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A Guide to Successfully Improvising on the Guitar

By Jon, published on 06/05/2019 Blog > Music > Guitar > How to Improvise on the Guitar

Being able to learn to play the guitar is powerful form of self-expression, of showing your personality to friends or unknown crowds, of being able to convey emotions. Music is a universal language, which means that everyone understands its power – or else, as Stravinsky says, it is unable to express anything at all.

Either way.

But, just like humans have the freedom of speech, many of us feel the need to communicate freely through other mediums – like music, of course – to utilise and explore every avenue of our thoughts, every whisper of our minds.

Even people who can’t sing still love to belt out a power ballad in the shower when they’re in a good mood… But a talented singer might take it one step further by adding their own little rolls or extending notes here and there to make the tune sound, not better, but more original to them.

Much like vocal expression, one can play around with the sounds of a guitar and invent whole pieces of music on the spot if they are in the zone.

This is a wonderful talent which goes beyond strumming through the guitar chords of all the songs to play. It goes beyond the – admittedly rather dry – stuff about power chords and practicing with a metronome. It’s more interesting than dexterity exercises or barre chords lessons. And it’s far more enjoyable – and impressive to others – than basic chord progressions.

So once you’ve started learning the guitar, work a little bit on your improvisational skills!

The Basics Of Guitar Improvisation

What is Improvisation in Music?

Improvisation – or ‘improv’, as the dudes call it – is the art of creating music spontaneously. To be pedantic, it doesn’t need to be specifically music, as improvisation is not the exclusive domain of the guitar player. People improvise when giving speeches, in stand-up comedy, and in all aspects of life. If you have improvised a solution to a broken piece of furniture, then you’ve found a fix on the spot.

However, improvisation holds a special role in those who play guitar.

It’s something of a mark of distinction. Between the guitar player who only bothers to strum the odd guitar chord in accompaniment and the guitarist who can solo like a god. Between those who prefer to play songs from their guitar tabs and those who want to indulge their more creative side.  Between those who only want to play the major chord and minor chord from Green Day (no offence to them) and those who want to explore jazz guitar, blues guitar, and the complex chord changes and tonalities that these might involve.

But improvisation, importantly, is not just placing your fingers anywhere on the fretboard, playing random guitar licks, or running up the neck in a chromatic scale. It’s not random, and nor is it the magic outburst of a guitar solo.

Improvisation, rather, is the combination of ear training, learned guitar licks, and knowledge of the fret board. It’s these three things that enable you to string together guitar solos.

Can You Work on Improvisation?

With improvisation, you have to know the guitar basics. You won’t be able to improvise without some grasp of the fundamental major and minor chords, without some knowledge of some scales – the pentatonic, say – and an interest in listening clearly to their sound.

The latter here is a skill that you should seek to cultivate from the most novice of a beginner guitar player. Yes, learn your fingerstyle, your rock guitar tablature, and how to read music. But think about your playing actually sounds: how a note sounds alongside a particular arpeggio or how a particular barre chord sounds in a particular progression.

Santana improvising on the guitar Improvise solos like Carlos Santana!

This is the basis of improvisation. Because what you are doing in improvisation is finding the most interesting notes to play over the top of some basic chords (you’ll very rarely improvise without accompaniment). The beauty of a guitar solo is in the relationship between the melody played by the soloist and the chords beneath it.

And this is something that you can easily work on in your guitar practice. Improvisation is not something that takes place literally on the spot. Rather, it is the result of a knowledge of lots of different licks and lines. All guitar solos from all guitar songs will help you get the sense of how you can solo yourself. You can borrow harmonies and chord shapes from classical guitar, from acoustic guitar players, and you can take the blues licks from your favorite songs by Clapton and Hendrix and make them your own.

Soloing is all about borrowing from other guitarists – and this is completely okay.

It’s the same with the guitar: improvising is using existing vocabulary (notes and rhythms) but playing them in a different manner, according to your style.

