3 Simple Steps on How To Improvise On The Guitar
I was around 16 years old when i first tried to improvise. I remember we had a gig coming up and I need to fill in some lead guitar parts.
I had very little to no knowledge of scales, but my friend and band mate at the time had learned a secret weapon, the pentatonic scale!! He was basically ripping up and down the scale over every song we played and it sounded really cool!
This made me kind of jealous because I had no idea what he was doing. The first thing i tried to do was to play the notes of the chord i was playing over. With trial and error I eventually figured I could just deconstruct any chord that was being played, use those notes to improvise and it should sound cool. And this is where it all started!
So, if you're anything like me you will understand exactly that feeling I was telling you about. However, luckily for you, over the years I have found a system that I am now teaching my students and that I will be sharing with you in today's lesson!!
Understanding the Key of the Track
First, we need to take into consideration the key of the song that we are playing or the backing track that we are going to play over. For example, if the track is in a major key, then we are going to use specific scales - the most basic ones would be the major scale of that key or the pentatonic major scale of that key.
So for example, if the track is in A major, we can use:
- The A major scale.
- The A major pentatonic scale.
Both would work perfectly fine.
And for those who are a little more advanced and knowledgeable about this, you could also use the relative minor scale. So in the case of an A major:
- The F# minor scale.
- The F# minor pentatonic scale.
But for the sake of this lesson, let's just stick to the major scale, particularly the A major scale.
And just to make sure we are all on the same page, I'm going to share with you the A major scale shape that I am going to use.
The Shapes Of The Major Scale Used For Improvisation In This Lesson
We will use A major scale CAGED shape and/or 3nps shape
A Major Scale Position 1.
A Ionian Position (E Shape).
Next, we need to get comfortable playing the scale over the track.
So I'm not saying to only learn the scale, but instead, I am suggesting that you memorize it and be comfortable playing it over the track for more freedom while improvising, to not be tied down to the diagram or be lost around the fretboard.
If you are already confident enough with your ability to move around the major scale you may skip this part.
Check the video lesson @3:31 for a visual demonstration and a more comprehensive tutorial.
Tip#2: It's important to play along the track without ignoring it. Don't just burst through the scale at your own pace, totally ignoring the track, but rather listen to the track and try to become one with it.
To adapt your playing to the track, it's important to understand:
-The tempo of the track. (How slow/fast it is going).
-The rhythm of the track.
-The chords of the track. (
For a more in depth view check out my ''Melodic Chord Tone Soloing''
Check the video lesson @4:10 for a visual demonstration and a more comprehensive tutorial.
Understanding The Chord Progression We're Improvising Over
Now the second step is all about the chords of the track. If you do not know the chords of the song, you can try searching through websites like Ultimate Guitar
since it's essential to understand the chords that make the track and learn how they are constructed.
Luckily, for the track I've chosen for us today, we mainly have two chords in the first section and a bunch of other chords in the second section. The important chords are, A major and D major.
Now what I want you to do is to choose a note from the A major scale that sounds amazing over the first chord (the A major chord), and then choose another note (also from the A major scale) that also sounds amazing for the second chord (the D major chord).
If you have no idea what note you should choose, you can follow the step-by-step approach I will share with you.
So to be on the safe side, the notes that usually sound good over a chord are the notes that also make that chord (also known as chord tones)
Check the video lesson @7:11 for a visual demonstration and a more comprehensive tutorial.
For starters, we're only going to play a note from inside the chord. And I can find the notes that form a chord by simply looking at my chord and trying to figure out the notes it has.
Note: You can use any chord shapes you might know to do so!
Find the notes that make up the chord, for example:
-A , E, and C#. (for A major)
-D, F#, and A. (for D major)
So over each chord, I'm going to choose one of those notes which are, as mentioned before, present in the major scale. We follow the same process for every chord on the backing track.
Note: we might have notes in common between chords, but it doesn't matter; you can choose the same note for both chords.
As a first example, I am going to choose to play a C# note over the A chord (we can choose any of the 3 that constitute the chord, but let's go with C# for now), and then I am going to choose the D note over the D chord.
Now, remember, those notes we're going to play are inside the A major scale.
We need to find them within the scale, for that, all you need to do is start counting while playing the major scale starting from the root note(A for us).
Feel free to use the diagram below for reference!
Check the video lesson at @8:45 for a visual demonstration and a more comprehensive tutorial.
So for our first example, in the A major scale, we can find the C# note on the G string fret 6, and the D note on the G string fret 7.
Note: If you need to practice finding/playing those notes alone first in order to memorize their place on the fretboard please do so.
Now let's try to play with the track!!
As we already mentioned I'm going to play:
-The C# note (G string fret 6) for the A chord.
-The D note (G string fret 7) for the D chord.
Here I used:
-The A note (D string Fret 7) for the A chord.
-The F# note (B string Fret 7) for the D chord.
Again, you could do this by ear or follow this method it doesn't matter, but I always recommend you follow this step-by-step approach whenever you are note sure of what notes to play over any given chord.
Also remember I could have chosen any other combination of notes among the A, C#, E for the A chord and the D,F#, A for the D chord.
Improvise On The Guitar Using Notes And Scales
Finally, this brings us to step 3, and now is where we begin to actually improvise!!
Disclaimer: Don't do this unless you feel really comfortable with the scales, and know how to find your notes within said scales, because if not, you are going to stumble and get frustrated. So make sure you get parts 1 and 2 down first!
Alright, now that we are confident with our ability to find the notes we've picked on the fly and our ability to play the major scale, then buckle up because from here onward, it's going to be extremely rewarding!
To make things more exciting and versatile, we are going to add passing notes in between our fundamental notes.
So let's go back to the example of playing A over the A chord and F# over the D chord, but to change it up a bit:
-At first, we were simply jumping from A to F# over the corresponding chord.
-Now, we will start adding passing notes or passing tones.
Play a few notes from the scale, in between our fundamental notes, so from A leading me to F# and back!
Note: The passing notes are acting as bridges connecting the main (fundamental) notes we chose, making your improvisation sound more melodic.
Check the video lesson @12:06 for a visual demonstration and a more comprehensive tutorial.
Lastly, here is a bonus step for you: improvise:
We've been doing this so far is a very linear/scalar way of going from A to F#, but you do not have to do this.
You can still rely on the fundamental notes bin this bonus step but not as much. You may alter them if you feel like it. You could change the chord tone combination you are using for each chord over different sections, and alternate between them as the progression repeats itself!
The most important thing to understand here is that you do not have to play the passing notes in a linear motion. You can change directions, skip notes, and go up and down the scale. Have fun with it!!
Check the video lesson @13:24 for a visual demonstration and a more comprehensive tutorial.
So, my friends, if you have followed the steps accordingly, you will soon see that you will start to gain more and more freedom while improvising.
What we have to do is:
1- first, understand the key of the track, its tempo, and its rhythm.
2- And then master and memorize the scale so that we can comfortably play over the track.
3- And knowing the track's chord progression will play an important role in the note choice during our improvisation.
Feel free to explore with passing notes and the other things you can do to spice things up. But, remember it is important to keep practicing them until you can come up with your own creative melodic improvisation.
I hope you enjoyed this lesson and that it helped you elevate your guitar playing. Now it's time to head over to part two of this series, where we kick things up a notch. Check out those easy-to-understand improvisation concepts and make your improvisation more exciting and more melodic!
P.S If you've been struggling with improvisation and want to create beautiful solos and melodies. Or, you simply want to reach your full potential and become the best guitar player you can be. Then you need to check out ''guitar elevation'', our premium guitar training program!