Do you think that you need to be a pro to start improvising on guitar, or that you need to learn a ton of scales and techniques before you can start doing it?
Do you think you need to be able to play fast to start playing guitar solos?
If you already have some basic skills in playing guitar, I’ve got good news for you.
While you can take the study of improvisation up to any length, and there are a lot of things you could learn if you want to master the art of improvisation, in order to start improvising on your guitar – and actually sound good after some practice – you only need to take the following steps which should not be out of your reach.
1. Learn the name of every note on the low E string of the fretboard
If you want to be a good guitar player and improvise with ease, it’s very important to learn the name of all the notes on the guitar fretboard, but in order to start improvising using the method I’m showing you, you only need to learn the notes on the low E string
2. Learn the major and minor pentatonic scale in one position
Learning a lot of scales (and modes) will give you a wide array of possibilities, flavors to choose from, which you can use while improvising your licks and solos.
Learning those scales in different positions, and connecting them, will make it possible for you to play easily anywhere you want around the fretboard.
But learning the major and minor pentatonic scale in just one position, is what makes it possible to start improvising now, to nearly any backing music.
Because if you choose only notes from a major pentatonic scale, you have a guarantee that those notes will sound good with any backing music that’s written in the equivalent major key. Likewise, with the minor pentatonic scale and music written in any minor key.
This means that if you find a backing track written in the key of B minor, all you have to do to find notes that will sound good in that key, is to find the note B on the low E string of the fretboard that you have just learnt, and play the scale pattern below:
B Minor pentatonic
If the backing track is in the key of B major, then you should start from the same note, the B on the 7th fret, but play notes from the scale of the B major pentatonic:
If the scale is in any major or minor key that’s not B, all you have to do is move your finger to the fret of that note and play the exact same pattern. For instance, if you’re in the key of A, you start from the 5th fret instead of the 7th.
After you have memorized these two patterns, and having tried them in different keys, you should start trying to create your own stuff on either scale, though I believe the minor pentatonic is more interesting and much easier to start improvising on.
Don’t worry if what you make sounds tasteless for now, we’ll deal with that in the coming steps. For now, start playing notes that go beyond just playing the scale up and down and try to come up with some kind of melody.
3. Learn the arpeggio notes of the minor and major key
Arpeggios are very important in improvisation because they tell you what notes you should put the emphasis on.
You may want to learn the theory behind scales and arpeggios but what you need to know for the purpose of getting started with improvisation is that an arpeggio is made of the first, third and fifth note of a major or a minor scale.
These are the arpeggios of B major and B minor.
B major arpeggio:
B minor arpeggio:
The notes of the arpeggio, are the notes from the minor or major pentatonic scale you should spend more time on while improvising, the longer notes.
The first step to giving more melody and emotion to your improvised licks and solos is to take control of your phrasing. Improvising on guitar isn’t about playing a scale up and down, but creating musical phrases and sentences.
This will include using long notes at times, rather than a series of never ending quavers or semiquavers.
Those long notes, should be notes from the arpeggio
4. Learn these two techniques: String bending and vibrato
Once you get a bit familiar with playing musical sentences rather than playing a senseless litany of notes, it’s time to add some flavor to your guitar improvisations.
The more techniques you master, the more things you can do in your improvised solos, but I believe these two, can add flavor to your solos more than all other techniques combined.
Bending strings is what makes the guitar sing. It’s a skill that will take some time to master, but one that will yield huge results.
You bend a string by pushing it up with your fingers, which will change the note to that of the next fret (semitone), then, if you keep pushing higher, to the note of the following fret (tone).
To execute vibrato, your fingers need to bend the string slightly and bring it back to its normal position, many times in succession.
As opposed to string bending, when doing vibrato, you’re not aiming to reach the next note. You’re still playing the same note and applying an effect on it.
There are an infinite number of ways of doing vibrato, depending mostly on these two variables, though there are others that go beyond what you need to get started:
- How far you bend the string
- How fast you do the whole motion
If you’re just starting out with vibrato, I suggest you neither bend the string too much, nor do it very fast. Aim for a subtler warm vibrato, and leave the crazy wide vibratos for when you’re already more at ease with vibrato technique.
The reason for this is that good vibrato requires that:
- You bend the string to the same place each time while doing the vibrato – if the bending is not consistent, with a long bend followed by a shorter bend, followed by a somewhat longer bend etc., your vibrato will sound messy.
