Last Updated on May 15, 2019 by Klaus Crow
Photo by Simone13 AKA John Pastorello
Besides writing and playing songs I just love improvising.
When I practice improvising I always first pour myself a cup of green tea, I put on some folk music (e.g. Ray La Montagne, Damien Rice, Stephen Fretwell, Glen Hansard, Sheryl Crow, etc.) on Last.fm or Spotify and then I start to improvise over these songs. I get totally caught up in the moment and let my fingers carry me away.
Other times I practice melodic patterns, triads, arpeggios, licks, everything that will spice up my improvisation skills. You can never stop growing. There is always more to learn and explore.
Improvising is one of the most fun and fulfilling aspects of guitar playing, but also something that requires a lot of hard work and dedication. It’s the next step in becoming a better guitar player.
Here are 10 basic essentials that will help you become a better improviser.
1 – Pentatonics / blues
Learn to play the pentatonic/blues scale all over the neck in all five shapes. It will take some time to learn this thoroughly, but if you practice regularly it will really pay off. The pentatonic / blues scale is the corner stone of all soloing in blues, pop, country, rock and metal. Learn not only the scale, but also how to use it for improvisation. See below.
2 – Major Scale
Next to the pentatonic scale, the major scale is the most important scale to learn.
Learn to play the major scale all over the neck in every position starting from the root note. Again this takes time, but learn thoroughly. It is worth the effort.
Once you can play the scale in all positions, connect the different shapes/positions with each other. For example: Play one part of the scale in the first position, continue the scale in the second position and then go on to the third position. Experiment and try different combinations.
The most exciting and challenging part is learning how to improvise with the scales. That is what you are heading for.
3- Melodic patterns
Melodic patterns or sequences will help you not to sound like you are playing scales all the time. It will expand your possibilities and create more freedom in your playing. They are really useful when improvising. Learn to play the scales in 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, 3 in a line, 4 in a line, etc.
Major scale = 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
C major scale = C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C
3rds = 1 3, 2 4, 3 5, 4 6, 5 7, 6 8, 7 9, 8 10, 9 11, etc.
C major scale = C E, D F, E G, F A, G B, A C, B D, C E, D F, etc.
4ths = 1 4, 2 5, 3 6, 4 7, 5 8, 6 9, 7 10, 8 11, 9 12, etc.
5ths = 1 5, 2 6, 3 7, 4 8, 5 9, 6 10, 7 11, 8 12, 9 13, etc.
6ths = 1 6, 2 7, 3 8, 4 9, 5 10, 6 11, 7 12, 8 13, 9 14, etc.
3 in a line = 123, 234, 345, 456, 567, 678, 789, etc.
4 in a line = 1234, 2345, 3456, 4567, 5678, 6789, etc.
4 – Random notes
Practice playing random notes through the scale. For example:
Major scale = 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
Pick out notes randomly: 1 6 3 2 12 15 3 5 11 7 etc.
This will help you to learn the scale thoroughly, it will make you more flexible and again give you more freedom when improvising.
5 – Triads
Triads are used to open up your playing and get away from playing diatonic and pentatonic scale runs. Triads are 3 note chords. You can play a triad starting from the first/root note (the root position triad), from the second note (the 1st inversion) and from the 3rd note (2nd inversion). There are 4 different types of triads : major, minor, augmented and diminished. A major triad is formed by the 1st, 3rd and 5th note of the major scale.
Major scale = 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, Cmajor scale = C D E F G A B C
Major triad = 1 3 5, Cmajor triad = C E G (= C)
Minor triad = 1 b3 5, Cminor triad = C Eb G (= Cm)
Augmented triad = 1 3 #5, Caug triad = C E G# (= C+)
Diminished triad = 1 b3 b5, Cdim triad = C Eb Gb (= Co)
Learn all the triads you can play through a major scale. For example:
C major scale: Cmajor triad, Dmin triad, Emin triad, Fmajor triad, Gmajor triad, Amin triad and Bdim triad. You can use all these triads improvising through a Cmajor scale, A minor scale or A minor pentatonic.
6 – Arppegios
Learn arpeggios and incorporate them in your playing. Arpeggios are like triads, they are used to open up your playing and create more color and variety to your improvisation. A triad is actually an arpeggio if it is played note by note, ascending or descending. While a triad contains only three notes, an arpeggio can be expanded with a b7, maj7, a 9th, 11th, etc which gives you endless possibilities.
7 – Licks
A lick is a short series of notes that creates a cool melodic line which can be used in your improvisation. Increase your lick vocabulary. Learning new licks is an ongoing process that will keep your improvisation sound fresh and help you grow becoming a better player.
8 – Modes
Learn to play all the 7 modes of the major scale to expand your improvising skills even more. The 7 modes are:
– Ionian = 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
– Dorian = 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 8
– Phrygian = 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8
– Lydian = 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 8
– Mixolydian = 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 8
– Aeolian = 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8
– Locrian = 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 8
9 – Solos
Transcribe and learn solos from the greatest guitar players to be inspired. Steal, copy their licks and make your own out of them. Study how they phrase and use rhythm in their soloing. Learn solos in different styles and genres; Blues, rock, country, metal, pop, etc. There is much to be learned from different guitar players.
10 – Improvise
The best way to learn how to improvise is actually do it.
Put on your favorite songs or use a backing track and start improvising over the chord progressions. Play licks. melodic patterns, triads, arpeggios, every thing you learned, then combine, improvise, phrase, experiment, make mistakes, try again, put your soul into it and let your fingers lead the way.
Regardless of what you play, the biggest thing is keeping the feel going. – Wes Montgomery
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