I've been playing for quite some time now (roughly 10 years), and in that time, I've never really been the greatest at improvising. When I listen to a rhythm and find the key, I start picturing the notes that are in key on the fretboard. One of the issues I'm having is that I have a difficult time "leaving" that 3 note per string scale that I picture on the fretboard. I'll move between the modes of the scale, or start the scale an octave higher to try and switch it up, but most of my improvisation sounds stale or robotic. I blame starting off playing only metal, which tends to just grind up or down scales using a pattern for leads. Now that I'm moving onto to other styles, its very apparent that this doesn't apply well to different genres.

Anyone have advice on how to get better at improvising in key? Making it sound more interesting, soulful, or in general, less like I'm just playing a scale?
Last edited by Zan595 at Dec 29, 2016,
Some good imrov technques involve:

1. familiarize yourself with the main melody of the song. You can do variations of this melody as a part of the solo, and it always sounds like it fits right in. So make sure you can play the vocal/lead instrument melody fluidly and use that as a basis first.

2. Make sure you know the chords, and improvise around them. Target chord tones, and try to connect them with meaningful melodies.

3. Train your ears. Most of your improvisation comes from the ears - hearing what you should play in your head before playing it, and translating that to the guitar. So learn a lot of guitar solos by ear and you'll start noticing when what you're playing sounds good, and you can better anticipate what you need to play next.

And to break out of the scale boxes, try to limit your solos deliberately to force yourself to some new ground. Try to improvise only on one string, or only using one finger, stuff like that. It's pretty fun and can help you break out of the boxes. Just follow your ears, they'll tell you what you need to play.
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Theory: Not rules, just tools.

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*note that by fan i mean that guy who wants his friends to know he knows this totally obscure hip band that only he knows about with 236 views on youtube. lookin' at Kev here
Start thinking about the sounds you're making rather than the physical actions you're performing.

Theory isn't positions, frets and shapes. Theory is the relationships between different sounds.
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i wanna see a clip of a recto buying some groceries.

Zan595 +1 to what everyone else has said. To be clear, it is not the theory that is boxing you in- or that you know where the "right notes" are and the patterns of them across the fretboard, or even possibly knowing their relation to the background music, but rather what is boxing you in is your lack of ability to put the right notes (and some "wrong" ones) in a meaningful, memorable order. Playing over a backing track and dabbling in the scale for it is easy, but making a memorable improv, is much more difficult.

I have been playing for roughly the same amount of time and what I am finding is helping me are teachers on Youtube like David Wallimann. Check him out here. One of the videos he made is summarized by suggesting that you think of a melody as cheesy as possible, and then translate that thought onto the fretboard. You think (or hear) the sounds before you play them, rather than focusing on the physicality of the action as steven seagull said. And cheesy, simple, catchy melodies are likely to stick with you and stick with the audience.

Another video he produced is summarized by suggesting that you have two mental "cups". One cup is full of the fast, repetitive, memorized, etc. licks (like fast pentatonic runs) that you can bring out at any time in any key, without even have to think about it. The other cup is full of bits that you actually think about and put more of yourself into it. While you are playing, you are emptying one "cup" (say the licks cup) while the other cup (yourself cup) is being filled back up. So you somewhat alternate between the two. When the licks cup dries out, you start using the yourself cup, and while you are doing that the licks cup fills back up and when the yourself cup dries out, you go back to the licks cup. That is similar to something Greg Howe taught in another video. You use contrast to make parts of the solo standout. Rhythmic playing vs. non-rhythmic, fast vs. slow, tonal and atonal, etc.

Another good thing to do is push yourself out of your comfort zone. This will not only help your ear to hear the "right" notes (and how to use the wrong ones), but to understand the relationships between progressions that you are not familiar with. And really, just continue to practice.
You could try incorporating out of key notes. At first maybe just throw one in little short ones that lead directly into the in key note, using a little slide or hammer on.

I went through a period where I was basically just sticking strictly to the scale patterns. At some point me and one of the guys I was playing with started coming up with these weird little riffs that when soloing over you could basically play anything - just go completely chromatic - and it would work. As we started experimenting with that type of stuff we got to where we could find a nice groove where we could both improvise and go super chromatic and it would work. It allowed us to stop using scales and start using our ears. At first it sounded really angular and crazy, but when we could get it together it was really cool. Eventually I ventured back to the melodic side, but I no longer had any qualms about going "out there". I think doing that kind of thing helped me to figure out how all of the intervals sound and how those sounds can be used, which sounds are really dissonant, which aren't, how crazy things can get, and how to combine all that stuff with the normal scales and actually make it all sound fluid.

