Expanding Your Options (With Guitar Improvisation) Part 1

By Randy Johnson

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:

1) Learn Pentatonic Scale

2) Learn Pentatonic Scale all over the Neck

3) Learn Major Scale

4) Learn Major Scale all over the Neck

5) 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":

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" its 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 HERE .

Now its 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 its 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.

Randy Johnson is a Cincinnati based Guitarist, Recording Artist, Logic Pro Consultant and Instructor based in Cincinnati, Ohio. A video version of this lesson is available for his newsletter subscribers HERE
Last edited by Randy Johnson at Sep 1, 2008,