Improvisation Basics I: the Cornerstones

Have you ever been among musicians with your instrument? Then you have surely experienced that feeling when they tried to force you into jamming with them and would not accept "I don’t know WHAT to play!" as an excuse. Let’s change that.

Ultimate Guitar

Improvisation Basics

I've always wanted to learn to improvise as I considered the art of improvisation to be the ultimate discipline of masters. However, path to perfection is crooked and full of traps and it took me some time to really understand the basic principles as these (and sometimes even the online lessons explaining them) can often be quite confusing. I will try to connect all the knowledge I have acquired over the time, to help anyone with the same ambition I had. I’m not a great improviser and my skills are lacking in many ways but I think that this can be to advantage of this lesson as I'm very familiar with problems of “beginning” guitarists-improvisers since I was on this level for quite a long time. After all, an old joke says that you can teach music if you are at least two lessons ahead of your student. Anyway, let's skip to the point. We will begin at the same place as any other lesson would - pentatonic scales.

I. Basic pentatonic scales

Pentatonic scale is a scale consisting of five notes (penta=five). Two most basic ones are major and minor pentatonic. They are usually the first step of beginning guitarists as they have many pros - they are quite easy to learn (which I'll be dealing with in part III) and first of all: if played from the right note, they don’t sound off-key and thus can be played at any time during a song. However, limiting yourself to 5 notes will greatly decrease your ability to solo interestingly. But we will deal with that later on. For now, just try to memorize these basic shapes and play around with them. YouTube is full of backing tracks and I highly recommend you choose one of them and spend some time with it. Just focus on choosing the right shape (usually it’s the minor one) and correct root note (it’s usually written in video description). Trivia no. 1: Saying that pentatonics are dull and boring is certainly not right. They are used in many kinds of music, including classical. Listen to "" by Antonín Dvořák or “Voiles” by Claude Debussy to get the idea. It’s also the basis of traditional Chinese and Japanese music. BBC covered this topic nicely here:
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a) Minor pentatonic Somewhat more common as it’s sometimes played even over dominant and major chords (especially in blues). It consists of the root, third, fourth, fifth and seventh note (or degree) of natural minor scale. In C that would be C (1), Eb (b3), F (4), G (5), Bb (b7). In A it’s A, C, D, E, G. * Following examples are in A, unless stated otherwise.

b) Major pentatonic In C, this one consists of C, D, F, G, A which are the root, second, fourth, fifth and sixth of major scale. (It’s simple here, as there are no flattened ones – it’s 1, 2, 4, 5, 6)
We will come back to this in part III. Now we need to enrich this scale so that it gives you more options. * If you don’t understand this notation, I recommend following lesson. Simply put, you can think about it as variables in math that allow you to talk in all keys at the same time. If you say that the scale or chord consists of 1, 4, b5, then everybody knows right away that in C they would use C, F, Gb; in G G, C, Db and so on.

II. Blue note

Pentatonic scales, consisting of 5 notes while standard scales contain 7, offer some ways to enhancement. Their sound can be enriched by adding notes outside of these five that sound well or particularly interesting. One of those is augmented fourth (#4) or flattened fifth (b5). These names come from music theory and tell you, that to get these notes you need to either flatten the fifth or augment the fourth by a semitone (the same thing - consider C major scale - C (1) – D (2) – E (3) – F (4) – G (5) – A (6) – B (7) – by flattening the fifth you get Gb, by augmenting the fourth you come to F#, those two notes are the same, they are said to be enharmonically equivalent), but players and composers have come up with some other names – in blues and jazz it’s often called the blue note because of its emotional qualities and in Medieval Ages, this interval was thought to have come from the devil himself, so they dubbed it "diabolus in musica." Another name is tritone because it consists of three whole steps. (C – D (first whole step), D – E (second), E - F# (third)) Enough of the history though and let’s talk about its practical use. Even though the blue note is heavily dissonant and harmonically extremely unstable, by careful approach we can turn this to our advantage, because disharmony is very useful when expressing emotions. You have surely heard some blues songs before (if not quickly google some B. B. King or Eric Clapton stuff). Have you ever noticed that all of these have something in common? Yes, it’s the blue note. They use it to create tension. And so can you. I will now provide you with a pattern of minor pentatonic with added blue note. You might have seen it before - its name is Blues scale. (To be clear, this interval is very common in every genre, it’s not blues specific at all) A Blues scale
Notice the differences and try to incorporate this extremely useful interval into your playing. Try bending into it, try bending out of it, try to use it harmonically, it’s your choice. After getting the sound of the blue note under your skin, try to focus on it while listening to solos of your favourite guitarists. It is that little disharmonic edge that makes them sound so well. In the next part, we will focus on finally using the whole neck using simple tricks and methods. Trivia no. 2: Blue note is used in popular music a lot. One example would be “The Inner Light” by Beatles but we could name loads of them. I’ve already mentioned the diabolical properties of this interval so it won’t surprise you, that when you listen to Black Sabbath song by Black Sabbath from album Black Sabbath, you’ll hear tritone right in the first riff.

