How To Improvise On Guitar – 5 Prerequisites

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Do you feel the urge to express yourself through improvisation? Of all the guitar players I have taught and met with, there are definitely 2 types of players – those who feel the calling to improvise and those who don’t. I was always drawn to it. From the moment I realised that my favourite music was being created at that moment, I knew that I had to commit my life to be able to express myself in the same way.

This article dives deep into the five essential foundations to improvise on the guitar: Learning the fretboard, developing your ear, mastering expressive techniques, building your musical vocabulary, and singing while playing. This isn’t just a quick guide; it’s a comprehensive journey to your growth as a musician. Remember, the art of improvising isn’t just for the elite few. With dedication and the right approach, it can absolutely be your reality too.

Foundation 1 – Learn The Fretboard

Why Learn Every Note On Guitar

Mastering every note on the guitar is a unique challenge. But it’s practical for many areas of guitar playing. Once you’ve memorised them, you’re unlikely to forget the notes, as you’ll be practising them indirectly in different musical contexts.

This knowledge might not directly influence how you play scales. But it’ll certainly help when you start using them to create music. If you’re aiming to improvise, knowing every note on the fretboard becomes even more important. Improvisation involves creating music on the guitar spontaneously, and to do this effectively, you need to identify the right notes quickly – like, in real-time.

Start With The Low E String

The most effective way for you to memorise the notes on the fretboard is to combine two methods. Start with the low E string and think linearly about how the notes on a string are connected. This approach differs from memorising a shape or scale position and might initially seem more challenging.

But it’s effective because it forces you to memorise the notes in a way where you can’t ‘cheat’.

Use Octave Shapes

Another helpful method is using octave shapes to navigate your guitar fretboard. An octave refers to the distance between two notes that are the same but have a different pitch. One of the notes in an octave is double the frequency of the other.

Applying this relationship in your playing will help you in moving around your fretboard and improvising more freely.

Learn Them Everywhere

You can find the same notes in different pitches all over the neck of your guitar. For instance, if you play any open string, you’ll find the same note at the 12th fret of that same string. This connection also exists when using open strings.

But this same connection doesn’t exist between your G and B strings because your B string is tuned one semitone lower than your other guitar strings. This is where octave shapes can make a significant difference, helping you to build more practical connections across your guitar.

Learning the notes on the fretboard enhances your understanding of music. It’ll help you comprehend the songs you play as well as anything you write. Moreover, when you learn the notes on the fretboard, you can start targeting specific notes that work over the backing chords, which is an excellent way to build your skills.

The goal of these methods is to get you used to thinking with notes instead of shapes or patterns. If you can create any chord or scale without needing to think about shapes, it gives you freedom. With consistent daily practice, you should start to feel really confident in your fretboard knowledge within a couple of weeks.

A close up of a mans hand playing guitar with a capo on.

Foundation 2 – Learn How Scales Relate To Chords

The connection between scales and chords is a key part of guitar improvisation. Western music is built on twelve notes. These notes form the foundation for all songs, licks, bass lines, melodies, and chords that you’ll play. The scale, which comes from these notes, is what you use to build chords.

Chords are groups of notes played at the same time that complement each other. The notes that make up a basic chord come straight from the scale. This relationship lets you create melodies that harmonize with the chords being played, which is a key part of improvisation.

Why The Major Scale Teaches You Everything You Need To Know

The major scale perfectly illustrates the relationship between chords and scales. All chords built from the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B will sound coherent when used in chord progressions. C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim include all notes from the C major scale.

The major scale is so important because it lays the groundwork for understanding how chords and scales interact. By mastering the major scale, you’ll start to understand how to create melodies that complement the chords being played.

Learn How To Target Chord Tones

When you’re improvising, it’s important to target chord tones. This means playing notes that are part of the chord being played at that moment. For example, while the rhythm guitar plays a chord, like G7, the lead guitar might play a scale over it, such as the G pentatonic scale.

By targeting the chord tones, you’ll be able to create a melody that fits perfectly with the underlying harmony. This is a key aspect of improvisation and one that can greatly enhance your solos.

