Improvising on guitar is one of the most awesome things you can do as a guitar player.
Seeing the likes of Jimi Hendrix get to his knees and perform a mind-blowing solo is enough to convince anyone to learn guitar.
These type of feats often look like an extreme stroke of genius, but guess what?
Improvising on guitar can be taught!
Think of it in terms of learning a language. If you expand your vocabulary and learn grammar, you’ll be able to make an excellent impromptu speech.
It’s the same with guitar improvisation. The more nuts and bolts you learn for guitar, the more equipped you will be to improvise a solo.
Let’s have a look at how to get there.
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What Is Guitar Improvisation?
Guitar improvisation is the sweet spot where your guitar-playing skills and your musical ideas meet. To put it simply, it’s the creation of music on the spot.
Improvising is one of the most fulfilling moments of one’s guitar learning journey – the moment when your practice and hard work come together and you’re finally feeling the music.
Are Guitar Solos Improvised?
Guitar solos are not strictly improvised. They can also be composed in advance and form a carefully crafted element of a song.
Some solos are partially composed and partially improvised. Leaving room for creativity, you can improvise a new version of the solo every time you play it.
Soloing on the fly – or writing a solo in advance – can be done by creating phrases around scales, such as the blues scale.
Learn to Improvise on the Guitar with 7 Foundational Skills
In order to improvise, it’s important that you have a grip on some of the fundamentals of guitar playing.
Here’s a list of 7 things you should know to give you a solid base for improvising.
1. Brush up on Your Theory
Theory will lay the foundation for understanding what you’re playing and why it sounds the way it does.
In case you’re a bit rusty, I recommend rehashing some of the basics and familiarizing yourself with the nuts and bolts of guitar music. Have a quick read through some of these guides on the essentials:
2. Know Your Notes
Learning the basic notes on your guitar is essential. Think of guitar notes as the letters that will eventually form the words of a new language.
Make sure you know all the notes on your fretboard and what they sound like.
In case you’re a bit rusty, I recommend reading this article on guitar notes before you progress.
3. Ace Your Scales
You’ll quickly find that scales are an essential piece of advancing your guitar game.
Scales teach you not only the physical skills required to play guitar, but also the cognitive ones.
Familiarize yourself with a couple of the essential scales – especially the major and minor pentatonic scales. And try playing these in different keys.
Knowing your scales will not only help you with improvisation, but with all areas of your guitar-playing journey.
4. Learn How to Bend
Ornamentations in music are ways in which you can embellish or accentuate a melody. String bending is one of those ornamentations.
It’s not essential to nail bends before you start improvising, but it is a useful technique for improvisation.
So what is bending? It’s when you push or pull a string to change the pitch of the note you’re playing, without changing frets. You can change the note by one or two semitones with this technique.
5. Learn Vibrato
Vibrato is a second kind of ornamentation that can be very useful in improvisation.
It’s another technique to add some flavor to your sound. You’ve probably seen this in live concerts or jams before.
Take Eric Clapton for example. He was known for his outstanding vibrato.
Vibrato comes from the latin word vibrare which means “to shake”.
Playing vibrato on guitar is to shake or pulse your finger on the string, so that you achieve a quaver in the sound.
Similar to bending, vibrato is a great technique to add an extra flair to your improvisation without adding more notes.
6. Learn Riffs By Heart
To be in a good position to improvise, I highly recommend learning a few of your favorite riffs off by heart.
And what’s not to love about learning some of the greatest riffs of all time? Think Guns N Roses’ “Sweet Child O Mine” or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
This will give you a sense of what a good riff sounds and feels like and will set you up very nicely to start improvising.
You’ll likely come across some of the above ornamentations like string bending or vibrato in your practice.
And who knows, you might even start improvising around one of your favorite licks when you progress!
7. Play with a Backing Track
One of the main reason most people want to improvise is to perform live or jam with people — which can be nerve-wracking even for seasoned guitar players!
But practicing with a backing track can build your comfort level and confidence that you’ll be able to keep up in live settings.
Backing tracks for various songs can be found on YouTube – and there’s no shortage of them.
Here’s an easy way to get used to using a backing track:
- Try out a few ideas first without a backing track
- Next, choose a backing track in the specific key that you need
- Try out some of your new ideas with the backing track in the background
Think of the backing track as an aid to help you gain a sense of rhythm, tone, and technique.
Guitar Improvisation Exercises to Improve Your Performance
Now that we’ve ensured that you know the basics, let’s get to improvising!
We’ll focus on a couple of exercises to learn how to improvise on guitar.
While improvisation might come naturally to some, for others, it requires a great deal of practice – and that’s okay!
Improvising can be intimidating – especially because we can quite literally play anything.
