How To Improvise On Guitar – 17 Clear Tips

Imagine getting a new guitar and learning to play. But you quickly find that just playing chord progressions is boring and is holding you back from reaching your full potential.
How to improvise on guitar

Before you quit, consider learning how to improvise on guitar. That way, you can play a wicked solo in your next band rehearsal and recreate that solo in a concert. 

Learning how to improvise over any chord progression is probably one of the most fun and rewarding experiences you’ll have with this instrument. It’s simply awesome, and allows for your creative juices to overflow. Read on to learn what goes into improvising.

What You Will Need To Follow This Tutorial

If you want to learn how to improvise on the guitar, you’ll need a good instrument. And by that I mean a guitar you like and enjoy, that is set up exactly the way you like it.

If you haven’t already you should also invest in a metronome. Rhythm and timing is an essential tool for playing solos. Practicing with a metronome will help keep you from speeding up or slowing down. This is a step I overlooked myself for a while, and so I urge you to not make that same mistake. Timing is super important, and is the main factor in creating any kind of music.

Another excellent tool is of course your phone or computer. That way, you can play backing tracks that you can improvise over.

If you prefer to play with other musicians, that is an excellent route to take.

Finally, it helps to get a music theory book or some worksheets. You can also find tutorials online to learn how to read music and understand chords and keys. Not essential, but it certainly helps.

Luckily, you don’t need all of these things to start learning to improvise. But you’ll need them eventually, so collecting them all at once doesn’t hurt.

Step-by-Step Instructions

When you’re ready to learn improvisation, take a closer look at the steps below. There are many different ways to learn how to improvise. So if some of the following steps don’t work for you, move on to the next one.Give them all a try to see what works best for you. Then, you can repeat those steps when practicing improvisation in the future.

1. Study Music Theory

One of the most overlooked parts of improvising is understanding the structure of the music. Music theory can help you do this by teaching you about different keys. In music, there are 12 major and 12 minor keys.

It would be best if you studied all of those keys and their respective scales and arpeggios. Then, you can learn common chord progressions, such as 2-5-1. Learn that progression in all of the keys to prepare for most improv backing tracks.

2. Learn Guitar Fundamentals

If you are a complete beginner, you need to work on the fundamentals of playing the guitar first and foremost. First, make sure you know the tuning notes for all six strings. Then, compare those pitches to the ones associated with each of the frets.

Make sure you’ve got the basics down, like all the open chords and a few strumming patterns. Having somewhat synhcronised hands and a basic understanding of rhythm and time signatures is a must. Practice coordinating your plucking and strumming with chord or scale changes in your dominant hand.

3. Apply the Music Theory

Next, you need to apply some music theory basics to your guitar playing. Start by playing scales. There is no easy way out of this one, so you gotta get familiar with the various scales, at least the Pentatonic scale and the Major and Minor scales.

Learn one key at a time. Eventually, you’ll want to learn all of the keys since you never know what key you’ll improvise in.

4. Start Playing

Eventually, you’ll need to pick up your guitar and start improvising. So once these scales are under your belt you can start testing the ground. You can improvise on your own without a backing track at first. Choose a key, and start playing scales, arpeggios, or any other good combination of notes.

5. Use a Backing Track

After you get a bit of experience improvising on your own, add a backing track. You can find tons of backing tracks on YouTube in different keys, so use a few tracks to practice.

Nothing fancy at all, just single notes here and there. Play slowly and methodically, and experience how the different notes sound over the chord progression. Which ones do you like, which ones sound good to land on?

Even though you’re playing really easy lines at this point, staying in time with the music is vital. And remember, speed is not important. You’re just getting familiar with navigating the fretboard.

As you improvise, consider what you like and don’t like. Improvising can feel a bit awkward at first, so don’t worry if you sound weird. The most important part of the step is to start improvising.

Listen to the chord changes, and use different scales or arpeggios to match. Practice improvising over the same backing track until you know the chord changes. Then, you can learn new tracks.

6. Practice Scale Patterns

After you get comfortable practicing these scales, it’s time to expand them so that you can play them effortlessly over the entire fretboard. 

If blues and rock is more your thing, make sure you nail all five positions of the pentatonic scale. Feel free to check out our deep dive into the Blues Pentatonic Scale.

If you’d rather focus on your Major and Minor scales, how to move them around the entire fretboard and how to access the 7 modes, check out Guitar Modes Explained.

You can also play scales in fourths, fifths, and sixths. Learning these patterns will give you even more options to choose from when improvising a solo.

7. Practice in All 12 Major and Minor Keys

At first, it can be smart to stick with easier keys for improvisation. That way, you won’t have to think about the notes as much, so you can focus on playing a good solo. However, it would help if you eventually started improvising in all major and minor keys.

