Wait… No thinking? Yep, that’s right. When you see an guitar player improvising who’s really in the groove, they’re not thinking. They’re letting the music flow through them. (Cue mystical hoo-ha music…)
And you too can get there by jumping in and getting your guitar improvisation fundamentals together.
Let me say this first. Every time I tell a guitar student that we’re going to start improvising, they look at me like a terrified deer that just saw its first dumb college girl get axed by a dude in a hockey mask in the woods. It doesn’t have to be like that.
Remember this… Nobody has ever been killed by a bad guitar note. In the history of the world, it never happened. Sure, they may draw cult leader nutjobs out of their hidey holes by blasting ABBA at them for a few days, but they’re still alive when they come out.
And besides that, there’s no such thing as a bad note. It’s only a note you didn’t plan on hearing right at that time.
That being said, the most important thing you can do to start improvising on guitar is just start improvising.
What I’ll give you here are some basic structural tips for improvising and some awesome tricks to shape up your guitar playing and get you out of your head.
Caveat: I’m assuming here that you probably have a couple of guitar scales (maybe pentatonics and majors) under your fingers as well as a decent repertoire of chords. If you don’t yet, check out these articles:
Beginning Chord Theory For Guitarists
How To Read Extended Chord Symbols On Guitar
The Magical Mystical Pentatonic Scale For Guitar
You don’t need a lot of tools, but it will make it easier to improvise if you have a few.
What is Improvisation really?
The most basic idea of improvisation is that you’re creating melodies on the fly over a given chord progression. That’s a little different from “free play” in which there are no given parameters at all. Jazz players like to do this sometimes and it usually sounds like a pair of flatulent rhinos in a screaming match. To each their own. 🙂
Two ways to think about Improvisation.
There are two basic ways to attack an improvisation situation.
1. Use the notes of each chord as the skeleton of your improvised melody.
For instance, if you’re playing over a C major chord you would use the notes C, E, and G as the basis for your melody. This doesn’t mean you can’t use other notes too (unless you want to be super boring), but a good chunk of the melody will use those notes. This is sometimes called “playing the changes”. Now you know why a lot of players like improvising over extended chords (Cm11b5 anyone?)… There’s more notes to play with!
2. Pick a scale on your guitar that fits most of the chords and run with that, making changes when you get to a chord that doesn’t match. For instance: C G7, Dm, B7, Em, G7, C. In that chord progression a C major scale will work great over everything but the B7. When you get to that chord you would simply use D# and F# instead of the D and F in your regular scale.
Don’t freak out. I don’t expect you to understand all that yet. We’re just setting up the ideas.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both of these techniques. Most guitar players will use both at different times.
Chord Tone Thinking:
– You’ll closely track the chord changes and totally sound like you know what you’re doing.
– You’ll be able to fall back on pre-practiced arpeggio licks you’ve played a zillion times.
– There’s more thinking involved when you have to keep track of every chord change that goes by.
– The melody can sound less cohesive sometimes if the player is more concerned with hitting the changes than creating a great memorable melody.
– Way less thinking because you’ll be improvising over large chunks of chords.
– You’ll run across crazy scales you’d never think to use when subbing out the one or two notes that need to be changed for an “outside” chord.
– You may get stuck into just one or two particular scales in a chord progression, limiting what you might think to use.
Like I said, good guitar players use both. And you’ll get plenty of experience with them. But right now we’re only setting those up as goals for later. We’re going to start with simple stuff.
A note on backing tracks: Learning improvisation on guitar is much easier when you have something to play over. A great option is getting a friend who also plays guitar and jamming with them. You’ll have lots of control over what’s going on that way. Plus you can help each other. Another option is recording yourself playing the chord progression you want to work on. I spent a good chunk of my guitar practice time in college just improvising over quicky tracks I recorded myself. Doing this, you can concentrate on just a couple chords at a time and make changes whenever you want, all without having to hit the rewind button every few seconds. And if you’re a loner hermit type, you also won’t have to talk to people. And of course, you can also get yourself some backing tracks. If you google “free guitar backing tracks” you find plenty.
Even if you don’t have a backing track to start, just start improvising melodies by yourself. The more you play, the better.
