Introducing how to improvise on guitar
How to improvise on guitar is seemingly a dark art that is hard to explain. In reality though, we are all successful improvisers already.
Each of us improvises using language every day. We spontaneously reassemble words and phrases to express ourselves and communicate with others.
Improvising on the guitar really is much the same process.
The technical aspects of guitar improvisation and music are different to those of grammar and syntax. But just as anyone can improvise using language, so too can anyone improvise on guitar.
And being a dark art, there are many clear steps and approaches that we can all take to get better at improvising.
In this article ‘How to improvise on guitar – the ultimate guide’ I’ll cover ten of the most important aspects of improvising on the guitar.
Each section is accompanied by video examples taken from my Youtube series ‘How to improvise on guitar’. So as well as reading about improvising, you can also watch practical examples of each area.
I hope that by the end of this article you’ll have many tasks to take away and incorporate into your guitar practice regime.
If you don’t yet have a solid guitar practice regime then click here for a free copy of my ebook How to Revolutionise your Guitar Practice.
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First and foremost, how to improvise on guitar is largely about the art of ‘phrasing’.
When we talk about phrasing, we mean playing in musical sentences. That is, playing a musical phrase and then playing a second musical phrase which has some relevance to the first. Then a third relevant phrase, and so on.
This doesn’t mean that each phrase has to be a near-repetition of the first. It just means that we carry forward some aspect of the original idea.
This could be the rhythm. It could be the note choices. It could be the general shape of the phrase i.e. when the notes go up or down, and so on.
Sometimes a musical phrase can sound a little like a question. We can then, with practice, improvise a musical phrase that sounds like an appropriate answer.
Alternatively, we could improvise a phrase that sounds like a further question. And then another phrase that sounds like a question; delaying the ‘answer’ for as long as we like.
When we think of improvising in these terms, it helps us to produces music that makes sense.
Randomness, whilst fun, does not tend to produce a satisfying musical experience for the listener.
All guitarists should be aware of the importance of phrasing when they improvise. It’s probably the single most important factor in good improvised music.
But it’s one that can easily be overlooked.
Watch the video below for a practical demo of phrasing using the minor pentatonic scale.
When we first start to improvise on guitar, it can be tempting to constantly play different notes; i.e. to never play the same note twice in a row.
This is something that I’ve seen in many guitar students over the years. It’s clearly not a conscious decision. So it’s important to become aware of this early on.
If you never repeat notes when you improvise then you are missing a huge range of possibilities and phrases.
As with several of the other areas covered in this article, I recommend setting yourself a specific task. Improvise at length over a fixed chord, and make a point of repeating many notes many times.
The purpose is for us to get used to repeating notes when we improvise on guitar.
This will gradually result in it becoming a normal part of how we improvise.
Watch the clip below for a practical example of improvising without any repeated notes, and then with repeated notes.
Just as we can find ourselves never repeating notes when we improvise, we can also find ourselves only ever playing short notes.
Again, this is something that I see in many guitarists who are just starting to improvise.
It’s not that long notes are necessarily ‘better’ than short ones. Rather, it’s better to have the whole range of note lengths at our disposal when improvising on guitar.
When we improvise a solo, we’re trying to create an interesting and coherent musical statement.
Using a range of note lengths in our improvisation provides us with more options and possibilities. In addition, we’re less likely to fall into monotonous playing.
Watch the clip below for a practical example of the difference that using long notes can make to our playing.
The rhythms we use when we improvise as guitarists are at least as important as the notes we choose to play.
Possibly with the exception of straight-ahead jazz (where solos are often heavily based on series of sixteenth notes), improvising on guitar without varying the rhythms we use is not desirable.
This is particularly true when it comes to music that is inherently ‘funky’.
When learning how to improvise on guitar it’s easy to focus so much on our note choices that rhythm gets forgotten about.
How do we correct this?
As with previous areas discussed, simply shift the focus of your improvising back to rhythm. Set yourself the task of improvising with lots of rhythmic variation.
You can even limit yourself to using just a few notes thereby forcing yourself to use rhythm in order to make your playing interesting.
If this seems an impossible task, think about a Latin percussionist who can give a great performance simply using a single drum.
This is effectively just one note. Yet he or she can use rhythm so effectively that they can keep an audience engaged in their improvisation for several minutes at a time. All with one note.
After a little time this shift in emphasis will gradually filter through into your normal playing. Soon you’ll find that more rhythmically interesting ideas will start to come to you when you improvise.
Watch the video below to see the difference that playing with ‘rhythmic diversity’ can make to our improvising:
When we are learning how to improvise on guitar, we naturally need to focus on the most striking factors first, such as those already mentioned.
Sooner or later though we should turn our attention to the more subtle aspects of guitar improvisation.
Dynamics is a far more subtle component of guitar improvisation than rhythm or note choices. Also, its relative importance depends very much on the style of music we are playing.
In the case of rock and roll, most guitarists would improvise a solo that is all picked fairly hard; i.e. without much variation in dynamics.
In the case of a longer guitar solo that you might play in blues or fusion however, many guitar players would improvise using a range of dynamics.
In the case of a ballad an experienced guitarist would almost certainly improvise a solo that was mostly picked softly. It may well build to a climax towards the end of the solo too.