Helpful Guitar Geometry For Applying To All Keys

Guitar improvisation involves exploring sounds and textures. These are inspired by a variety of musical styles, rhythmic concepts, and classically-influenced melodic ideas. This includes techniques such as vertical, horizontal, diagonal, and reverse-diagonal movement on the fretboard.

Vertical movement, which is relatively easier, is seen in standard fingerings for major and minor scales.

Horizontal movement is exemplified by guitar legends such as Al Di Meola, Eric Johnson, and Eddie Van Halen.

Diagonal movement requires time and practice but offers immense benefits in understanding the neck of the guitar. Reverse-diagonal movement introduces an aggressive, chromatic-based style.

By getting to know these movements and how they relate to scales and chords, you’ll be able to apply your knowledge to all keys, making you a more versatile and capable improviser.

Foundation 3 – Develop Your Ear

Mastering the guitar involves more than just understanding individual notes. It’s about grasping chords, chord progressions, and harmonies. This doesn’t require perfect pitch, but rather a finely-tuned inner ear capable of discerning relative pitch. This is a skill that can be honed regardless of age or proficiency level.

Learn To Sing!

Singing may not seem like a crucial skill for a guitarist. However, it can significantly enhance your comprehension of tonality and how your guitar playing integrates into it. All songs are constructed of notes within scales, and practising these scales isn’t exclusive to instrumentalists.

Being capable of singing even just the major scale can enhance your intonation and provide you with an understanding of what “harmonic context” signifies. Initially, you might use an instrument like a piano to familiarize yourself with the notes of the scale. But eventually, you should be able to vocalize any pitch within the scale after hearing just the tonic note.

Learn songs by ear

The ability to learn songs by ear is a skill that improves with practice. It fortifies the connection between your cognitive abilities and your vocal skills. It also hones your perception of musical nuances.

To decipher riffs and melodies by ear, you need to truly immerse yourself in the music. This will assist you in accurately ‘recording’ it in your mind. You might find yourself vocalizing, humming, or whistling the music to get a basic idea of the sound.

Play what you sing

Reproducing what you sing on your guitar is an excellent way to train your ear. It’s not just about identifying intervals in isolation. It’s about placing pitches into a musical context to develop an understanding of the emotion and auditory sensation of the notes.

This process can assist you in understanding the tonality of a piece and how your guitar playing integrates into it.

Sing harmony

Singing harmony is a more advanced skill, but it’s one that can be acquired. Deciphering chords and chord progressions by ear can be more challenging for some musicians, but it’s also a skill that can be acquired. Some knowledge of music theory can simplify this process, but it’s not a prerequisite.

The process often begins with tuning into the bass line. The lowest note in the music determines how all other notes will resonate.

Young girl singing into a microphone whilst playing guitar.

Foundation 4 – Learn Expressive Techniques

Bending Strings

Bending strings is a unique sound in guitar playing that requires mastery. It necessitates precision and control, particularly when it comes to bending in tune. The wrist is the powerhouse for the bending motion, offering more strength and control than the fingers.

A useful way to verify your tuning is to execute a ‘unison bend’, which involves playing two notes at the same time and bending the lower string until it matches the pitch of the higher one.

Vibrato

Vibrato is another expressive technique that can infuse depth and emotion into your guitar playing. It involves a rapid bend and release of a string to create a slight fluctuation in pitch.

Similar to bending, the wrist is the best tool to control the motion. Begin slowly and gradually increase your speed as you become more comfortable with the technique.

Slides

Slides are a fundamental technique in both rhythm and lead guitar playing. It involves moving on one string from a lower fret to a higher target note or the opposite. This skill demands accuracy, but with sufficient practice, you’ll master it.

A classic example of sliding in guitar playing is the song “Blackbird” by The Beatles. There are various ways to slide on the guitar, including using a slide made of metal, glass, or ceramic, or simply using your fingers to slide on the fretboard.

Tremolo

Cultivating a good tremolo technique can be demanding, but with daily practice of thirty to sixty minutes, you’ll be able to develop an excellent tremolo within six months to a year. A good tremolo technique is rhythmically precise, capable of being played at various speeds and volumes, and allows control over the volume difference between the thumb and fingers.