- The timing should also be logical and consistent.
Short and slow vibrato will help you learn and master the technique while producing a great effect anyway.
5. Learn guitar licks or solos that include string bending and vibrato technique
Now that you have some basic idea of string bending and vibrato, you want to find ways to apply them in your improvisation, and the best place to start from is learning your favorite player’s licks.
Keep in mind that for something to be great, it doesn’t necessarily need to be difficult or complex, thus if you have the ability to perform the skills in Step 4, there are countless licks and solos you can learn.
At this point I would suggest hovering around the territory of Blues – Blues Rock, rather than Heavy Metal (even if you’re a Metalhead!) since Metal solos tend to be faster and more complex which is something you should be developing at a later stage if you’re just getting started with improvisation.
The more licks and solos you have under your belt, and the better you know them, the more you’re prepared for Step 6, in which you will actually start improvising. That said, do not wait until you learn a large number of licks before you start improvising. After you learn a few, start creating your own, while learning other licks to get more ideas.
6. Start improvising on guitar without backing track
Becoming good at improvisation requires you to not only create melodies but also play them in the context of a beat and a harmony (chords) whether that’s provided by a real band, or a “Backing track in A minor” you can easily find on Youtube.
However, I chose to break this down in two steps because when you’re just starting out with improvisation, you may want to concentrate more on creating something at first, until you get the drift of it and then, put it in context.
Start creating your own melodies on the minor pentatonic with a metronome or a drum machine to keep the beat and focus on creating something that you would like to hear yourself.
Start using string bending and vibrato creatively, which does NOT mean you can’t “copy” ideas from the licks and solos you have learnt. The same concepts have been played over and over again in countless variations.
Needless to say, you can’t copy a BB King solo and claim it’s your own. That might easily get you in trouble, as should be.
What you can, and should, copy is one’s style, ideas, techniques and how they apply them, to create your own, brand new, melodies. No one can copy-write an individual string bend, or the way he applies vibrato.
Don’t worry about “originality” at this stage. If you do come up with something completely original, that’s great, but you should focus on that after you have mastered the next step.
7. Start improvising on guitar with a backing track
Now that you’ve got the hang of creating pleasant sounding melodies (no matter how simple) your final task is to play them in real musical contexts.
Which is very easy nowadays since all it takes to find a good Rock or Blues backing track in say, A minor, is a Youtube search.
Before you start playing your licks with the backing track it’s very important that you listen, something which you weren’t burdened with in Step 6, but is crucial at this stage.
What you come up with needs to match not only the timing and the key, but also other aspects of the music, make sure that what you’re playing matches the style and context of the backing track.
Where to go from here
If you put in the time to practice every step above, you will find yourself creating beautiful, emotional, melodies sooner than you think. And yes, a string bent right, in the right context, can make heads turn. You don’t need to do anything flashy to please people’s ears!
The next step is to start doing it with friends, who share more or less your present playing abilities on which I will leave you with some advice I’m sure you will find valuable when you actually start improvising with other people:
- Don’t be selfish: While you were improvising with the backing track it was all about you. Most backing tracks have the same rhythm and harmony, repeated over and over again with some variations, so that you can take your time to create solos.Your friends, are very likely to get bored to hear you shine while they play the same thing over and over again. Always make sure that what you’re playing things in context of the other musicians are playing, and that you share the time when you steal the show, with others.
- Don’t play with selfish people: It works the other way too. If your friend just wants to blast out all the tricks he has learnt this week, with complete disregard for what you’re doing, correct him politely. If he insists on ignoring you playing and is only interested in impressing you and others, probably you should be spending the time you allocate for practicing your music with someone who wants to make the chemistry work rather than shine out all the time.
Because when the chemistry works, magic happens. When musicians really connect with each other they will start creating things they wouldn’t haven’t imagined they ever could.
Start imporovising on guitar now and with some persistence you will master the beautiful art of creating music at will.
It’s a state of “flow” where creating comes natural. Where you don’t have to think about the next note, your fingers just go there.
I’ve been there, and it’s a very beautiful place to be. Not only will this “state of flow” get you to create things that may surprise you, but it’s actually proven that aside from the state of euphoria, which is usually unsustainable for a long period of time, being in a state of creative flow is one of the happiest states you can be in, and can last for hours on end!
You need to put in the time to go through each of these steps properly and master them but once you know how to go to that place, you’ll know them forever!
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