Intro to Improvisation - 043

Today, it’s my intro for guitar improvisation! Is this just something only a few are able to do, or, is this a skill we can learn and perfect over time?


Coming up with great musical ideas right on the spot, is a huge part of the appeal of playing guitar.


We have all seen our favorite guitarists play these awesome solos in a live setting that were not the original solo from the song’s recording. It sounds just as good, but different.


And, one of the favorite pastimes of most guitarist is noodling. Just sitting and enjoying playing the guitar. Just for fun! Trying out new things when the pressure is off and most likely, depending on how loud your amplifier is, no one is listening.


We all sound great when we do this. It’s the equivalent of singing in the shower. But the first time you have to create something on the spot, in front of other players or an audience, you quickly realize that improvising is a lot more complex than just noodling on the guitar.


To be a great improviser, there are a lot of things that have to be taken into consideration. And, at first, it can be a little frustrating.


As guitarists, we are all accustomed to dealing with a bit of frustration. First, just holding the guitar and pressing the strings down is a challenge. Then, just being able to play your first chords and making sure that they sound right leads to frustration and the sinking feeling that you might never be able to do this. Fortunately, this usually doesn’t last long, and you are off to conquer your next adventure on the guitar.


Well, Improvising is another one of these small frustrations that with the right knowledge and some regular time with the guitar you will become a great improviser as well.





What do I need?


What are the things I need to improvise? Well, I’m sure you have most of what you need already. But, if not, lets take a look at the building blocks of an Improviser.




To create some basic melodies we are going to need our scale patterns. If you are to the point where your open and barre chords are solid, the next step is usually to start looking at scales.


Scales, being a collection of notes to choose from to create melodies, are going to be our bread and butter in improv.  At first when you are starting to play solos, it’s so important to get a solid understanding of our strong inside sounds. With popular music this is easy, just stick with the big four. They are the Major, minor, Major pentatonic, and minor pentatonic scales. But, as you progress on the guitar, you will start to want to add more tension to your solos. There are many scales and devices that can give you these sounds and I’ll be featuring these in several upcoming shows.


If you are just getting into playing scales or have started and find yourself struggling and a bit confused please go to

This will take you to my guide on the Five pattern system. This post shows you the easiest and most effective way to unlock scales on the fretboard. And it is based on the Big Four inside scales.


Having a solid understanding of these scale patterns in all of the different keys is an essential  part of being a great improviser.


Chord progressions


The other thing that you need to have to start improvising is a solid understanding of how chords relate to each other and how scales relate to chords.


Understanding how chord progressions work and what the function of each chord in the group will allow you to move forward into more advanced improvising. Allowing the chord progressions to guide your note and scale choices


Both of these topics are an ongoing process. There is always something new to learn about scales as well as chords and chord progressions. It never ends. So no matter where you are as an improviser, adding to your knowledge of scales and chords will keep pushing you forward.


How do I get started?



Helping a student get started improvising is one of my favorite things to do! It’s a technique I use that is so simple but so eye opening. And, what I really like about this technique is that it really puts you on the right path straight away. I’ve mentioned this a few times in the show this year.


So if you are just getting started, or have an interest, or even if you have been improvising for years, Try this out. I do this all of the time if I’m stumped for something to play and it always helps me out.


It goes like this:

Start your background track, and play whatever you want with the scale.


“Ok” , you might be thinking. “How does that help me?”

Well that part let’s you know that there are really no rules and that we have moved into an artistic place.


But, part two is where we really get on the right track. Here it is:


When you are done saying what you are going to say, hit the tonic note.  



Ok This turns things into a different direction. This is the beginnings of what is called phrasing. We are starting to work on your musicianship at step one.

These aren’t just scales. These aren’t just notes. We are building statements. We are communicating our ideas and feelings with music. How do you do that. You do that in phrases. Short, digestible statements that get your point across.


What is the difference between a statement and just a collection of scales and notes. The fact that it ends. It has an ending point. It is completed and is setup to make another statement.


By hitting the tonic note, we have effectively put punctuation at the end of our sentence. You said something. What that is is entirely up to you. But it was said.


That resolution to the tonic note also starts us down the path of using tension to our advantage

Try this again, but this time don’t end on the tonic. Try to end on another note and see how it feels.


You don’t have the ending that you had the first time. In fact, you get some tension this time. It doesn’t feel finished. It just feels up in the air a bit. In fact the longer you go without a resolution, the more tension that builds.


What a great way to start your journey into lead guitar. I love using this and I hope you get as much out of this as the many students I have helped start lead guitar this way!


Where do I go from here?


OK, We have matched our chord progressions with a scale. Then we started playing, anything we wanted with one restriction. It had to end.


This is a big push in the right direction, but how do I move forward from here?

Let’s start to work on our building blocks and actual improve in our daily practice routine.


First, before we get started, whenever you decide to take on a new direction like this, it is always beneficial to understand what your goal is. Let’s keep the end in mind as we work this from week to week.


Your goals may be different, but my goal for you is to be able to play freely using many different scales at any place your hand is on the guitar. This is definitely an ambitious goal but one that is not impossible.


Next. Make sure that you are practicing the scales that apply to the style of music you want to play. This is going to take some research but it is time well spent.


Next, let’s set aside a specific amount of time actually improvising. Set a time limit and work on it everyday. Let’s be intentional with this.