Now that we’re nearly 900 words into this article, let’s start playing. Sorry for the long-windedness, but it’s good information.
Exercise #1: The One Note Solo
Pick out one note that will work with most of the chords you’re playing over. You’re going to play a whole solo with just that one note. That means you’ll have to think rhythmically rather than melodically. All you have is rhythm in this case. With that one note, play as many different rhythms as you can come up with.
Rhythm is the defining factor of a melody. You can play the wrong notes and the right rhythm of a melody and it will still sound basically like that song. But if you play the right notes and the wrong rhythm? Now it doesn’t sound anything like that song. Rhythm is what catches a listener’s ear more than note choice, so this one one note guitar solo will help you develop that.
Once you’ve gone through the one note solo a couple times, pick out one of the rhythms that you liked on that one note. Start your backing track again and play just that rhythm over and over on the one note.
This does two things for you. It will help you stay in the groove while you’re improvising. But also, you may find that the rhythm doesn’t stay exactly the same the whole time. If it starts to drift into a new rhythm, let it! This will show you how one rhythm organically shifts into another, rather than you having to “decide” what rhythm to play next.
The next step is using that same rhythm, but this time distribute it over two notes from your scale. Improvise as many different versions of that one rhythm over just two notes and you can come up with.
Lastly, expand that one more time and use just the top 3 strings of your scale, still on that one rhythm. But remember, if the rhythm shifts, let it. If the music wants to go somewhere, let it go somewhere.
Most guitar licks aren’t the big run on sentences that they appear to be. They’re actually tiny 3-5 note licks that are strung together to sound like something larger. This exercise of using the same rhythm over different sets of notes will help you learn how to do that.
Pick out two chords in the same key. Something like C major and G major would be good simple choices. Set up two measures of each chord at a comfortable tempo. You’re going to only play chord tones over the chords this time. So on C major you’ll play C, E, and G. Over the G major you’ll play G, B, and D.
The trick here will be catching the change to the new chord. This will take some practice, but you’ll learn what a measure “feels like”. More mystic hoo-ha, I know. But listen for the heavy downbeat of beat 1 as well as the change of tonality when the new chord arrives.
You can do this exercise with any pair of chords. As your songs get more difficult you can choose more difficult combinations of chords, and eventually build the number of chords until it’s the whole progression you want.
And just like before, let the rhythm drive your improv, not the notes.
Exercise #3: Play Anything.
This is a fun one. For best results, put on a backing track you haven’t played with yet. Better yet if you don’t even know what the chords are.
Close your eyes, listen to the track, and start playing anything. Let your ear guide you to the notes you like. Don’t worry about bad notes. Just go find another one.
Here’s a great trick that has gotten me out of a lot of jams (or back into the jam, as the case may be). If you’re on a note you don’t like, go one fret in either direction. In most cases you’ll end up on a better note. With practice you’ll be able to control where you put those “weird” notes and use them to your advantage.
Again, develop interesting rhythms and let the notes fall where they may. You’ll learn how to really let go and let your fingers do the talking instead of your brain. When the brain gets too involved the music starts to sound stiff. Let your brain take a vacation and just play.
A couple bonus tips:
– Use a metronome – especially if you’re backing chords don’t have drums or if you’re just playing with another guitarist. If you fall off the groove, try to get back on it. Tap your foot along with it while you’re playing to help you lock in better.
– Don’t be afraid of silence. Your improvisation doesn’t have to be a constant stream of notes. Some rests in there let the music breathe and give you a second to get back on track if you were falling off. Take a listen to guys like BB King and how they use silence in a solo.
– As you start to get some ear training under your belt (funny place for your ears….) try transcribing other people’s guitar solos. Write them out even if you can’t play them. Just the process of trying to figure them out by ear will help develop your own repertoire of licks.
– Improvise along with any music you run across. Turn the radio on to random stations (talk radio works great here… just kidding.) Put your ipod on shuffle. Try to improvise over the song and use your ears to figure out what’s going on. Go ahead and step all over the vocals. You have your whole career ahead of your for vocalists to yell at your for that. Now’s your chance to do it in peace.
And above all… Improvise… A lot… The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll get and the more chances you’ll be willing to take.
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