, scale
patterns give you that freedom to move between key-related
fluidly and effortlessly.
Sure, just moving up and down patterns
won't create amazing solos on its own, but once you learn where the
target or destination is within that pattern, the scale pattern will
lead you there in a
musical and purposeful way. Talking of destinations...
4. Use chord tones as safe destinations
scales are the roadmap, chord tones are the destination points along
your journey. They help pin
your scale meanderings to the backing music, either in the form of
arpeggios or emphasising/holding a chord tone (e.g. a b3 over a minor
chord - C over Am).
Think of it like "connect the dots", with the chord tones being the
points that hold your solo melodically together.
tones are the strongest and "safest" notes to target in your solos,
because they are the notes being used (or at least implied) in the
backing chord/harmony at that moment. Spend time learning how to
chord shapes within your scale patterns, and you'll have those
destination points firmly in your mind.
For example, in the
video below I show you how knowing where the chord tones are in a blues
progression can help keep your scale movements connected to the music...
for more up-tempo, complex progressions, you might not have time to
think about where every single chord tone is. That's fine, because
through practicing this method of targeting chord tones (again, by
jamming), you'll get quicker and quicker at locating them
and, eventually, intuition will take over.
That's why the great
players of our times can move so articulately through chord changes -
they learned to see where that chord is on the fretboard, allowing them
to jump to (or bend/slide/hammer-on to)
a strong, emotive note immediately.
5. Get your ideas on to the fretboard
With the theoretical marker points listed above in place, you can then
work on building phrases more spontaneously. This is the core
performance aspect of improvisation and takes the most time to master.
As mentioned earlier, the actual composition doesn't always
have to be improvised on the spot - through regular jamming and writing
sessions, you can gradually build up a large stock of tried
tested licks and phrases for your major and minor key improv. But
you'll want to combine these pre-rehearsed licks with some freestyle
passages to give yourself more freedom of expression, to articulate
what you feel in the moment.
To help develop this skill, try the following exercise:
Listen to your chosen backing track - get to know it intimately - and try humming/singing/whistling
a simple melody line. Try to replicate it as close as you can on the
guitar. This will come more naturally to those with a good ear, but it
can be learned with some patience and persistence.
With enough practice, you'll get better (and quicker) at playing your vocalized ideas and you can then start to internalize
it (hearing the idea being played out in your head). You'll
start to anticipate the next phrase you're going to play by hearing
the melodic ideas form in your mind. It doesn't have to be a
direct translation, but the aim here is to form the idea before you
move your fingers. Think before you play.
more you work on this internal voice method, the quicker you'll be
able to form ideas in your head and translate them to the fretboard.
This leads nicely on to the next point...
6. Give yourself time to plan your next move
Breaking up your solo, either with held notes or silence, allows you
time to think about what you're going to play next. It also sounds more
natural to have breaks, as it resembles our speech patterns in terms of
When starting out, the breaks can be as long as you want. As time goes
on, you'll find you can use much shorter breaks, as your ideas will
start to form more quickly. Practice, practice, practice!
Some examples of a break include: a held note with vibrato, a trill, a
slide out, a muted stop or repeating a sequence several times. All of
these scenarios require little thought, so you can use that thought
space to plan your next move.
The breaks can be used to find your bearings on the fretboard, choose a
suitable pre-rehearsed lick from your "stock", or just for effect.
7. Milk your most powerful notes
When improvising, it's usually easier to focus on making a few notes,
even just one note,
sound great than letting your fingers run away with themselves. How? By
using lead techniques such as bends, slides and legato to help give
your licks some feel.
or sliding into powerful notes, adding repetitions
occasionally to wring as much emotion from the note as possible. Even
just playing between two or three notes at a time can say far more than
blitzing up and down an entire scale.
Your scale and chord tone knowledge will help tremendously here, as
you'll have those strong target notes for your bends and slides, and a
safe retreat if you feel yourself getting lost!
Pure improvisation is a difficult, if not impossible skill to teach directly.
It's an internal process that has to evolve with the individual player.
It's not a lightbulb moment or something you stumble upon,
rather it grows in complexity as you jam out your ideas, learn from
your mistakes, build up your stock of ideas and become confident with
moving around the fretboard in a given key.
Musical intuition (knowing and "feeling" the music) is the ultimate
goal here and, by following the processes outlined in this article,
you'll be nurturing that intuition every time you pick up the guitar.
tips of your own? Share them with us by using the comments
form below. Cheers!