The Importance of Scales

It’s impossible to improvise if you don’t know the basics – and this means learning your scales.

A guitar neck with scale notation Learn how to play the guitar: learn your scales.

Unless you have an innate talent or extraordinary feeling, unless you know how to reproduce any sound on the guitar, the scales will be a solid basis and reference point for any improvising that follows. They are a great tool for navigating the guitar neck, and for finding the notes and tonalities that you will need for your lead guitar.

It’s certainly possible to improvise without being familiar with the scales but you will still be confronted with two serious problems: first, you won’t necessarily get the results you want, and secondly, the sounds you create won’t necessarily function together – and won’t function with the rhythm guitar.

The Main Scales for Improvising on the Guitar

The main scales to learn by heart are the pentatonic scale (a scale of five notes + the so-called tonal note of the upper octave), the major scales and the minor scales. The blues scale won’t hurt (and this will come easily). It helps to learn how to play guitar arpeggios on all parts of the guitar neck too.

All of these scales provide the main ingredients to improvisation, but you can already find enough in the pentatonic scales, the major scales, and the natural minor scale.

The harmonic and melodic minors – and the ‘modes’ – are more for enhancing your playing.

Getting Started with Improvisation by Playing the Guitar

To learn guitar improvisation, begin with an easy scale, let’s say the scale of C major. Play the notes in the traditional order before beginning to work in a different order, begin by “creating” your own sequence while staying with the same notes of the C major scale.

It helps if you can record yourself playing a few open chords first. If we’re in C Major, try C, D, then G major. Play with strumming patterns until it sounds cool. Loop it a few times and you’ve made yourself a backing track – hopefully the first of many backing tracks!

Now get jamming. See which notes on C Major scale sound best over the different chords – and then try to string some notes together. This, really, is the key to learning guitar improvisation.

Little by little, you as a guitarist are going to develop an ear for the guitar and you’ll find yourself choosing the notes: these are the first steps of improvisation.

Improvisation Is Maintaining Freedom

Improvisation is the greatest freedom.

The only thing that’s required is that it sounds good. Yet, don’t get too bogged down with this: an excessive concern with sounding good will stifle your guitar learning. Make mistakes, explore, and you’ll sound a lot better than if you only play the safe notes.

Even if it seems as if there are no musical rules in improvisation, certain things function better than others: we’re talking about theoretical tools.

Here’s a video of “blues” improvisation:

These tools, if you’ll recall, are the chords.

The more you can play chord sequences, the more you’ll develop your technique (left or right hand) and the more you’ll train your ear for music.

By working on and keeping a regular schedule in your practice of the guitar, you will learn the basics, which you will then unlearn as you create your own sequences of chords. Once you know how to play the guitar, improvisation will quickly become one of your favorite hobbies.

It is often by starting with a classic that one stumbles upon a wonderful idea.

How Do You Improvise?

When you get started with the guitar, you reproduce the notes that you’ve heard from other guitarists. These notes take on a real sense of quality when they sound perfect, and then when you succeed in being able to identify them.

Before anything else, you’re going to learn these ready-made sentences, segments, bites, riffs, gimmicks, melodies, intros, parts of solos, or even entire solos because these are easier.

Forced to play the same things over and over, you will understand that there are similarities between these musical sentences, and little by little you’ll integrate them into the context into which they make the best sense.

If you get stuck in the process of learning improvisation, a guitar teacher should be able to help get you moving again. If this happens, just a few guitar lessons should be enough to help you overcome your being stuck. The guitar courses will help you regain confidence in your playing.

Learning to Create Your Own Musical Sentences

These initial steps might take some time but are necessary because once you master all of these sentences and notes, you’ll know how to combine frameworks – as well as how to create your own musical sentences and adapt them to your mood at the moment.

The more your musical language is enriched, the more your playing will be fluid and the more you’ll be able to add new elements to your creations.

