I am seeking some inspiration for improving my lead/improvisational skill and come across a few articles that have suggested that a great way to improvise is to imagine the melody in your head and then play the same on the fretboard - i.e. playing by ear.

I am, by my own admission, really crap at this, despite having been paying for years.

Some articles I have been reading suggested that the reason that it is fairly effortless (at least for most) to hum a tune is because we are so familiar with our voices, as instruments, that we can pretty much hear a sound in our head before we pass it out of our mouths.

This is exactly what I am aiming for with my guitar playing - I want to be able to just hum a simple tune and then immediately recreate it on my guitar.

How do I get to the point that I can do this?

At the moment, I am always way off and am just not familiar enough with the fretboard.

Any pointers for practicing would be much appreciate.
You need to start learning melodies and guitar solos by ear. This is the first, and the most crucial step towards the kind of ability you describe. In order to translate those melodies in your head to your instrument, you need to have the ability to do the same to existing melodies first. So pick any song that has singing you like, and learn the vocal melody by ear. At first, this might be trial and error, but you'll get better. Then, you should look into actual guitar solos, and eventually full songs. But ear training, and specifically learning new music by ear is what you should be doing to develop that skill.
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Thanks very much for that.

I was really unsure how to approach this and even came up with the idea of pre-recording random notes and then trying to replicate them on my guitar.

Playing the vocal lines of as many songs as I can, seems a really clever idea and I shall start with that.

Unfortunately, I am one of those guitarists that has become a bit obsessed with scale shapes and theory, compared to the ability to actually play - whenever I try and play anything, I imagine all the relevant scale notes on my fretboard and it always sound like I am just practicing bits of scale.
Start with really simple melodies, stuff that is literally burned into your brain. And i mean simple, like happy birthday and twinkle twinkle little star. Why? Because you've been hearing those melodies since before you could talk, they're practically part of your DNA. That makes them the perfect starting point..and the fact that you actually know them as single note melodies also helps.

Picking out a melody on your guitar is a skill, but too many people jump in and try to work out a full guitar song by ear then wonder why it's a struggle. It's a common mistake to go "I'm pretty good at guitar but my ear sucks so I'm going to try and learn to play Cliffs of Dover by ear". Like everything else your ears need to be trained, and if you've never tried working stuff out by ear before then you need to start right at the beginning. Working out a simple melody by ear is tricky enough at the beginning and you have to approach it logically - if you can't figure out a simple melody like happy birthday, how are you going to manage to work out a more complex guitar part that you're not only less familiar with, but also have the added complication of all the other instruments and vocals to distract you.
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I am, by no means, a professional guitarist, but I've been improvising and making melodies on the spot ever since my violin days (get lost while playing with the orchestra? Improvise, no one in the audience will notice).

How I've been going about turning mind-melodies into actual guitar melodies is first think of a melody in my head, then play it over and over into my head until I get a good idea of how it sounds, then play it again in my head (or sing/hum it) but this time a bit slower. Slow enough so that I can find out which string/fret that each note is played on (and write it down), then once that's all done, mess around with it until playing it isn't awkward or uncomfortable (i.e. your fingers fly all over the place to play it)

I dunno if anyone's mentioned it, but learn your scales, you don't necessarily have to know what each one is, but know your scales enough to know what note comes next and where its located on the fretboard.

Try this, find a song that you like. Don't search up the tabs or sheet music. Just listen to it in sections, then try to figure out which note is being played, and where is it on your fretboard. Once you have that down, transforming mind-melodies into guitar melodies is just the next step. You convert thoughts to sounds (sing/hum) and those sounds eventually into your guitar's playing

I hope I've helped
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As others said, just start learning songs by ear. Learning some theory also helps, because if you can name the sounds that you hear, it also becomes easier to recognize them. I think it makes sense to also analyze the songs that you learn by ear. This way you aren't only learning by trial and error and you aren't just learning to play notes after notes but actually also learn what's happening in the music - for example how the notes relate to the chords in the background, what kind of intervals are used in the melody and what key the song is in (and obviously you want to pay attention to how all of that relates to the sound).
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Last edited by PlusPaul at Jun 3, 2017,
For me personally, I used to sometimes come up with a riff or melody in my head then try to play it. What happens now is I generally try to tab the idea out in guitar pro so I can tweak it and come up with variations when the phrase repeats. However i find most of the time when I sit down with a guitar and think "I'm going to write a song now" nothing good comes out of it, instead I play the same boring patterns and ideas on guitar, or write something that just doesn't sound inspired.

You may find that this also applies to you, rather than trying to force good music out of your head, it might be just that one day you're watching a youtube video/surfing the web/playing a game/whatever and then suddenly a great idea comes to mind. These are the times it's important to write the idea down as it will typically fade away quickly if you don't jump on it. So in that regard, don't worry about the effort, because for most people it can be very random when an idea comes to mind, and not something you can just instantly come up with.

In terms of working the idea out on guitar, that is probably the most difficult part, I still struggle with it at times but I find that guitar pro does help me a lot since I can play back the idea instantly albeit not as intuitive or fast as using a real guitar.
Learn the sound of basic intervals, such as 2 and 4 semitones above some starting pitch), and learn to sing these, in different orders.   (on guitar, this means 2 and 4 frets above your start choice on the same string).   For example, if you start at fret 3 on the G string, try and sing the pitches at frets 3,5,7  or 7,5,3, or 5,3,7 and so on. 

Imagine their sounds as and when (e.g. driving, having a coffee ...), and sing them, as mini-melodies, as often as you can.  When you have your guitar, check yourself  (play the start pitch on guitar, and then do the above, and check each sung pitch.  Doesn't have to be spot on.  Add some rhythm to it.  This is both challenging initially, but good fun.  For example, add saome syncopation to make it interesting.

Suppose you came up with a short melody using the above ... you KNOW the pitches invokved are to be found 2 and 4 semitones away from the start pitch.

So, guess roughly where the start pitch is, and then move around on the guitar neck until you hear a match.  Now apply your melody relative to that found start note (i.e. at some mix of 0, 2 and 4 semitones away from this start pitch).

In essence this is what it boils down to.

BTW: Doing the above, there's a strong chance you'll invent "Frere Jacque" nursery rhyme!

The CRITICAL part is recognising these intervals relative to your initial chosen one.

In terms of well known tunes, the start note is part of the definition of the KEY for the tune (the other part being the scale used (i.e the set of intervals used)) ... so you're learning to recognise intervals relative to the key centre.

Once the above is nailed, add in 5 and 7 semitones for example, and get more inventive.

(The choice of intervals is down to you, clearly, but the above are a very good start).  You can also introduce other octaves as you get better.
Last edited by jerrykramskoy at Jun 9, 2017,