3 Ways I Improvise On Guitar

Improvising is probably definitely my favorite aspect of playing the guitar.

When I used to play trumpet, there was very little improvising involved; we would simply play off the sheet music that we were given. That can be fun, to be sure, but it is a completely different story from creating something entirely new and unique each and every time you play your instrument.

For me, improvising typically takes three forms. There are more that come to mind, but these are the biggest three:

Improvising Situation #1 – Live Jamming / Soloing

Firstly, each week I meet with a group of guys and we jam rock and blues songs. Inevitably, everyone gets a solo and the songs are good and long… but that gives me true “live” soloing time each week which is a ton of fun. There’s nothing quite like improvising a solo in a live band situation, because it is far more demanding… you need to be paying attention to the other guys in the band, and you need to be aware of when your turn starts and ends.

Improvising Situation #2 – With a Canned Jam Track

Secondly, sometimes when I’m practicing, I’ll play over a jam track, which gives me tons of room to experiment and try new licks and ideas. This is great, but you don’t develop any “Band IQ” – the ability to lock in with a band. Super useful as a practice and growth tool though.

Improvising Situation #3 – Abstract Noodling

Thirdly, oftentimes I’ll grab my acoustic guitar and plunk down on the couch for a few minutes just to relax, and nine times out of ten, I end up noodling in one key or another. Typically the way this will start is I’ll play a few chords, say in the key of G, and then I’ll just start randomly improvising little fills and things in between the chord changes. This is also great practice, but it is this time that produces most of my song ideas – no backing track, no band, no preset anything; just pure improvising on musical rabbit trails. (the pic is rather tenuously connected to that statement 🙂

How to Get Started?

Some time ago, I asked you, my subscribers, what sort of things you really wanted to learn on guitar, and guitar improvising and soloing came out on top, by a huge margin. Now I really enjoy improvising, but I knew that to really do justice to a good guitar improvising lesson, I needed to recruit the best guy I knew… and that’s Colin Daniel – the guy who taught me how to play guitar 15 years ago. (You can see the video where I interviewed him here).

Fortunately, he agreed, and together we put together a great primer on guitar improvising. In fact, that partnership is turning into FAR more – as together we’ve started RiffNinja.com which is already growing into an amazing resource for guitar players.

Back to improvising… Want to know what the very first step is? To learn your scale like the back of your hand.

To give you an example of WHY this is so, think for a moment about playing any sort of physical game. It’s pretty hard to play football if you’re always thinking about how to put one foot in front of the other, isn’t it? Likewise, how are you going to solo fluidly if you don’t know the notes in the scale?

To learn more about Colin’s course on improvising,
follow the rabbit trail to Guitar Improvising Secrets.


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  1. In some of these lessons and on the web, I love to find bits of band jam sessions, then with base or guitar on full, I say ‘stuff the neighbours’ and let them know I’m still breathing, just pray next move is to a more musical area, definately not the ‘grey belt’. Doesn’t matter what kind of music it is, though I do have a ‘weakness’ for blues and rock, music with style and raunch. Or throw on Rage, and let it rip. Especially love when they go over the 80s and 70s when a band was a band, and not like now, just a bit too bland. Okay have a good festive season and I think ‘if it had a face, I won’t be eating it’.

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  3. Just wanted to throw in my ‘two cents’. All I ever seem to do is improvise, when I pick up my guitar. I have never played in a band, so I’m definitely lacking in that sense. But for the past few years I have gotten used to just jamming with the songs I have in my iTunes library. As a whole, it doesn’t necessarily sound all that great; just a bunch of what most would consider worthless noodling. But I know it has really taught me a lot when it comes to playing in key with any particular song. I’m still not sure what I’m doing by a music theory standpoint, but instead of learning the names and notes of particular scales, I have taught myself by ear, how to play all different notes on the neck and stay in key with whatever song I’m playing. After doing this for a long time, my fingers have learned what notes are where compared to other notes. The best way I can describe this is to play any one note on the guitar, then I can imagine another note in my mind and my fingers know where to go from the first note, to get there. All in all, by doing this I can play different scales and still not know which ones they are, because I’m not necessarily concerned with that. As long as I’m staying in key with the song I’m playing along with, it all sounds planned, even though it’s total improvisation. Does anyone else learn this way I wonder?

    1. sounds like you are just about where i am in my playing and improv. sometimes i’ll slide to the “correct” next note but after a few times of that it gets monotonous

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