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A Guide to Successfully Improvising on the Guitar

By Emma, published on 11/07/2017 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, because music is a universal language.

So before you start learning the guitar, work on your improvisational skills!

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Can You Work on Improvisation?

When you decide to get started on this adventure that is the guitar, you quickly discover that there are some basics to learn, notably in the form of scales, the main major and minor chords, and the positioning of your fingers on the neck.

improvisation skills guitar learn Improvise solos like Carlos Santana!

Once you master these different aspects, you can start thinking about improvisation.

To better understand how to get rolling with improvisation, you should approach it like learning a language.

After all, aren’t music and the guitar another form of expression?

To improvise is to use all of the techniques you know, along with theory, together, applying them to the guitar.

When you speak, you improvise based on what you already know: you don’t invent grammar or vocabulary, but instead you create sentences in real time, with content and style appropriate to what you want to say.

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.

guitar scales improvising Know the scales: the basis of improvisation.

Unless you have 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.

It’s certainly possible to improvise without being familiar with the scales but you will still 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.

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 pentatonic scale, the minor pentatonic scale, the major scales, the minor scales, the harmonies, and the melodies.

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 scales and melodies are more for enhancing your playing.

Getting Started with Improvisation by Playing the Guitar

To start out improvising, 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.

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.

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” (electric guitar) improvisation:

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

The more you can play chord sequences, the more you’ll develop your technique (main and/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 and these notes take on a real 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.

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 an 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 this 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 free style, 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:

You play with a pick? Try to play with your fingers.

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.

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.

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.

music improvise guitar Tell a story (a musical one)!

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 take some guitar courses?

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