The “m” and “a” fingers must have exceptional independence to play the traditional “pami” tremolo pattern evenly. If the “a” finger causes problems, it can be eliminated and replaced with the “pimi” or “pmim” pattern, although this might lead to finger fatigue or difficulty in playing at fast speeds.

Alternate Picking

Alternate picking is a crucial technique for soloing in any style of music. To master this technique, start by repeatedly picking a single note, ensuring that every note is of roughly the same volume, and that you’re relaxed and not tensing up.

It’s also beneficial to pick each note two or four times while practising scales. For a comfortable grip on the pick, either a ‘trigger’ grip, a pinch between the pads of the thumb and forefinger, or using thumb and two fingers can be used.

Muting

Muting a string is achieved by touching the string with a finger without pressing it down. This technique can be used to create a shortened “staccato” effect or to dampen the strings for less sustain, without completely muting the strings. Another technique related to muting is raking, which results in a single percussive-sounding note.

Legato

Legato playing is important for adding fluidity, expression, speed, and interest to your guitar parts. Legato techniques include hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides. To improve your legato playing, practice your scales in various legato ways, practice at different speeds, and perform finger and hand exercises regularly.

It’s also beneficial to apply legato to pieces that are usually played with no or little legato for creativity and adaptability.

Dad playing guitar on the couch with young boy clinging to his shoulders.

Foundation 5 – Build Your Musical Vocabulary

Expanding your musical vocabulary is a crucial step in your journey to improvise on the guitar. This involves honing your rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic skills. Developing a strong sense of inner pulse, understanding chord shapes and progressions, and crafting effective melodies are all part of this process.

Deeply Learn Other People’s Solos

A highly effective way to expand your musical vocabulary is to delve into other people’s solos. This might seem like a meticulous process, but it’s incredibly rewarding. By deciphering and memorising melodies from your favourite songs, you’re arming yourself with the tools to create your own phrases.

This process also aids in figuring out how to structure your solo around melodic lines or phrases. These are akin to musical sentences or ideas. They’re deliberate musical statements that give your solos substance.

Learn Phrasing From Other Instruments

Broadening your musical vocabulary can also be achieved by learning phrasing from other instruments. This can lead to fresh ideas and enhance your improvisation skills. Remember, errors are crucial in the music-making process as they often lead to novel ideas.

Study Singers!

Examining singers can also be a fantastic way to enhance your musical vocabulary. Singing while playing the guitar can be a formidable challenge, but it’s a skill that can significantly enrich your playing. It necessitates the harmonisation of your strumming and singing rhythms to achieve a seamless sound.

This process demands practice, but it’s worth it. Begin by selecting a song and committing the words to memory. Sing it out loud, sing along with a recording, sing it in the shower, sing it to your cat. The more you practice, the more at ease you’ll become.

Remember To “Breath” In Your Phrasing

Lastly, remember to incorporate “breathing” in your phrasing. As a musician, your goal is to engage audiences to listen to and appreciate your subjective emotions and ideas. Your music should breathe and be played like the waves in the ocean; smooth but with rises and falls.

This necessitates a focus on accurate finger placement, quality movements, and music memorisation. Slow practice can train your hands and body to release tension after each note, leading to more natural breathing.

Unleashing Your Guitar Hero

Now that you are armed with an abundance of knowledge and practical methods to master the art of improvising on the guitar, it’s your turn to explore and indulge in the music within you. Believe in your creative potential and cultivate the confidence to express and experiment.

Improvising doesn’t mean pulling magical notes out of thin air but cultivating a deep understanding of the music and the instrument. This way, you’ll be well-equipped to articulate your musical ideas spontaneously.

Embrace the journey, as there are no shortcuts. It involves patience, dedication, and consistent practice. Know that every guitar legend started where you are.

Most of all, have fun and express yourself.

 

Andrew Scrivens

Andrew Scrivens

I am a live musician and guitar teacher from Brisbane, Australia, with extensive experience playing live, in the studio and for TV shows. I play in many venues, studios, music shops and with my students and as such am exposed to a lot of different gear. I form my opinions based on my experiences playing instruments in these locations.

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