Improvisation Tips For Beginning Guitarists

Improv has always been a topic most people ask me about, since it's the step above from playing what you learn to playing what you are. Improv is an important skill and I hope this really clears things up.

Ultimate Guitar
If starting to improv is hard, follow these tips to strengthen your improv range, variety, and skill.

1. Let time take its course

You can't improv on your first couple months playing guitar, obviously. Learn some songs you like, learn some difficult solos, then come back to improv. It's not something most people get right when they pick up a guitar. Improv takes fret and string knowledge, and a lot of muscle memory. If you can't play something that someone asks you to learn, then how can you expect to play something off the top of your head, right?

2. Know your theory

I'm not saying take a course on theory, but it does help. Know your scales, positions, harmonies, and definitely know what fret is what note. Tabs are easier to read, but if you don't know what notes sound good in a key (lets say, C# mixolydian), you'll play sour notes that just don't work. Know things like major scales, minor scales, blues, pentatonic, whole note, etc. Also, know what notes sound good together, like a dominant fifth sounds good, throw in a minor third every now and then, put some octaves and voila, you've got a basic minor improv.

3. Practice improv

This is pretty obvious. Improv isn't always in front of an audience, remember. You can just pick up your guitar at home and start playing notes. If they don't sound good yet, then don't fret (see what I did there?), you'll eventually get better and know what notes and what chords sound good in context. Going on stage without practicing improv is just as bad as going on stage without knowing the lyrics. Practice.

4. Know that you have room to improve

Don't shoot down critics, because most of them are probably right. If someone says you use too many chords, then try to add in licks. If someone says you hit wrong notes, try to only use the proper notes of a key. If you're hardheaded and can't accept that your improv sucks, then it'll never get better.

5. Don't be afraid to mess up

Playing twelve years of piano, the number one mistake people hear is the one that you make worse. If you stop, if you grunt, or even if you look around nervously, you're showing that you screwed up. If you just keep playing, some people may think that it was a part of the improv, and some people might not even notice it at all.

6. Learn improv

There are bunch of books that give you improv tips and tricks, and a bunch of other guitarists that can probably teach you as well. Improv can be done alone, but it helps with others around. Now I see that these aren't amazing tips (especially for advanced guitarists), but this is how I was taught and this is how I like to teach. Between five years of guitar experience, twelve years of piano experience, and three years of drumming experience, thanks for reading, and good luck on your journey!

25 comments sorted by best / new / date

    For improv, I find that it helps to take a solo/riff that you really enjoy, and try to understand how the guitarist did it like what scales, modes and/or arpeggios were used. Very often, at least in the songs I listen to, the solos are mostly in minor pentatonic. Ex) Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd (David Gilmour being the guitarist). In the first solo, he is playing for the most part, the chords of the song at that point in different shapes. (CAGED) And in the second one, it is mostly in minor pentatonic, though I am quite sure he add ninths to it. Nonetheless, this has helped me to improv solo a bit. I have much more to learn and practice. A few tips; Major scale songs (Ex: Walk of Life by Dire Straits) can have both major and minor pentatonic scales being used. Minor scale songs (Ex: Another Brick in the Wall pt. 2 by Pink Floyd) can ONLY have minor scales being played. 9ths are excellent additions to improv but don't spam them because it can ruin your sound.
    You missed out one crucial advice: play songs by amount of 'practicing' can drill the music into your memory like struggling to play your favourite solos/riffs using just your ears. also, if jamming with a band or buddy isn't an option, try improvising to drum/rhythm tracks..much better than a metronome
    but if you don't know what notes sound good in a key (lets say, C# mixolydian )
    C# mixolydian is NOT a key! Gosh!
    How is C# mixolydian NOT a key?
    It is a mode, not a key.
    It is a mode, not a key.
    I thought it was a language? Like Visual Basic only not as sucky. (My attempt at humor cause you look major stressed here.)
    Exactly, C# myxolidan is just an inversion of A major scale. Mode generally refers to a type of scale, coupled with a set of characteristic melodic behaviours , which refers to the sound being created by the re-stacking of intervals. Furthermore, if you were to play C# mixolydian over its elementary mode, that is the A major scale, respectively the note A , it would produce the sound of A major scale, not the Mixolydian-ish flat 7th sound. It is not until you play the exact same notes over the C# drone that it begins to sound like mixolydian mode.
    You're right, my mistake. I meant that if you knew that C# mixolydian sounded good with a certain key, I should've elaborated more on that. The only keys are that of the circle of fifths. The church modes are simply inversions. Like the blues scale and whole tone scale, it isn't isolated as it's own key.
    It is a mode. Even though he wanted to mention modes, why the f*ck would he add them to a "beginner" lesson? Why simply not say A minor? Or C major.
    I agree. It's pretty silly to say "it'll take you ages to improvise but hey, here's a mode for thre hell of it, to work on your CST". If you want pretty names for patterns of accidentals why not say "the blues scale". It's far morewidespread.
    "Improvisation Tips For Beginning Guitarists" "You can't improv on your first couple months playing guitar" So basically your tip for beginning guitarists when it comes to improvisation is that it's impossible for them until they're more experienced? Smooth.
    Strongly disagree with point number one. One of the best ways to learn is to discover for yourself. With people I teach I like to have them jamming the E minor pentatonic scale within the first few lessons.
    I quote you on "If you can't play something that someone asks you to learn, then how can you expect to play something off the top of your head, right?" I must say its abit more complicated than that alot of musicians myself included find it so much easier to improv a solo as opposed to learning/writing a note for note solo in which some players are better at but its all based on where & what style they started with I find with improvising I can add so much more feeling and expresion to my solos but the point Im making is everyone approaches solos differently coz everyone expresses themselves differently its not one fixed rule otherwise nice article man