Top 5 Tricks to Skyrocket Your Improvisation Skills

If you want to be a great player, it's vital that you learn to improvise!

Ultimate Guitar
Top 5 Tricks to Skyrocket Your Improvisation Skills

Improvisation is one of the most important skills you can develop as a guitar player. It helps you to write better solos, improve your inner ear, come up with better melodies for songs and integrate all of your skills together. If you want to be a great player, it’s vital that you learn to improvise!

That’s why I’ve put together this lesson for you, featuring five top tips on how to improve your improvisation.

If you want some great quality backing tracks to improvise over, check out them here. It’s got 38 free, high-quality tracks in loads of different styles along with the scales you need, tips on how to play along with them and more!

1. Play WITH the music, not OVER it

When you practice playing with a backing track, you should always remember that you’re playing WITH the track rather than over it.

What’s the difference? Well, if you’re playing over it then you’re just treating it as something in the background with little regard to what’s actually going on, and just treating it as something to hold down the groove and tell you the key.

If you’re playing with the track, though, then it’s completely different. You’re listening closely to what each instrument is playing, aiming to complement each part rather than obscure it.

The bass line suddenly isn’t something “boring” in the background, but a key part of the song that you can try to emphasise using your guitar part. You leave space. You follow the different parts of the song. You’re really PLAYING, rather than mindlessly noodling.

This is a small but vitally important change that really could make a huge difference in your guitar playing. See if you can make your guitar part sound as if it was there all along.

2. Try something different

Just because you’re a metal player, that doesn’t mean you should only ever improvise with metal tracks. How about trying some blues? Maybe you could try a funk track?

This is a great way to get out of soloing “ruts” and come up with new, interesting phrases. The idea is to get out of your comfort zone and play something completely different to what you’d usually play.

At first it will feel strange and uncomfortable – you’ll want to go back to your normal style! Stick with it and soon you’ll really feel the benefit; you’ll start to develop your own style of improvisation.

This works the other way, too – just because you’re playing over a funk track, it doesn’t mean you have to play funk guitar. Try out some blues licks or even some shred stuff – you might come up with something totally unique!

3. Develop a common theme

This one isn’t just applicable to improvisation, but also to song writing and soloing in general. Try to develop a recurring theme in your playing that repeats at various points to tie the whole thing together.

The simplest way to start doing this is by using “call and response”. This is where you play a simple lick (the call), and then pause before playing it again with a variation (the response). The variation could be as simple as changing the note the lick ends on, or adding in an extra bend or slide. The point is to keep the response very similar to the call, while adding in just a small variation.

This “call and response” technique is very common in the vocal melodies of songs – two lines will be sung with essentially the same melody, but with a slight variation that keeps it interesting. If the two lines were the same then it might start to sound boring, and if they were completely different then there wouldn’t be anything to tie the song together.

You could even try to play a whole solo by just playing one lick, varying it more and more each time so that it becomes something entirely different by the end! It won’t sound very musical, but it’s a great way to quickly get used to the technique and tie your solo together.

Ways you could vary your repeats of the theme include:

• Playing it in different octaves

• Starting or ending on a different note

• Varying the note transitions (how you go between notes, such as using bends, slides etc.)

• Keeping the same notes but using a different rhythm

• Playing the lick at half speed or double speed

There are loads more. See how much more professional your solos sound when you start to base them on particular themes and licks, rather than just noodling aimlessly. Your solos will finally get a sense of continuity that’s vital for sounding good!

4. Experiment with Rhythm

Most people focus on learning and using NOTES, but really there’s another huge piece of the puzzle that often goes unnoticed – rhythm! If you want to sound really good, you absolutely MUST pay attention to the rhythm of what you play.

Most people divide guitar playing into “rhythm” playing (chords, riffs, and so on) and “lead” playing (solos, melodies and licks). The problem with this is that all notes have rhythm – even your lead guitar phrases have a particular rhythm to them. Try muting the strings with your left hand and then just doing the picking pattern to a few of your licks, so that you only hear a muted, percussive sound rather than actual notes. This will give you a much better idea of what the rhythm of the lick is.

Once you’ve done that with a few of your lead guitar licks you’ll quickly realise how important rhythm is! The next stage is to improve your rhythmic ability so that you can play more creative rhythms and more interesting phrases.

Start by taking some of your licks and varying the rhythm of them. How many different variations can you create, just by changing up the rhythm? 5? 10? How about 30? Really get into it, and see just how far you can go with it!

If you don’t experiment with different rhythms then you’re really limiting yourself as a player. It’s one of the best ways to spice up your lead playing and come up with new, interesting ideas!

5. Use Different Tones

This is another thing that very few players ever do. Look at what tones people commonly use in different styles. Then, pick a style and use a completely different tone! Use a load of fuzz on a clean jazz track. Then, use a clean tone over a metal backing track.

This probably won’t sound great at first, but keep trying it and you might be surprised by what you can come up with. Sure, it’ll sound unconventional, but that’s the idea – to get out of a rut and discover new, exciting sounds.

The overall message here is to remove the standards that people normally follow, and experiment with unconventional ideas. Just because everyone else does something a certain way, it doesn’t mean that you have to do it that way as well. The best way for you might not be the same as the best way for other people!

Of course, you probably won’t end up doing this in normal songs and playing situations, but as a practice strategy it’s great.

Final Thoughts

I really hope you’ve found this article helpful – if you’d like more, don’t hesitate to check out for more free content!

Thanks again, and look out for the next lesson coming soon :)

7 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Great advice all around.   Al DiMeola uses #4 all the time.  It's one of my favorite parts of his playing.  Keeping the same general lick but varying the rhythm and tempo.  Love it.
    i also like to switch my right hand intensity, i seems to naturally make me alter my left hand fingering.