Next assemble your chords. If you have a loop pedal, you are set. You can spend a few seconds playing these chord progressions, hit the loop and you are ready to improv. But if you don’t just take a trip over to YouTube and search for a background track in the key with the chords you need. Get several chord progressions ready for your practice.


Let’s get playing. Press play and play anything you want and when you are done saying what you are going to say, hit the tonic.


That’s great for awhile. But eventually you will be ready to start moving forward. The first technique you should use when improvising is to get some mileage out of the licks you already know. Start playing your licks but each time you play them, slightly change them. It could be the rhythm or the order of the notes. You could even play the lick backwards. Whatever way you want to change it, just give it a try.


To you, every time you change it, it may still sound like your trusty lick. But to everyone else, it sounds new. You have just made a whole new statement. Getting into this practice can open up your playing immensely.


What are some

Improvisational devices?



In today’s introduction, I talked a bit about how improv in comedy relates to what we are doing here. I spoke about how comedians have certain devices or techniques that they use to keep the improv moving forward.


We have these as well for guitar. Once you are really moving forward with improv you may be ready to take it to the next level. Let’s talk about some of the different techniques you can use to enhance your improvisational skills.


First, and my favorite, we talked about already is changing known guitar licks slightly to make them your own. These don’t even  have to be your own licks. You could take your favorite lick from another player and change it just enough that it isn’t recognizable as the original but still has the same vibe. And now it’s yours to use in many different situations.


Next, try using some sequences. Sequences are small patterns that you can use to make your scales sound more interesting. Here is one of the simplest for an example:


Start on the tonic note of the scale and play the first three notes (1,2,3). Next do the same thing but start on the second note of the scale (2,3,4) Next, do the same thing starting on the third (3,4,5). The fourth (4,5,6). The fifth (5,6,7). The sixth (6,7,8). The seventh (7,1,2) and end on the tonic.


Basically, you have taken this small pattern (going up three notes) and applied it to different degrees of the scale. They are fun and instantly add a bit more melody to your lines. You don’t have to play them all in a row like I did, and you don’t have to use this pattern. There are tons of different sequence patterns you can use to make things a lot more interesting in your own improvisation.   


How about arpeggios! We have learned so much on the show about arpeggios. If you haven’t heard those shows, I have a blog post all about the subject. Just visit to learn all about how chords and arpeggios are built.


Why not use diatonic arpeggios to your advantage while improvising. The are right in the same scale pattern you are already using. Pick a degree of the scale and play the arpeggio notes off of that (remember it’s every other note).


Try using Pedal tones to create some interest.

Pedal tones are a lot of fun. This device is very common in classical music, but we can really take advantage of it in our improv.


Pedal tones are just the repetition of a single note throughout a passage. So easy but so cool. Here is a simple one to start out on. Just play each degree of the major scale in order, but after each one go back to playing the tonic note.



So simple but so cool. You can use this one pretty much in any style and it sounds cool. Even with the pentatonic scale.


To start getting some easy tension in your lines try using enclosures.

Some player call these  surrounds. The idea is that you take a certain note of the scale or arpeggio and surround it in a certain way. The most common one that I see starts one scale degree before your chosen note. You then play a half step (one fret) behind the chosen note. Then resolve to your chosen note. 



What are some tips for getting better at improvising?


“OK, I understand what I’m in for now. How do I keep moving forward with my improv?”


  1. Spending some time improvising each day is the best way to keep moving forward. The more time you spend in different improv situations the better you get.


I suggest using a loop pedal for your backing for a few reasons. One, it is very quick. You can put down a simple chord progression very quickly and be up and running in no time. And, it’s super flexible. If you find that you struggle over a certain chord, you can quickly isolate that chord, and work on it. I sometimes struggle to find just the right background track for my practice. And that time I spend searching is precious time that I could have spent practicing.


Also don’t stay on one chord progression or style for very long. Keep changing up your chords and styles. Keep putting yourself in new situations.


Get out of your comfort zone. Search out players – groups – open mic nights to find others to play with. Improvising with others who can hear your choices and react to them is awesome. It is so much fun that you can become addicted to it.  Jam bands have created a whole style of music where improv is the center of everything they do.


Listen to great improvisers. Let those melody lines get into your thinking. Let your brain take them in and process them. I have had many times where I have been listening to a certain player, not studying or analyizing them, and some of what I listened to came out in my playing later on. These ideas that you hear can be used to your advantage later on down the line.


  1. My last tip is to record yourself. Keep a small recorder or your voice recorder on your phone on while you practice. You just might hear something in your improvising that you really like and it might be worth committing it to memory for later use.



So today, we went over improvising. I introduced it and then talked about:

  • What you need to start improvising.
  • How you get started improvising.
  • How to make improvising part of your routine.
  • Examples of some improvisational devices
  • And I gave some tips for getting better at improvising.



I hope you found this podcast helpful if you are new to improv or are just wanting to improve your skills. I love to find new ways to create melodies and I try to use all of these tips and skills to push forward and continue to get better at it.



My challenge for you today is to add five minutes of dedicated improv time to your daily practice this week. Just find an interesting chord progression and start creating. If you get stuck, give some of the tips in this show a try and let us know how it went. You can leave a comment in the show notes below!



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