If you have never played guitar before, you should consider taking guitar lessons for beginners before launching yourself into the marvellous world of guitar improv!

How Do You Avoid the Pitfalls of Improvisation?

One of the pitfalls of improvisation is going in circles.

In improvisation, you often use the same sentences that you know by heart; you try to use them to their full potential, to change them, transform them, to adapt them, and then these sentences become part of your vocabulary.

You’ve integrated them into your musical language and to your guitar playing.

Again, don’t be afraid to ask experienced guitarists for help: how do you play the guitar more quickly, how do you play one-handed, etc…

On the one hand, it’s an advantage because you can use these musical sentences in any musical context, but it’s also a hindrance because these sentences lose their freshness, their novelty, they become your “new basics.”

You’re going to need to learn new things in order to discover new horizons, in order to feel like you’re reinventing yourself.

Knowing How to Reinvent Yourself

The best way to avoid the pitfalls of improvisation is to reinvent yourself constantly, to always be looking for new techniques to pick up, new sentences to develop, new styles to hit on your strings, to switch between all the techniques that you’ve accumulated.

How do you that?

  • Copy other guitarists and learn their sentences, their riffs. You will develop your own sense of improvisation as you draw inspiration from outside resources as needed. Inspire yourself with their style in order to create your own.
  • Transform what you’ve already mastered. If you feel like you’re always playing the same chords, in the same order, in the same way, modify your rhythm, change a few notes or play the notes in the reverse order, or skip every other note. It’s important to try these things, even if it seems absurd – because it is often in one of these moments that an original idea pops up.
  • Find other sources of inspiration. To play the guitar, it’s not enough to seek inspiration from guitar riffs alone. Listen to other instruments like the trumpet, the sax, the piano, the cello, or the violin to understand how the notes and chords are put together on these instruments. The sentences will surely be different than on a guitar, which will give you a second wind in your improvisation.
  • Forget what you know. Whether it’s the chords, the arpeggios, or the scales, try to unlearn and to improvise in a totally freestyle way, by disavowing all theory. It’s possible that there will be some bad notes, some strange sequences that won’t agree with anything musical, but you’ll be unstuck in your playing and that’s what will help you enrich your musical vocabulary.
  • Record yourself. Every time you pick up your guitar, record yourself playing for fifteen minutes. During this time, improvise entirely. Even if you hit some bad notes, even if the melody falls short of your expectations, this short quarter of an hour will be productive, and it’s very likely that you’ll succeed in unleashing something interesting, something new. Instead of running the risk of forgetting this little bit of musical magic that you’ve played haphazardly, you can quickly find it again in order to fine tune it.

Some Last Advice for Improvisation on the Guitar

Whatever happens, in order to improvise, try to the opposite of what you usually do:

Do you play with a pick? Try to play with your fingers.

Do you usually play in the treble range, or beyond the twelfth fret? Try closer to the head, in the first frets, and try to play the deeper range.

Do you usually begin your arpeggios or your chords with the same sequence? Forbid yourself from doing that and force yourself to use another.

You can always for help from your private teacher during your guitar lessons. S/he might even give you advice for playing guitar by ear

Get Off the Beaten Track When You Improvise

With improvisation, you need to break your habits, which will eventually happen with a lot of work on the instrument, but also on yourself.

Don’t forget that it’s important to reinvent yourself through improvisation and to always find pleasure in incorporating new ideas into your playing.

If you’ve gotten to a decent level on the instrument, barriers beyond that are essentially psychological: give yourself time to create your own melodies, learn to appreciate good instincts, take note of them and advance step by step.

Lastly, improvisation on the guitar, like all musical styles, is sustained by emotion, for yourself and for your listener, don’t be afraid to tell a story.

Two guitarists improvising together. Nothing better than jamming with a fellow guitarist

The story is often more important than the sound of the chords, that’s why it’s important not to neglect this in your improvisations, the groove, the swing, the feeling, the intensity, the fun, the emotion, etc., and try to create an climax in your playing, often towards the end of your improvising.

