Don’t get me wrong, learning all your favorite songs by the bands that got you into guitar in the first place can be incredibly rewarding, as can writing your own music, but at a certain point, you can ignore improvisation no longer.
As you advance as a guitarist, you won’t just be playing in a vacuum (or your bedroom anyway), you’ll be meeting other musicians, and inevitably, some of them are going to want to have a jam session with you, something you won’t take too easily if you can’t improvise on your guitar.
It’s no good shirking all these potentially fruitful musical partnerships because you’re not sure how to think on your
feet fingers in the moment, so let’s discuss a simple step-by-step guide to improvising on the guitar.
1. Learning the Notes up the Fretboard
If you haven’t already done it, your first port of call should be to learn the notes up the fretboard. This is how you’re going to know where to play your improvisations.
I know this can be quite daunting, and I bet the fretboard has never seemed longer, but It’s actually super easy.
First, we need to establish the open notes of each string, which in standard tuning, are as follows, E, A, D, G, B, E.
You can make a fun acrostic-style sentence with them if it will help you remember. How about Earwigs – Always – Drive – Great – Big – Elephants…terrible, I know. Please feel free to make your own superior sentence.
Now we can just follow the alphabet as we run up the fretboard, but before we give it a go, there are two important things left to learn. First of all, the musical alphabet only goes as far as G, after which, we return to A and start over again. Secondly, running up the fretboard, there are sharps between every note except for E and B.
For example, on the low E string, you’d start with the open note, which, of course, is E, then the 1st fret would go straight to F, then the second fret would be F sharp. It’s not until we hit the 3rd fret that the F fully transforms into a G.
That G will be followed by a G sharp on the 4th string, then back to A on the 5th, A sharp on the 6th fret, then B on the 7th, but remember B doesn’t have a sharp, so the 8th fret goes straight up to a C. Continue all the way up to the 12th fret where you’ll reach E once again.
So, to help you remember, let’s allocate E and B a pair of words. Let’s go with elephants for E and bugs for B. Each time you encounter an elephant or bug on the fretboard, it’s your cue to skip the sharps on the next fret.
How to Take it Further – Once you get good at this, you can learn where all the octaves are on the fretboard too, which will be tons of help during improvisations.
2. Identifying Root Notes
Before you can lay down a tasty lick or solo over a chord or drone, you need to be able to figure out what the root note (key) is. The root note is the first and most dominant note in a chord. It tells you what the chord is. The root note of an A major chord, for example, is A, and the root note of a C chord is, you’ve guessed it…C.
If you can’t identify the key by ear, now that you know the notes on the fretboard, you can use your eyes, or simply ask your jam partner what key they’re in.
Locate the note on your fretboard, and voilà, that’s your starting point for the improvisation.
3. Learning a Scale
Next up is learning what other notes besides the root note can be played over a drone or chord. You can do this by learning scales.
The go-to scale most players learn first is the Pentatonic Minor scale. The reason being, it’s easy to remember and doesn’t require much finger strength or articulation to play.
It goes a little something like this…
To start improvising, all you have to do is learn this pattern, then play the notes in the pattern in different orders using the root note as the starting point.
So, for example, in the image, the scale is played on the 5th fret, which is an A, so if someone is playing a chord progression that starts with A, any of the notes in that pattern will sound fantastic over the top.
If the chord progression started in, let’s say, G, you can improvise with the same pattern, but your starting note would slide from the A, down to the G on the third fret, or more likely, the G on the 15th fret for a face-melting solo.
How to Take it Further – Once you’ve mastered the first Pentatonic Minor pattern, there are four more to learn, each covering the same notes, but on different sections of the fretboard. Once you learn them all, instead of playing across the fretboard, you can also play up it.
After you’ve learned all five Pentatonic Minor patterns, rinse and repeat with a different scale.
4. Following the Chords
Okay, so here’s the thing, you can just play the same fixed pattern throughout a chord progression, but that’s no fun, for the ears or the fingers, so to spice things up, you can shift your scale position to match the chord changes.
So taking our example from earlier, if we’re playing our pentatonic scale on the 5th fret over an A chord, then the second chord was a G, we would slide the pattern up to the G at the 15th fret, and continue improvising.
How to Take this Further – Learning the chord tones (notes in the chord) will help you pick out notes in your solo that fit nicely over said chord, as well as smooth over the transition from soloing on one chord to the next.
This is a very basic crash course on how to improvise on the guitar, but hopefully, it’s been enough to open a few musical doors for you and get your creative juices flowing.
Once you know a few different scales, you can use practically infinite note combinations to make increasingly interesting sounds. See you on stage, rock star!