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How to Improvise on Guitar Like the Greats

Being able to come up with great sounding music on the fly is the Holy Grail for many guitarists. However, if you're used to meticulous writing processes or learning directly from tabs/songsheets, improvisation can seem a distantly advanced skill.

photo of man improvising on his guitar

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.

The 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 chord tones).

Let's think about this for a moment...

Is 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 possible to avoid using bits of pre-rehearsed music, whether consciously or unconsciously?

After all, our minds naturally gravitate towards what is familiar, what is comfortable.

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.

It's 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 ideas).

With 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...

1. Jam, jam and... jam some more

Whether playing with a band or using quality backing tracks (such as Jonathan Boettcher's Rock Set or Peter Morale's Blues Jam Session), frequent jamming is crucial for developing your improvisation skills on guitar.

Don't be afraid to make mistakes when jamming because, like in life, we do learn from them!

Try 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 sharpen your "mind's ear" to react intelligently to each note you play.

The 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.

Jam 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 you play.

2. Know the key (and ideally the chords)

There's 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.

Whether 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 ideally the chords you'll be playing over. Knowing the key gives you a root note to find your bearings on the fretboard - a "starting point".

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 play around (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? Learn the notes 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.

It sounds more complicated than it actually is! Most music uses systems and 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

Scales are 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 notes knowingly, 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

If 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.

Chord 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 visualize 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...

Now, 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 and 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.

The 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 punctuated sentences.

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.

Try bending 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!

The bottom line...

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.

Any tips of your own? Share them with us by using the comments form below. Cheers!

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