Varying our dynamics as we improvise makes our music more ‘human’ than if we always play with the same level of attack.
Improvised guitar solos that use a range of dynamics can sound more like a conversation. Varying dynamics can sound more emotional.
In many musical situations these are all good things, which makes for a better listening experience.
As with many of the factors covered in this article, there are no fixed rules when it comes to use of dynamics. Rather, it’s helpful to be aware of dynamics. It’s good for us to be sensitive to how suitable our use of dynamics is for the style of music we’re playing.
Watch the clip below for a practical example.
Licks are another important factor in how to improvise on guitar.
Guitar licks are just musical phrases. Usually, we usually think of licks as being phrases that are consciously learned (though this doesn’t have to be the case, as the video below shows).
Learning licks is a good way to improve how we improvise on guitar.
Learning licks quickly helps us to build up authentic musical vocabulary suitable for a given style of music.
Although licks can be simple, they can also be complex. Learning more complex licks allows us to build up musical vocabulary that we would never come up with spontaneously when improvising on guitar.
In addition to learning licks, it’s also a good idea to practise varying our licks. Taken to an extreme, we can try improvising an entire guitar solo based on just one simple lick.
Apart from being a good way to improve our skills of improvisation, it helps us to create coherent solos with themes running through them.
A solid musical statement that hangs together well is almost always better than a solo of separate musical ideas stitched together.
In the following video I introduce the idea of guitar licks and using them in our improvising. In addition there is a practical demonstration of how we can vary our licks.
Sing what you play
This is a less obvious way of improvising on guitar. The idea is that we sing notes and simultaneously play those notes on guitar.
Why should we do this?
Well, as I explain in the video below, when improvising on guitar, it’s easy to find ourselves thinking in terms of scale patterns on the guitar neck. This can easily result in bland solos.
Singing solos though, requires a high degree of focus on the actual sounds of the notes. It takes our focus away from playing visually.
We can’t simply burn up and down a pattern of notes on the guitar fretboard.
We are less likely to sing a junk solo than when we improvise focusing on patterns on the fretboard.
Singing and playing notes is not easy for many us. However, it does get easier with practice. It doesn’t matter how well or how badly you think you sing.
Just start with two or three notes in a familiar scale. Try it for a while. Then add another note and repeat.
Watch the video below for a practical example of how to improvise in this way.
Learn all shapes
One feature of the guitar is that the pattern of notes of a particular scale is different, for any given key, depending on which area of the fretboard we choose to improvise in.
This results in us learning the minor pentatonic scale ‘shape 1’, ‘shape 2, ‘shape 3, etc.
This does mean more work for us, to fully learn scales, than there would be if there was just one pattern per scale.
But it also means that we can instantly access different musical ideas by switching to a different scale shape.
We can’t help but play differently in the minor pentatonic scale shape 2, compared to the minor pentatonic scale shape 1, because the pattern of notes on the fretboard is different.
For this reason, when learning how to improvise on guitar it’s a good idea to learn all the basic shapes of any given scale.
Watch the video below for a further explanation and example of this.
The minor pentatonic scale is probably the most important scale for most improvising guitarists. The obvious exception to this is jazz, which is a heavily arpeggio-driven style of music.
Jazz aside, the minor pentatonic scale is king. But minor pentatonic is not the only scale!
In the following video I emphasise the importance of learning other scales and arpeggios.
When we improvise on guitar we don’t need to stick to using just one scale.
As long as we have the musical knowledge, we can weave in and out of different scales and arpeggios as we improvise.
Having multiple scale and arpeggio options brings more possibilities to our improvisation. It allows us to choose from different effects and characters when we improvise. This is a good thing!
So, the message here is just to learn more scales and arpeggios.
Different scale and arpeggios are suited to different musical situations. So this will almost certainly involve learning some music theory if you don’t yet know enough.
If you are new to music theory and would like some help getting started, take a look at my music theory app ‘Music Theory – Chords in Keys’. I made this app for guitarists that want to learn music theory, but who don’t read music.
Finally, chromaticism is another great effect that we can use when we improvise on guitar.
Chromaticism really just means ‘using all the notes’ as oppose to only using the notes of a given scale or arpeggio.
This doesn’t mean that we literally have to use all 12 notes at any given time. Instead it means that we use some of these 12 notes in addition to whatever scale of arpeggio we are currently using.
Chromaticism produces a smooth ‘jazzy’ effect in our improvisation. It’s very common in jazz and also appears in some classical music and a little in blues.
As with some of the other features of improvising highlighted in this article, I recommend setting yourself a specific task. Try improvising on the guitar – at length – using lots of chromaticism.
Make this a regular part of your guitar practice for at least a week. Gradually, chromaticism will become a normal part of what you do as an improvising guitarist.
Watch the video below for a practical example.
How to improvise on guitar – conclusion
I hope you liked ‘How to improvise on guitar – the ultimate guide’ and found the information here useful.
Improvising is a never-ending enterprise and an important skill for most guitarists.
We never reach a finish line and we never stop evolving as guitarists.
Improvising on guitar can be one of the most fulfilling musical experiences we can partake in.
And the more components of improvisation we can become aware of, the better our improvising on guitar will become.
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photo credit: bpunch Epiphone Les Paul via photopin (license)
About the Author:Stuart Bahn is a professional guitarist and guitar educator in London, England.