Improvisation can be one of the more complex and intimidating topics for any musician. But if you break the process down into manageable chunks, you may find you’re closer to improvising on the guitar than you currently imagine.

Improvisation is a balancing act

I think of improvisation as a constant balancing act between playing what you already know and creating something new on the spot. Contrary to popular belief, it’s almost never 100% new and original. In fact, some of the best solos and riffs ever created were one musician trying to mimic another.

There are many different approaches you can take to learn how to improvise. Below is one technique broken into individual steps to help you get started:

  1. Learn 1-3 movable scale patterns, but no more. I recommend starting with a pentatonic pattern because it’s easy to learn and to move the pattern up and down the fingerboard to change keys.
  2. Pick 3 solos that sound “doable”. Don’t start with anything that sounds too fast or complex. Pay attention to the key of the song and scales used for the solo. You can use online tablature if it makes the process easier. Many songs can be easily found by doing a google search for “[song name] guitar tab”.
  3. Look at the notes that overlap between the scale and the solo. Notice when the root note of the scale is played.
  4. Now pick out specific licks from the solo that are one or two measures long.
  5. Try playing these same licks in a different order
  6. Now, using the scale as a reference, try exchanging one or two notes from each lick for a different note in the scale that’s close by. Repeat until you hear something you like. This will take some trial and error.

You’ll now have a series of phrases and licks that, while reminiscent of the original, are the beginnings or your own creation…and your own style.

Above all, the best learning tool for improvisation is to just jump in and do it! Hearing the immediate feedback of your own playing will train you on what notes work and what notes to avoid. During lessons, I witness the greatest progress when I nudge reluctant students to just start improvising using some basic guidelines. The “book knowledge” of my 20 min. explanation is almost always overshadowed by the progress I hear during their first dive into the deep end of the guitar pool.