Expanding Your Options With Guitar Improvisation. Part 1

This approach to improvisation frees the beginner improviser from having to know theory to create some great sounds over a minor progression.

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More common than not when someone first learns the principles around improvisation (lead guitar) they learn it in a very linear fashion. This approach is supported by many books, DVDs, teachers and schools. Generally here is how it can go:

01. Learn Pentatonic Scale 02. Learn Pentatonic Scale all over the Neck 03. Learn Major Scale 04. Learn Major Scale all over the Neck 05. Learn Modes...

During this time of course there is a lot of time given to application of these scales by use of sequences, octaves, two handed approaches, triad improvisation, other applied theory... the options are endless! As a student myself learning this way and then as a teacher it made a lot of sense at first, one idea builds on another. One of the challenges I later faced as a teacher was helping beginner improvisers with the creative challenges behind all these concepts and theory. There was only so much they were able to get out of a pentatonic scale or a major scale. Even with all the approaches to it, many students just could not "get it".

One day I tried a different approach that broke through the barriers that were blocking their creativity. Before I go any further this approach works well for not just beginners but also for experienced players. The approach while simple is powerful in creating new possibilities for improvisation. It forces the mind to come up with solutions by boxing it in and only allowing it to work with limited parameters.

Here is how it works, as an example here are 3 "patterns":

patterns

What you will see are a pattern for Minor Pentatonic, Dorian and a Diminished Arpeggio. We would use these in a single position. For example if we played in C minor they would be used at the 8th fret. While in the long run you want to learn the notes that are represented "all over the neck" it's good to start in a single position because it forces you to focus on finding variety not in different positions but instead by navigating in and out of the different patterns. It's common at this point for one to say: "I don't know theory! What is a Dorian? What is an Arpeggio? I can't do this!" Remember we are getting away from a linear approach here. We are going to have some fun. The beauty of this approach I am sharing is that you don't need to know theory to start making some cool sounds. We can definitely cover that later though because in the long run music theory will expedite your learning and help you expand in many ways that you can't do by just experimenting alone. But first things first!

Let's imagine you have a backing track that is in C minor (if you need one I also provide one with the video lesson I mention in this article). You will see on the patterns some red dots. Think of these red dots as root notes of the patterns. So if your backing is in C minor you want your root note to be C. You will want to find the C note on the neck and then start your pattern placing that red dot on the C note. In all the patterns I have provided, root notes are on the 6th string. Let's look at minor pentatonic first. See that red dot on the 6th string? Imagine that red dot is on the 8th fret and start to play that pattern there. When you play this you are playing C minor pentatonic. If you were to do this on the 7th fret you would be playing B minor pentatonic.

Now lets look at the Dorian pattern. Like you did with minor pentatonic, go to the 8th fret and start playing the pattern there. This is C dorian. Finally do the same with the Diminished Arpeggio Pattern. See how this works now? If not there is an explanation of how you can get a video demonstration of this lesson.

Now it's time to find a backing track. As long as it is a C minor based track it should work for the purposes of what we are doing here in most cases but of course if it's in another key you know what to do. Just move the root notes (red notes) with the patterns accordingly. When you start to play these patterns over the track resist the temptation to move out of the position. Instead look for ways to use the patterns together by going in and out of pentatonic and dorian and throwing in the diminished arpeggio to spice things up.

Sometimes students will just jump in and start playing the patterns and the different notes and not really listen to what they are doing. Take some time to compare the differences between minor pentatonic and dorian. Find the additional notes that are in the dorian pattern and play them. Get used to the sounds they create. At first these may sound a bit strange but spend some time with it.

I would like to end this lesson with a challenge for those of you who can record yourselves. Jam over a backing with Minor Pentatonic only. Then jam with just Dorian. Then jam with the method I have proposed in this lesson. Then go back and give yourself a listen.

2008 Randy Johnson - All rights reserved

Randy Johnson is a Cincinnati based professional guitarist, recording artist, logic pro consultant and instructor based in Cincinnati, Ohio. A video version of this lesson is available for his newsletter.