If you need help figuring out where to start with your improvisation, play the scale based on the key. For example, when improvising in G major, start with a G major scale. You can also play the relative minor scale, which is E minor.

You can expand your practice slowly with the circle of fifths. After learning to improvise in G major, you might move to D major and then A major. Eventually, you can work your way back to G major before moving to E minor and going through all the minor keys.

8. Learn Arpeggios

It’s also a good thing to learn regular arpeggios, which include the root, third, and fifth of a chord. For example, a G major arpeggio uses the notes G, B, and D. The next type of arpeggio you can learn is the seventh. The major 7th tone lies one semitone (one fret) down from the root. So, wherever our root note is, we know the major 7th will sit just below it!.

Learn these arpeggios for all of the major and minor keys. Then, add them to your guitar practice rotation to keep them fresh in your brain for your next improv session.

So an easy way to get started is to play the arpeggios for each of the chord changes. For example, in G major, the 2-5-1 progression would use the notes A, C, and E for the 2 chord. The 5 chord would use D, F#, and A, and the 1 chord uses G, B, and D.

Follow the chord changes of the backing track. Then, you can incorporate more interesting lines than simple scales.

9. Listen to Different Genres of Music

You can improvise a solo in many genres, from classical to jazz to rock. Listen to your favorite genre to play, and find all kinds of songs in that more comprehensive style. For example, you can listen to bebop, bossa nova, and big band music if you like jazz.

Get a feel for the different subgenres and how they compare. For example, consider whether the music is fast and upbeat or slow and steady. That can help you decide how to structure your solo if you want to improvise within a particular style.

10. Find Improv Recordings

As you listen to music, look for recordings of performers improvising. You can find recordings of guitarists as well as other musicians. Look for players whose styles you enjoy, and use those recordings to inspire your own improv.

Think about what you like most about certain solos. Then, try to play along with those solos to get an idea of how to create your own solos. Otherwise, listen, and write down your favorite parts, then keep those things in mind when you improvise.

11. Work on Your Aural Skills

If you want to get really good at improvising on the guitar, you should learn how to play music by ear. You can learn a lot from the written page, but your ear can take you further. Good aural skills can help you stay on top of the backing track and keep your solo in tune.

It’s also helpful if the backing track or group changes the key. Then, you’ll know you need to start using different chords or notes in your improvisation.

12. Improvise to Your Favorite Song

If you want to avoid the hassle of learning the chords of a backing track from scratch, just find your favorite songs on YouTube or Spotify and play along to them. Of course, you can improvise to the regular version, but you can also look for a karaoke version if you prefer instrumentals.

Assuming you know the song well, figuring out the key should be easy. Then, you can apply the same steps to this improvisation as with any other backing track.

13. Jam With Others

You can get good at improvisation on your own. That is absolutely certain. However, you’ll want to improvise with other musicians at some point.

Join a band, or maybe join a local jam session. Ask if you can improvise a solo over one of their tracks to get practice. Or start your own band.

Playing with others requires you to adapt on the fly, and it can feel better than just playing with a recording. It’s a fantastic way to develop as a musician, and will help you greatly on your road to improv heaven.

14. Consider Taking Lessons

If you can’t join a band, another way to play with others is to find a guitar teacher. You can ask to spend your lessons working on your improv skills.

The teacher can also help you learn music theory. Plus, the teacher can play some chords while you improvise a solo. Lessons can feel less overwhelming than a band rehearsal, so this is a good option if you still need to be more confident.

15. Record Yourself

When you start improvising, consider recording yourself. After you finish, listen to the recording and consider what you do or don’t like about the solo. This can help you develop your style, and you can develop a better solo the next time.

You can use your smartphone or computer to record your playing. Keep all of your recordings in a folder, and you can revisit your oldest recordings after a few months to see how far you’ve come.

16. Change the Rhythm

You may start improvising by playing quarter notes or eighth notes. To make things more interesting, stick with your scales and arpeggios. However, try different rhythms, such as swinging the eighth notes instead of playing straight eighths.

Another option is to play a dotted quarter followed by an eighth note. Experiment with all sorts of rhythms, and find ones that make the most sense for each genre you like to play. Use slides, bends and vibratos for more spice.

17. Improvise as Much as Possible

If you want to improve, you need to practice improvising as much as possible. Spend a few minutes each day improvising a solo. You can do this with a backing track, over your favorite song, or without any instrumentals.

It also helps to vary the musical genres you use for improvisation practice. After a while, you’ll start to get more comfortable with improvisation.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to improvise on guitar is a great way to expand your skills. And a ton of fun! 

Learning how to improvise will give you a tool that will allow you to play with more musicians in any setting. And if you learn how to improvise in most scales, there won’t be much you can’t do!

You’ll get that long sought after confidence to play with others, that spells musical freedom. An amazing feeling to put it mildly. 

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