Make Your Guitar Improvisation More Melodic by Using Melodic Motifs

In this guitar lesson we'll be exploring the concept of melodic motifs. These are short melodic ideas that can be used to make your guitar solos sound much more expressive and musical.

Ultimate Guitar
When I first got interested in improvisation, I started learning guitar licks like a man possessed. I figured that the more licks I knew, then the better I would be able express myself when I improvised guitar solos.

And guess what? It helped a lot. My soloing definitely improved as I built up a larger vocabulary of licks. I no longer sounded like some guy just randomly noodling with scales. Instead, my solos started to sound a lot more professional, and I felt I was moving a tiny bit closer towards being able to play solos that I felt proud of.

Although I was certainly making progress, when I listened back to the recordings of the guitar solos I had improvised, I noticed one thing that was bugging me a lot. My solos sounded like a bunch of random licks being played one after another. This isn't surprising, because that's pretty much all I was doing when I was improvising. :-)

The major problem with this, is that my improvised solos lacked continuity. In other words, all the ideas I played in a solo weren't really related to each other. I would just play one idea, and then immediately move onto another idea. After I had played a whole bunch of unrelated ideas, I would then end my solo. In hindsight, this wasn't the most musical approach to soloing!

If you can relate to this problem, then I think you'll find this lesson really helpful. We'll be looking at the concept of melodic motifs, and then I'll show you an easy way of implementing them into your guitar improvisation. Let's get started now…

Getting Started With Melodic Motifs

A melodic motif is a just a fancy way of describing a short melodic idea. The cool thing about them, is that they can easily be used to generate many longer musical ideas that are related to each other.

Obviously, there are innumerable possible melodic motifs. So, for this lesson, we'll be looking at one specific melodic motif that I use frequently when I improvise. Let's check it out now.

The graphic above probably doesn't mean much to you. That's because it's using the shorthand that I like to use to describe melodic motifs. But, don't worry. It will all become clear as we work through the following three steps.

Step 1: Understanding The Motif

Notice how the first part of the melodic motif says Up1. What this means is that you should play a note, and then play another note that is one scale degree higher. Here's an example of this in the C Natural Minor scale:

At this point we've worked out the first two notes of the melodic motif. Now we need to to tackle the Up4 part of the motif. What the Up4 means is that we now have to play a note that is four scale degrees higher than the previous note.

As you can see, we have now worked out the melodic motif starting from the first note of the C Natural Minor scale. If we were to work out the same melodic motif, starting from the second note of the scale, we would end up with this.

If we continued working out the melodic motif, from all the remaining notes of the C Natural Minor scale, we would end up with these seven groups of notes.
  • C D Ab
  • D Eb Bb
  • Eb F C
  • F G D
  • G Ab Eb
  • Ab Bb F
  • Bb C G

Step 2: Practicing The Motif

Now that we've worked out the motif starting from all the notes of the scale, it's now time to put them into practice. Although there are many ways of doing this, for this lesson I'm going to give you two exercises to work on. They'll help you to get comfortable with physically playing the motif, and will also help you to internalize the sound of the motif. Let's look at the first exercise now.

Melodic Motif Exercise 1

This exercise takes the melodic motif, and moves its through the C Natural Minor scale in an ascending manner. As you can see from the TAB, my preference is to articulate each repetition of the motif by doing this…
  • Picking the first note with a downstroke.
  • Sliding up to the second note.
  • Picking the third note using an upstroke.

Melodic Motif Exercise 2

This exercise uses the same articulation as the first one, but this time we're moving the melodic motif through the scale in a descending manner.

I need to stress here that learning to play the exercises quickly is not the goal. While you should certainly be able to play them fluently, it's important that a lot of your attention is focused on the sound of the melodic motif. To help you get more ear training value from the exercises, it would be a fantastic idea to do things like this...
  • Record a C Minor chord, and practice playing the exercises over the chord.
  • Practice singing the exercises. (Unless you have a really high voice, you might have to sing all the notes an octave lower).
  • Playing the exercises insanely slowly, while trying to pre-hear every note before you play it.
Although the two exercises I've given you are a good start to learning the motif, it would be a great idea to eventually design some of your own exercises. When you do this, be sure that you experiment with things like this.
  • Playing the motif on different pairs of strings.
  • Moving the motif through various scale fingerings.
  • Using different rhythmic variations as you play the motif.
  • Using variations in the way you articulate the motif.
I'm sure you get the idea. The more ways you can play the motif, then the more likely that you'll be able to use it when you improvise.:-)

Step 3: Practice Improvising Using The Motif

Now it's time for the fun stuff! What you need to do for this step is improvise over the backing track that I've provided below. While there is certainly no right or wrong way of doing this, here are three ideas to get you started…
  • Start each of your phrases with the melodic motif.
  • End each of your phrases with the melodic motif.
  • Play nothing but the melodic motif. This won't sound particularly musical, but it will definitely build your confidence in using the motif when you improvise. :-)

Demonstration Video

To give you an example of using the melodic motif when improvising, I've put together the following demonstration solo. You'll notice that I tried to use the motif as much as possible. While doing this won't produce the most musical sounding solo, I hope that it gives you some ideas of how you might use the motif in your own improvisations. If you liked some of the ideas I played, then it would be a great idea to transcribe them, and learn to play them yourself. :-)

YouTube preview picture

A Few Last Words

Hope you found this lesson helpful. Building up a vocabulary of melodic motifs improved my improvisational skills tremendously. I have no doubt that, if you work hard at internalizing motifs that you like, then you'll see some great results as well.:-)

Happy practicing!

About The Author:
Craig Bassett is a professional electric guitar teacher living in Melbourne, Australia. He specializes in helping rock guitarists improve their lead guitar and improvisational skills. For more free lessons, and other useful resources, you can visit his website by going to:

11 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Got a mirrored problem - i stay around a motif and can't go far from box
    its a better problem than the alternative, at least your playing is just boring rather than bamboozling
    I found this really useful. I can instantly hear more structure in my improvising.
    I think your improv is still pretty lacking in continuity. Sounds pretty dissonant in relation to the backing track and the phrasing just seems strange in a lot of places. The motifs didn't seem to solve the problem
    Hey there. Thanks for your comment! You're right, the solo does lack continuity. That's because it's demonstrating how to *practice* the motif. When you practice, the idea is to try to use the motif as humanly possible. While this won't sound particularly musical, if you do this enough, the motif will start to "creep" into your improvised solos in much smaller doses, which will sound far less obnoxious, than the demonstration video above.
    Then maybe you should have included a solo where you demonstrate how the motif works in a finished product. If you don't know how to use what you teach in a context, your lesson lacks credibility. Anyone can say that something should work in theory, a good teacher shows that it works for real too.
    LOL. I'm just trying to share something that I've personally found helpful. You are free to disregard any, and all, lessons I submit. If you want to print out this lesson, and use it as toilet paper, then that's absolutely fine as well.
    As for the example, I think it would just sound better if you played a regular solo in which you'd implement the motif here and there. It would show how it sounds and how it can be used, and i think everybody should get what you meant. Building a whole solo around this idea is just boring and sounds forced in this case.And I think if someone who has a problem with continuity watched it, he would just be like: "this guy's solo lacks continuity..." As for the motif: it's nice and I think it's used quite widely in instrumental guitar music
    continuity? you mean the licks don't particularly change because its a LESSON, a lesson about melody and structure. its a perfect lesson for me, atm my solos are just close eyes, pull clapton face and hope for the best lol
    I thought that was a beautiful little ditty you did there. Very soothing and relaxing. I'm gonna try those techniques. Thanks man!