How to Improvise on the Guitar – A Beginner’s Guide to Improvisation

3 Essential Tips That The Pros Use

Playing solos is the dream of every aspiring guitarist. Whether it was “Sweet Child O’ Mine” strummed on a tennis racket or “Stairway to Heaven” air-guitared on a hockey stick, the fascination with playing a face-melting solo in front of hordes of awestruck admirers is the daydream of ever electric guitar-wielding beginner. But, where to begin?

Since the popularity of TAB, the internet, and YouTube videos, finding the tools to learn your favorite solo is only a few clicks away; but, as many of you may have discovered, playing them can be quite challenging. In addition, as much fun as that is—and, it is fun—the real joy lies in improvising on guitar.

Related: 50 Easy Guitar Songs To Learn​

What is improvisation?

Improvisation, or improvising, can be thought of in quite a few ways. Here are some of the common ones:

  • The art of spontaneous creation.
  • Instant songwriting.
  • Creating guitar solos at the speed of thought
  • And, in our case, creating solos seemingly out of thin air

The mystery lies in how improvisation works. While there are countless articles, blogs, videos, and the like showing you what to play, not many focus on how to play—especially when you’re first starting out. We’re going to focus on the art of improvisation in music.

There are three basic elements in music: rhythm, melody, and harmony. And, it’s these three elements that we’ll discuss in our quest for guitar improvisation dominance.

Tip 1: I Got Rhythm

Rhythm is a systematic arrangement of musical sounds. This is the first step to developing your guitar improvisational skills—and, unfortunately, it’s largely ignored. While most listeners can’t tell if you played the wrong note, they can definitely tell when something is not quite right and that’s usually the rhythm.

Lesson 1: Developing Your Rhythmic Chops

This exercise is pretty straightforward. We’ll use everybody’s favorite scale, the A minor pentatonic at the 5th fret for this exercise.

Pentatonic Scale - Guitar Improvisation

Goal

To develop your ability to play a series of notes in time, learn the scale, and form coherent phrases.

Method

Play the top 3 strings of the 5th position A minor pentatonic box pattern while randomly connecting the notes of the scale using whole notes, half notes, quarter notes and eighth notes.

Tip 2: Melody

Melody is the horizontal series of notes that the lyrics are attached to and sound pleasing to the ear. These notes are played to a certain rhythm or “systematic arrangement of musical sounds” as we just learned.

This is actually the easy part because many players are taught that they need to learn scales, arpeggios, melodic sequences, finger patterns, etc. and the internet has an endless supply of this type of information. But, playing melodically has more to do with developing your musicianship.

Lesson 2: Developing Your Melodic Chops

For this exercise we’re going to use the traditional song “House of the Rising Sun” that was made popular by ‘60s British rock band, The Animals. We’ll begin by learning the melody to this tune.

House of the rising sun 1
House of the rising sun 2

Goal

To play more melodically; i.e., to make your lines and melodic phrases sing.

Method

Learn the melody to “House of the Rising Sun.” In the example above it is in 1st position. Once you have committed it to memory then you should transpose it to the 5th position. This will make it easier to play the melody more lyrically and eventually improvise because the melody falls in nicely with the 5th position A minor pentatonic box pattern.

Pentatonic Minor Scale 1
Pentatonic Minor Scale 2

Once you have memorized the melody in 5th position, you can begin to personalize it. This is where every guitarist is different and the beauty of the guitar shines through. Instead of playing the melody as written try adding hammerons, pulloffs, bends, slides, etc.

It’s important in the learning process to add these techniques to a melody that you already know. This way you focus on the technique and making the melody more fun to play and listen to. And, it’s the perfect stepping stone to the next lesson.

Tip 3: Harmony

Harmony is the vertical series of notes that are used to create the chords that help outline the song. In the ultimate quest for guitar solo stardom, the secret to why your pentatonic licks don’t sound as cool when you play them is because of the notes that are between the cracks—or, in our case, outside of the box.

Lesson 3: Developing Your Harmonic Chops

Developing your harmonic chops? What the heck does that mean? Let me explain…

Many of us guitarists have been taught the “ready-fire-aim” approach to improvisation. What that implies is that we’ve been given a tune like “House of the Rising Sun” and given the following improv strategy:

  • Find the key... A minor;
  • Use your one and only box pattern—the minor pentatonic;
  • Find A on the 6th string… 5th fret;
  • Go nuts; that is, play every lick that you can think of in that position.

The problem (or, rather, problems) with that approach are:

  • Not every note in the scale sounds “right”;
  • You get lost in the song form because the solo becomes about the scale and not about the song or melody of the song;
  • And, once you’re lost, you fall into the trap of mindless noodling until you can figure out where you are;
  • And... Your solos sound boring!

Basically, it’s a recipe for disaster. So now that we’ve identified the problem, let’s discuss the solution.

All of the guitar greats do this in one form or another. They play the “right” notes at the “right” time. Some were born with that gift naturally and the others developed that skill. We will focus on developing that skill.

Goal

To improvise melodic solos while being aware of the harmony. Jazz players call this “playing over changes”. Changes means the chords as they change and chords are the harmony of the song.

Method

Find the notes in the “House of the Rising Sun” melody that are not in the A minor pentatonic box pattern. These will become your target notes.

Closing Comments

The road to guitar improvisation is a challenging one that has no end. There are always new approaches, concepts, and techniques that need to be discovered, learned, and applied. Don’t get discouraged.

As guitarists, we’re always the last to see and hear our improvement; but, trust me, it’s there if you keep working at it. Thanks for checking out this lesson and I wish you luck.

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Ed Lozano
 

Ed Lozano is a professional guitarist, instructor, producer and published author. He is a graduate of Berklee College of Music and lives in the Andes mountains.

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