60 comments sorted by best / new / date

    metallifan3091
    did anyone besides me ever realize that the minor pentatonic scale simply isolates certain intervals of its parallel dorian? my music teacher and i were talking about that a couple days ago, and its a useful revelation if you want to improvise well.
    vortexpassion
    tona_107 wrote: So, I signed up for his newsletter...Guess who he is allied with, the fascist dictator of UG articles TOM HESS. Haha it was hilarious because:hitman_47 wrote: ....
    Are you on drugs? What is your problem?
    thunderhans
    jice wrote: This guy is a member of one of Tom Hess's programs and is on a instructional tour with Tom also. More than half of the positive responses about this article are members of Hess' programs also. Maybe the article is OK maybe it states the obvious. I have been a member of one of Hess' programs and I am still not impressed but I've only just begun. I think you Hess bashers should back off though and You Hess members shouldn't rush out to support every Hessite article that comes out just to make it look like you got something out of it. Also even if a newsletter is free doesn't mean everyone wants to give out their email address to be spammed with stuff they don't want and have to maintain. Don't you people have anything better to do? Not me.
    You're right, 90% of the commments don't have any typos and are not full of flaming, so those have to be fakes...
    Paul Tauterouff
    thunderhans wrote: You're right, 90% of the commments don't have any typos and are not full of flaming, so those have to be fakes...
    LMFAO!
    FlyingBeerman
    Wait, this is a new idea? Cause I could've sworn I've seen this at dozens of sites for several years with scale patterns and the root is highlighted to let you know where it is. You then move the root around to whatever key you're in. This is transposing 101. Half of this thing is a well-written article. The other half where he takes credit for something he had nothing to do with, and talks himself up is an example of a stupid marketing gimmick. These ideas have been around for decades.
    Dagger7
    FlyingBeerman wrote: Wait, this is a new idea? Cause I could've sworn I've seen this at dozens of sites for several years with scale patterns and the root is highlighted to let you know where it is. You then move the root around to whatever key you're in. This is transposing 101. Half of this thing is a well-written article. The other half where he takes credit for something he had nothing to do with, and talks himself up is an example of a stupid marketing gimmick. These ideas have been around for decades.
    Most articles that people write are not new ideas. What kind of rock have you been living under? I think the article serves as a good reminder of concepts that many players forget and is good info. for those getting started.
    southpaw_tdg
    wow another tom hess article, full of filler text that tells you nothing and advertisments for news letter, BS. can we get a real writter one of these days
    Randy Johnson
    RWFAWCETT wrote: I signed up for the Newsletter and got nothing. WTF???
    The letter is released once a day, not instantly. If you have waited longer than that please contact me through my contact page and I will get you taken care of. My apologies for the inconvenience.
    Randy Johnson
    HA HA!! No I am not the pitcher. He has more money than me AND a lot more hair!!!!! LOL!!
    amir razmara
    More common than not when someone first learns the principles around improvisation (lead guitar) they learn it in a very linear fashion. If you read the first paragraph, he says "when someone first learns the principles around improvisation"!!! well...What are the principles around improvisation? it is certainly not taking 3 scales and combining them. He also mentions the word "creativity" let me just put it this way, when a 5 year old kid takes 3 food products and starts to combining them together he is not being creative he is being messy. If you are interested in figuring out what improvisation is about I suggest you break it down to it's different elements and do you own research so you could understand where to begin.
    TheBurningFish
    shreddyboy wrote: TheBurningFish wrote: Oh, and I also think you draw the Dorian mode funny, but maybe my teacher's wrong... It looks okay to me. Maybe your teacher showed you the 3-note per string version? Both would be right...
    Yeah I think that's the case.
    amir razmara
    More common than not when someone first learns the principles around improvisation (lead guitar) they learn it in a very linear fashion
    amir razmara
    If you read the first paragraph, he says "when someone first learns the principles around improvisation"!!! well...What are the principles around improvisation? it is certainly not taking 3 scales and combining them. He also mentions the word "creativity" let me just put it this way, when a 5 year old kid takes 3 food products and starts to combining them together he is not being creative he is being messy. If you are interested in figuring out what improvisation is about I suggest you break it down to it's different elements and do you own research so you could understand where to begin.
    Dagger7
    amir razmara wrote: He also mentions the word "creativity" let me just put it this way, when a 5 year old kid takes 3 food products and starts to combining them together he is not being creative he is being messy. If you are interested in figuring out what improvisation is about I suggest you break it down to it's different elements and do you own research so you could understand where to begin.
    Well Amir, there are not many 5 year olds here. Maybe one. Amir, could you post a track? Sounds like you are a great player who knows a lot. I would like to hear you play. And then could you post an article for us? By the way Randy I am still watching your vid and continue to get a lot from it. Please post another article soon!