If you still want more from yourself, why not follow some of these methods for learning the guitar?

Guitar Lessons

Along with the drums, the guitar is one of the most common instruments in modern day music. The majority of bands these days will have a drumkit on stage, a guitar, a bass guitar and perhaps a keyboard, and we’ve just become so accustomed to seeing the guitar in everyday musical performances that some might be fooled into thinking that anyone can pick one up and play.

While there are many people who play the guitar badly (and good on them for trying and enjoying it!), being good really is a skill and something that needs hard work.

As well as being common, the guitar is also one of the most versatile means of making music in contemporary music. It appears in almost every genre and style of music from the last few decades – from blues and jazz to folk, hip-hop, classical, metal, and pop. What’s funny is that the guitar is so iconic that even people who can’t even play one note love to have one on display, almost like a statement piece that says ‘I like music’ or ‘I’m cool, I own a guitar’ (come on, lots of us are guilty of this!).

But you don’t have to just pretend to love the guitar, you can actually pick it up and play with a little help!

The big UK cities have a wealth of opportunities for listening to live music (really useful for any budding musicians), for taking your very first guitar lesson, or for progressing further as a professional musician. Whatever your age or your preferred musical styles, and whatever you want to get out of your instrument, you’ll find the place to achieve those goals right there in front of you. That is, if you know where to look…

London is a great place to learn anything, boasting world-class facilities in nearly every field, including music. For guitar and other instruments, you’ll find some of the most prestigious educational institutions, live music venues, music shops and professional teachers – for people of any age.

As we know, London also has some of the most well-regarded music schools and conservatoires in the UK and in the world. The Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama are probably the best known and, if you are lucky enough to attend these schools, you can be sure that your musical path will flourish.

Other options, which aren’t as academically prestigious, but which will nonetheless prepare you for a professional career in the music industry, include the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance and Tech Music School. These offer full-time diplomas and degrees in music production, music business, or music tech, as well as in musical instruments. You will probably be studying more contemporary music than classical if that’s what you’d prefer.

It’s worth pointing out that these institutions are not designed for beginners. They are, rather, intended for people who are serious about careers in music.

Taking Lessons In Guitar Playing With A Tutor

Superprof

You don’t have to enrol on a fancy college course or spend an absolute fortune on guitar classes with a professional musician boasting decades of experience to get good. Some of the most famous guitarists around will tell you that they taught themselves how to play the instrument up in their bedroom!

However, to get ahead that bit quicker, there are many accomplished individuals seeking to pass on their skill on the string instrument via Superprof.

Some may be trained in teaching music theory whilst others may be ex-musicians. Another option you may come across on the website, one that’ll possibly be easier on your wallet, is the opportunity to work with conservatory or university music students. These younger, less seasoned teachers may be better placed to teach you the basics in a more logical way, having not so long been a beginner themselves. Also, if you’re young yourself, you may find this a more fun way to learn.

Always available for your learning needs, Superprof features guitar tutors with varying levels of experience and offering different rates.

With this platform, you can either choose a tutor based in your area, one who either has a studio or will come to your home. Another option would be online classes via video link, which could save you money in the long run – no travelling time to and from lessons, and your tutor might give you a discounted rate because s/he won’t have to travel, either!

You might also be interested in knowing that most Superprof tutors give their first hour of lessons at no charge, just to see if you two would learn well together. With such an offer, how could anyone not choose that option?

Learning the guitar over Internet connection is also great for those who have busy lives and need to schedule in lessons with minimal disruption to their routine like having to travel to a studio or tidy up in preparation for a visit from a tutor. And it’s not as hard as you think, it’s really no harder to looking in a guidebook for inspiration. In fact, it’s easier because the person on the other end of the connection can give you instant feedback!

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