I think a good exercise would be to pick a note (one with an open string makes it easier), and just improvise around that note, with no scale in mind at all. All notes are available, but center it all around that one note. Go crazy, don't be afraid of dissonance, but use your ears, think about rhythms, listen to melodies in your head. If you're purposely trying to use all of the notes it forces you to use your ears more and expands your sonic vocabulary. Then try changing to a different note as your root and switch back and forth. Then try it with a full chord in mind, outlining chord tones as you're improvising, then try a chord progression. At some point when you start keeping chords and progressions in mind you'll end up using a lot of the usual scales again, but hopefully while still reaching for those "out notes"

I think the most important thing when improvising is good phrasing, but I also feel like constricting yourself to the "right" notes can leave everything sounding really vanilla. For me to be able to spice things up I had go completely fucked off for a while and then work my way back. Now I still use scales, but I just think of them as an outline. All of the notes can be played, the scale is just to keep me oriented, to keep track of which are the normal notes. And there can be beautiful solos that stick strictly to the pentatonic scale as well, I'm just saying that by forcing myself to not use scales I really improved my ear and moved away from just letting my fingers regurgitate scale patterns.
It's definitely a good idea to work outward from familiar melodies. Even if it's something ridiculously simple like "three blind mice" (mi re do), it gives you a foundation to which you apply your technique, and from there you can work your way to less familiar sounds.

Learning melodies - like really learning learning, from ear and memory - is probably the most effective singe thing you can do to support your improv ability. Remember that you're having a conversation, and people do not speak in letters and punctuation marks. They speak in sounds and gestures and meanings, and you have to learn the language in order to converse. Your basic music vocabulary is scales, arpeggios, chords, and such, but they're just organizational concepts, not musical dictates or customs. You should practice them, but the point is to coordinate your technique and fretboard knowledge so that you have basic material to build upon (and so you don't have to think about what notes are in the chord/key at the moment).

Remember also that improvisation doesn't mean trying to make sounds nobody has ever heard before. There might be a few dozen people on the whole planet making genuinely new sounds. It sounds counterintuitive, but improvisation takes practice. Not just practicing improvising, which is important, but practicing the skills that you take into the improv arena. Your technique, your vocabulary, your aural acuity, your theory knowledge. If there are sounds you want to explore, sit down and work them out on your own before you put on your jams. Practice the chords and melodies and rhythms you want to use. Count along with the tack and make a point of getting things right.
Last edited by cdgraves at Dec 30, 2016,
Zan, I get the impression that you are using 3 nps as follows (for example, with the major scale) ... starting at 8th fret, bass string, you get C major. Starting at the 10th fret, you get D Dorian. 12th fret, E Phrygian, and so on. Is that how you are thinking? Or, do you see these all as different patterns of C major on the neck. If it's the former, then I'm not surprised you're having problems.

3 nps is a great way of navigating at speed, but chord visualisation is a lot harder ... it mostly results in arpeggio patterns that are a blur of two adjacent different chord shapes, for the same chord. Whereas if you use regions, or CAGED, chord visualisation around the same area of the neck is a lot easier, so making smooth connections melodically, using chord tones, is much easier.

Ultimately, it's very useful to be able to find intervals from anywhere on the guitar. This means you can find the roots of chords in a key (interval from key centre to a chord's root), and intervals within chord (from chord root) ... this takes a trivial amount of learning (for example, learninjg the shapes for octaves, major and minor 3rds, 5ths, and major and minor 7ths takes literally 5-10 minutes a day for a few days). You also want to try and sing (some of) these, and make up really simple melodies using these, when you're driving, etc. This will make your ear develop much quicker.

For me, I can accurately produce about 20% (?) of what I hear, but because I know my way round, and understand the relationsips going on, I can happily experiment with the rest, that I either roughly hear, of just literally play because I know a given interval will (or won't) work in the current context ... though to be honest, I'm not really thinking much when playing, rather than using experience, and reacting to what i'm hearing (e.g. return a phrase played by someone else) or being proactive. At most, usually, I'm choosing end notes of phrases, and where in time I'll start and stop. I am very aware of the rhythm, the strong and weak beats ... that makes a huge difference.

I wish I'd spent way way more time studying and experimenting with rhythm and phrasing, from the beginning. There's huge mileage here for expressiveness.
Last edited by jerrykramskoy at Dec 30, 2016,
By decree, I unbind your schackles of theory. Now go free and conquer your new found improvisation skills.