    Antony Reynaert
    Hey Randy, I did follow your video and instructions given in the article and I had some great fun with the backing track. Thanks for the great article! Antony
    Ricardo Melo
    GREAT ARTICLE, BUT I DONT UNDDERSTAND VERY WELL THE GRAPHICS YOU MADE. BY THE WAY,DO YOU HAVE ANOTHER VIDEOS?
    E-dogg66
    I wish These kind of articles would tell the whole Story, It's like A great T.V. show that's coming to a Climax and then DA DA Da TO BE CONTINUED!!!!!
    Dagger7
    Ricardo Melo wrote: GREAT ARTICLE, BUT I DONT UNDDERSTAND VERY WELL THE GRAPHICS YOU MADE. BY THE WAY,DO YOU HAVE ANOTHER VIDEOS?
    There will be more videos for part II. In addition, pursuant to your comment and some requests I have received from others I will making a vid to explain the patterns for you better and how to play them.
    Randy Johnson
    Antony Reynaert wrote: Hey Randy, I did follow your video and instructions given in the article and I had some great fun with the backing track. Thanks for the great article! Antony
    I am glad you enjoyed it Antony!
    Randy Johnson
    ihavenoname93 wrote: yea but i want pitching lessons free too. randy johnson...i never knew he played gutar
    =) I have heard that the pitcher plays drums. Maybe he as drummer.com. =)
    Randy Johnson
    Ram_overdrive wrote: mm....well it looks promising ...let just see if it helps!
    If you get questions just let me know.
    Belgarion89
    Nick Layton wrote: Seriously, what's the problem with signing up to a newsletter to get free stuff. It's a win/win. I don't understand you people sometimes. Anyway, cool article man!
    I don't like getting spammed. All he's saying is listen to the backing track, which any idiot with a shred of common sense will tell you.
    Dagger7
    I saw your article and decided to join the Ultimate Guitar Comminity today Randy because I wanted to say don't listen to these guys. Your playing and teaching speaks for itself. These negative posters have no proof of their own. Keep up the good work! I look forward to your next article!
    Bluestube
    one thing i have started to to is to check if the article contains any links to tom hess, this one did not so it is probarly a good article will def read it later....
    Belgarion89
    ADVERTISING WARNING You need to subscribe to his newsletter to get to any of the backing tracks or videos. He also doesn't give us anything that isn't covered elsewhere on UG. This guy looks like just another Tom Hess.
    shreddyboy
    Subscribe to his newsletter and get free stuff - I don't see what is the problem with that? I am subscribed to all kinds of newsletters that give me not only free stuff, but info about the artist. It's 2008 and that's the way it is....
    Mike Breen
    Wait you mean you have to sign up for a FREE newsletter to get FREE lessons and stuff! Say it ain't so! What is this world coming to?
    Nick Layton
    Seriously, what's the problem with signing up to a newsletter to get free stuff. It's a win/win. I don't understand you people sometimes. Anyway, cool article man!
    hitman_47
    Belgarion89 wrote: ADVERTISING WARNING You need to subscribe to his newsletter to get to any of the backing tracks or videos. He also doesn't give us anything that isn't covered elsewhere on UG. This guy looks like just another Tom Hess.
    Whatever man. At least someone's bothering to put stuff like this up online. Its a great article.
    rickdimsey cs
    ADVERTISING WARNING You need to subscribe to his newsletter to get to any of the backing tracks or videos. He also doesn't give us anything that isn't covered elsewhere on UG. This guy looks like just another Tom Hess. Nah this guy is better because he actually teaches you something. Hess just finds a savvy way to tell you common sense.
    tommaso.zillio
    Belgarion89 wrote: ADVERTISING WARNING You need to subscribe to his newsletter to get to any of the backing tracks or videos. He also doesn't give us anything that isn't covered elsewhere on UG. This guy looks like just another Tom Hess.
    Gee, the guy's giving you things for free and you're complaining... I would have thanked him, but anyway... Article's very good.
    TheBurningFish
    Is this a common problem (not being able to creatively use a scale) ? I don't think I ever had it, nor have any of the people I've taught scales. But there must be at least some, I suppose...
    kwikfingers-uk
    This is a good article with some usefull info and incorperates a fresh idea to learning this stuff. its worth a read and i for one will be signing up to see if there's anything else i can learn from it.
    jice
    This guy is a member of one of Tom Hess's programs and is on a instructional tour with Tom also. More than half of the positive responses about this article are members of Hess' programs also. Maybe the article is OK maybe it states the obvious. I have been a member of one of Hess' programs and I am still not impressed but I've only just begun. I think you Hess bashers should back off though and You Hess members shouldn't rush out to support every Hessite article that comes out just to make it look like you got something out of it. Also even if a newsletter is free doesn't mean everyone wants to give out their email address to be spammed with stuff they don't want and have to maintain. Don't you people have anything better to do? Not me.
    lestat1836
    very good article, please write more of these Mr Johnson. Please ignore the ignorant comments from a few ignorant people here, they never represent the majority.
    shreddyboy
    TheBurningFish wrote: Oh, and I also think you draw the Dorian mode funny, but maybe my teacher's wrong...
    It looks okay to me. Maybe your teacher showed you the 3-note per string version? Both would be right...