III. Remembering shapes

Guitar is a very visual instrument and there are some ways for us to use this to our advantage. I offer you three of them: a) Octaves This one is very simple. Let’s say you’ve just learned the A pentatonic scale in its basic position (5th fret). You can now move 12 frets higher and use the same pattern. b) Minor x Major relationship After you learn the minor pentatonic scale in its second position you will notice that the pattern is similar to that of the major version. It’s not by chance – they are both tied together by a certain relationship. I’ll let you discover that by yourselves as for our purposes, it will suffice to say that e. g. A minor pentatonic pattern from 5th fret is the same as C major pentatonic from 8th (i. e. from its root). Now you do not need to learn new positions for both the minor and the major pentatonic scales, you just need to know them for one of those if you know how to work this accordingly. Bear in mind however, that now the functions of the notes have changed. You will no longer find the root (A in this example) on the root position of the major pattern as there is now a C. A minor pentatonic played from C (aka C major pentatonic pattern)
c) “4 next to 2” This "rule" I have kind of come up by myself. I have noticed that in the vicinty of the basic minor position when we have the big stretch, it is USUALLY followed by a smaller one. Let me show you what I mean: A pentatonic
...and voila, you can now play in 6 different positions without much work. Discovering this made my working with these scales a lot easier. I hope it has been explained clearly as I believe it can have the same effect on anyone.
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This will be enough for today. Next time we will dive into the real deal and take look at colouring your newly learned pentatonics, we will talk about sensible use of those famous modes, we will explore chromaticism and many other more advanced concepts. It will end with an article attempting to connect this theoretical knowledge into something that works and sounds well. For now, practice what we have learned and take care.

11 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I'm quite new to all the intervals and scales stuff, and maybe I'm wrong, but, as far as I know, the major pentatonic scale isn't formed with the fourth, but with the third. The fretboard shape you posted is correct, but the right formula is 1,2,3,5,6. Therefore, if the C Major Scale is C D E F G A B its Major Pentatonic Scale is C D E G A Keep up with this series about improvisation, they are really helpful!! Thank you!
    You are totally right, missed that .) Thank you for the correction and the kind words.
    kimi You have to start at the beginning and build from there (the beginning for me was over 30 yrs ago) practice practice practice.
    Congratulations. Before sitting and holding the guitar, it must have a few things clear. Very well structured.
    There aren't really any usefull information about improvisation itself, just another scales lesson, and there are plenty of them. It would be more usefull to explain to us what notes are used for certain chords, what out chord tones sounds fine , what to avoid, to listen backing track, reckognize chord progressions etc etc. This is not improvisation lesson. Sorry, I just don't see the point
    There´s a reason for it being named no. 1. It is aiming towards people without any knowledge whatsover. I think it has been written clearly enough at the end. But I appreciate the criticism
    The thing about me is that I never intend to ofend other people, so that was just ,my opinion, not a verbal attack. I'm glad that you didn't take it personaly, bacause it wasn't. Keep the lessons coming
    You also have to realize that a lot of improvisation is done through knowing your scales. Chords are just certain notes picked out from certain scales. For example, an easy way to start would be to grab a major chord, have someone play it over and over again, then you play the major scale based off of the same chord any way you want. These scales from above are just a different (and usually the easiest) way to find notes to improvise with for a chord progression and such.
    It's definitely not written clearly for someone with no knowledge. When you go over the minor pentatonic, you use the intervals (1, b3, 4, 5, b7). That only makes sense if you already have a grasp on scales and intervals. Also, the long-short thing would have been much more clear if you'd written that the short is 2 and the long is 3, and that a minor pentatonic's has intervals of 3, 2, 2, 3, 2 frets. Lastly, you could have simply written that a minor pentatonic scale has the same intervals as the major pentatonic but from a different starting point instead of saying "I’ll let you discover that by yourselves"
    You are right I could've gone into deeper explanation of scales and intervals. However, you forget that I linked the lesson explaining this to avoid steering away from the original direction. "I’ll let you discover that by yourselves" part was about theoretical explanation as I don't consider that too important for this lesson. But thank you for your input, I'm going to redo whole series in some time and I will definitely use your comment while correcting.
    In your discussion of 4 next to 2, you have 3 to 5 listed as short and long. I think the middle two should say 2 to 5 which is long in your terminology.