So think of these exercises as a framework to help you start playing anything.
With a bit of practice, you’ll be improvising (almost) like Jimi Hendrix in no time!
Get in the Mindset of Phrases and Sentences
Often, I see people who are fresh out of learning the basics of guitar and struggling to think in musical phrases and sentences.
These exercises will help you get into that mindset:
- Start improvising and play a couple of notes
- Once you’ve played 4-5 notes, hold the fourth or fifth note
- Start playing again and repeat the pause after 4-5 notes
This will help you get a sense for taking pauses between your musical phrases. What we’re trying to avoid here is the “Ulysses” of songs – cranking out note after note in one big stream of consciousness.
Focus on a Pitch Range
A common mistake I see when people are starting to improvise is that they play all over the guitar.
But it’s a lot easier to focus on a certain range – especially when starting to improvise.
For example, if you start low on a guitar while jamming to a backing track, stay in that range until you hear a major pitch change.
As soon as you hear a major pitch change, move to a new range and stay there for a while.
The key here is to not jump around the guitar too frequently. Practice playing in specific ranges.
Make sure you pay attention to what it sounds like when you switch ranges. Become familiar with the effects of these pitch changes, so you can begin to use them effectively in improvising.
Experiment with Melodies
Cracking melody can be a bit tricky at the start. With this little exercise, you’ll learn to get a feel for what melodies sound good.
Try this out:
- Select two strings next to one another
- Try out an idea with these two strings
- Move to two different strings nearby
- Try out another short idea
- Notice how these two ideas sound together
You’ll quickly find what distance between your ideas on the fret board sounds good – often it’s staying within a couple of octaves, rather than making huge leaps.
Check Your Rhythm
You might find that despite your best efforts to try different melodies, your improvising is beginning to sound the same.
Don’t worry – this is totally normal.
Often this comes down to a lack of rhythm. Even if you’re trying out different notes, improvisation can sound very repetitive if you don’t try out different rhythms.
Rhythm is that missing element that takes your playing to the next level.
Try this quick drill:
- Draw a bar of music that contains 8 notes
- Sit down and work out a potential rhythm
- Clap out your rhythm a couple of times
- Use a metronome and clap out your rhythm until you’ve memorized it
- Take a scale you’re familiar with and play the scale in the rhythm that you’ve just memorized
I often see guitar players getting caught up on the notes when improvising that they neglect the rhythm. But both are equally important so make sure you give this the time it deserves.
Improvising in Baby Steps
It helps to start improvising with a small number of notes and build up slowly. The reason for this is that you learn to realize what other resources you have at your disposal other than guitar notes.
So taking from the exercise above, rhythm is a resource that you have besides notes.
Here’s how you can exercise that muscle:
- Play a backing track
- Try a couple of notes and choose one note that sounds good with the track
- With that one note, start experimenting with rhythm over the track
If that went well, take it up a notch. Now do the same exercise with two notes instead of one.
And if that goes well, try the same exercise with three notes.
Note: as you add notes you’ll probably find that step number 2 above will take a bit longer. And that’s a good thing. Making sure you’re choosing the right notes to suit a backing track is important to establish before moving on to step 3.
Now that you’ve built some confidence with improvisation, it’s time to let loose and use those vocal chords!
- Play a backing track of your choice
- Improvise singing over it
And don’t worry, this exercise isn’t about hitting the perfect notes, but rather getting a real feel for the music.
You can also try writing a song yourself. How to write a song on guitar and how to improvise on guitar seem like two entirely different things, but both tie back to the same roots of musical thinking.
Ear training is the ability to develop your aural skills so that you can identify chords, melodies, rhythms, scales, pitches, and more, by ear.
It’s one of the most useful skills for guitar players, especially when improvising. It unlocks a whole new level of guitar playing – the ability to play what you hear, jam freely, and hone your understanding of music.
Below, I’ve included a great ear training exercise that will help you with improvisation:
- Listen to a few of your favorite songs
- With a pen and paper, transcribe what you’re hearing – notes, chords, chord progressions, intervals, melodies, etc.
- Use your guitar as an aid to figure out the above elements
If you want to make the exercise more difficult, omit the guitar and just go with a pen and paper.
Take your time with this one. This doesn’t come naturally to many people and requires a bit of patience.
The Next Step in Your Guitar Playing Journey
If you found this guide helpful and you’d like to learn more, then I highly recommend you check out my online guitar workshop – Tony’s Acoustic Challenge.
I designed it specifically to help guitar players of all levels see consistent, meaningful progress and have fun at the same time.
It’s full of exercises to help you learn new techniques swiftly and effectively and catapult you from guitar dabbler to serious guitar player in no time at all.
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