Ok, did that work?
And no, Guitar Hero will not help. Even on expert. Really.
To add to JerryK's points, I would say that scales and such become a lot more useful when you practice them from the bottom to the top of the instrument, rather than by position. Practice them continuously, moving to the next position without hesitation. Beyond the technical benefits, you'll start to understand keys and scales as entire sets of notes across the fretboard, rather than certain patterns on parts of the fretboard. Adding 4 note per string scales to your practice routine will also help you break the habit of playing position patterns.
Maybe adding or subtracting notes in unexpected ways will help free you. Here's Josh Homme discussing some of what he does to sound like he does. (Check out @2:30-5:30.):

Sturgeon's 2nd Law, a.k.a. Sturgeon's Revelation: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”

Why, yes, I am a lawyer- thanks for asking!

Log off and play yer guitar!

Strap on, tune up, rock out!
First of all I agree with everyone above. I also think you did the right thing by moving out of strictly playing just one style like metal. I know metal is always fun to play but generally it is all strictly major or minor chords the solos are often just about speed and repetitive scales (Please no comments about about anyone's favorite metal god and how they are completely different.) The most difficult and enlightening experience I had was when I joined a band that played an occasional Steely Dan song. I thought I was pretty good learning songs by ear until I had to learn some of those songs. Often the chords are bizarre which makes you have to learn to play notes that are not normally a part of any particular scale. Notes that are so far out of the key of song that it shouldn't work but somehow does beautifully. Odd things like that teach me a lot.

Several people mentioned that you should always start by knowing the chords inside out. I agree. If you can't play the chords (all the chords not just some) you often end up just playing within a single scale that frankly will work 80% of time but your solos might lack any sense of tension and adventure.
Yes I am guitarded also, nice to meet you.
Music Theory will make people feel boxed in @ first. What happens is you go from not knowing anything about the fretboard to learning "box shapes".
Now it seems like you are limited to only these shapes/patterns.But once you go from knowing nothing to learning intervals, scale theory, scale harmonizing etc And applying it, the fretboard starts to open up all sorts of possibility's.

And as far as those "box shapes" and improvising is concerned, you have to LEARN HOW to speak musically FIRST. So as you learn the way "others" speak
"your favorite artist" only then will you learn how to improvise in your own way.

So take those solos you learn, break them down with those shapes and understand the chords their playing over and the rest will be easy.
All Artists popular or not are a product of their influences.
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cdgravesWhen I learned Kid Charlemagne, way back when, I could play it fine, but had no clue why it all worked. Remember Room 335?

Larry did some pretty ambitious stuff back in the 70s, but Steely Dan kinda hangs over his entire solo career. It's easy to forget that the guy was a serious heavyweight back in the day. I personally enjoy his smoother and funkier stuff more, where he can really showcase the tone and musical patience that set him apart as a guitarist. He's got this lyricism to his playing that seems so natural but is so hard to emulate.

Today Carlton has nothing to prove..he is playing what he wants at his own pace..its a nice place to be..his track record is more than impressive..there is a lot of pressure to "keep up" with current trends and styles..he did that and more..now he can duo with lee ritenour and make it look and sound easy with out any stress...a place many players long to be..one of his attributes is doing more with less..
play well

I knew about Larry Carlton as only a name on some Steely Dan albums. Back in late 90's I mentioned to my musical partner (still my partner) how much I didn't like "jazz" music. I emphasize that this is only my opinion but most jazz I heard seemed like a great deal of technical excellence and too little melody. To me it often sounded like free-for-all with players taking turns practicing their scales. Someone I know uses the term "jazz coma" though it's not just limited to jazz. To prove to me that not all jazz was like that and the term jazz covers a lot of styles I was given the Best of Fourplay (1997). Wow was I wrong. Here was fantastic playing with structure and melody. I loved it and have since bought every Fouplay CD in the catalog. By the time I started buying Fourplay CDs Lee Ritenour had gone and Larry Carlton was playing with the band as he did for the next seven albums. I became a huge fan of Fourplay because they play by the Les Paul rule of "The melody is the important part of a song.When playing a solo never stray to far from the melody" (That's paraphrased from a Les Paul interview.). Any player who wants to be challenged but like me doesn't like jazz should investigate some Fourplay especially the Larry Carlton period.
Yes I am guitarded also, nice to meet you.
Last edited by Rickholly74 at Jan 15, 2017,
Zan595 umm, with your metal background, you might not want to hear this but seriously, take up the blues, look at some of the greatest shredders of all time and at the root, you find pentatonic, if not them, someone they were inspired by, oh, and jazz is great!