Introduction: How to Improvise Great Solos on a Guitar

Picture of How to Improvise Great Solos on a Guitar

Ever wanted to rip an amazing solo like Hendrix? Tried to fit notes together to fit a backing track but it doesn't work? Then this might just be the instructable for you!
It will cover:
Basic Pentatonic scales to go around
Blues scales
Advanced Jazz scales
And other techniques that may come in useful elsewhere as well as here

I took some pictures myself but found others on google.

Step 1: Basics

Picture of Basics

Before I go straight on to scales, I am going to tell you about how to get the right notes to fit a particular chord, and also the circle of 5ths. If you know these, skip to step 2.

Generally, The songs you will improvise too will follow a widely used chord progression pattern, which should stay the same for most of the tune or just for a section (chorus, verse, bridge etc.)
I am going to give you notes that will fit into the particular chords. This will work with MOST styles of music, but not for others. You don't have to follow this, it is just to give you an Idea of what will fit.
Note: the following chords can be moved up or down, with the notes. you will have to compensate for the accidentals/key sharps/flats that are going to be added.

Chord: cmaj (C major)
notes that will fit: C, E,F,G,A,Bb. D and B can be used as connectors, but not too often. Do not hold these for over 1 beat or so.
Chord: cm (C minor)
notes that will fit: C,Eb,F,G,A,Bb. D and B can be used as connectors, but not too often. Do not hold these for over 1 beat or so.
Chord: Cmaj7 (C major 7th)
notes that will fit: C,D,E,G,Bb. Other notes should not really be used often if at all.
Chord: C4 (C 4th)
notes that will fit: C,F,A.Other notes can be used but not too often.

Circle of 5ths.
Sounds complicated but actually isn't. Look at the picture for details, but the main idea is to show the flats/sharps in each key. I cannot teach you the circle of 5ths, you have to learn most of it yourself. Hopefully the diagram will explain a lot.

Step 2: Pentatonic Scales

Picture of Pentatonic Scales

At last, a scale to learn! This can be used for most styles.
Look at the diagram for details on finger positions.

Take position 1 eg. E minor. This scale, shown below, is E minor. To make a E major, move your hand down to the nut keeping the position the same. So it makes:


Which is the G major pentatonic scale as well. So, by moving the position down by 3 frets, you turn a minor into a major.

Step 3: The Blues Scale

Picture of The Blues Scale

The blues scale is used in jazz, reggae, hip hop and other styles derrived from jazz.

|---A------------------------------0- 2-3---------------------|
|-----------------0- 1-2---------------------------------------|

It adds accidentals to the original pentatonic scale, and lo and behold, a new scale for more genres of music. Sometimes, in rock/metal music this may be apropriate too, such as songs that rely on fast broken chords and use a lot of different notes.

Step 4: Other Jazz Scales

A mixolydian scale is where you add a sharp (the next one in the circle of fifths rule) or take a flat away (the previous one in the sof). Eg: C Mixolydian would have an F# instead of an F, F Mixolydian would have no Bb. If the scale has no sharps/flats, then add a sharp.

A Lydian is the opposite of a Mixolydian: you take away a sharp or add a flat. Eg. G Mixolydian would have no sharps, and F Mixolydian would have an added Eb. Again, if the scale has no sharps/flats, you would add a flat.

A dorian scale uses the key signature of the tone below the key note. Eg. A C dorian would have a Bb key signature (Bb and Eb).

I personally don't use a major scale, you can If you want. For major keys I move the minor pentatonic scale is moved so that the 2nd note on the 6th string is playing the tonic note.

I searched and searched both for diagrams on the internet and my book of scales, but I couldn't find them. No pictures for this step.

Step 5: Now, to Improvise! :D

Picture of Now, to Improvise! :D

Yay! Now all of the theory is out of the way, lets get improvising! :D
Firstly, get to know the backing track. Quite a lot of tunes have a similar chord progression, like a lot of blues/jazz music has 12 bar blues, but metal/rock music tends to have a more original chord sequence. Then, get notes to fit to the chord. I might make a video of me improvising to a blues song, a jazz song,and a metal song below, so if you want to see how to do it, just ask and I will make one.
I cannot teach you to improvise, it is something you have to learn for yourself.

I can only show you the door. You have to open it.
Morpheus, the Matrix.

Another thing that may be useful is finding what guitarists you like, and possibly imitate their style (or at least take a leaf out of their book). For example, I base some of my solos on a hint of Hendrix, but its mostly from me. My jazz solos are more just from me, but do what you will.

Good luck, get to grips with improvising before you go out and show people. You have to develop your own "Style". I tend to keep the same position for the whole solo, finding the right notes to fit the chord. Some people change their scale position according to the chord. Choose which one you find easiest. Also once you get used to improvising simply, try adding phrasing to make your improvisation have that finishing touch. Now go forth, improvise, spread the word of music, and learn!


NataliaS40 (author)2016-10-25

Great help, thanks for that! :) I've written an article on general improvisation, would be really grateful for your opinion on that:

DevonJ2 (author)2015-09-11

The circle of Fourth/Fifths above has the Fm and Cm flipped.

Should be:

Ab | Ab C Eb | Fm
Eb | Eb G Bb | Cm

The Jamalam (author)DevonJ22015-10-08

6 years and you're the first to notice... slipped past me too!

sask_quatch (author)2010-04-19

i think this is the Am pentatonic scale if you're starting at the 5th fret.

RobertW29 (author)sask_quatch2015-06-23

Yes, but if you transpose the whole thing over the neck it's also the same notes as the Cmajor scale, which is the point he is trying to make. If you move your Am pattern to start at 2 (3 down from 5) you have A major scale. The pattern is exactly the same. Just when starting we only learn pattern 1, and pattern 1 starts in a different place for the overall pattern between a major and a minor scale.

pauldiracsurfer (author)2011-11-11

I love the circle, why have I never seen it before? Is it a well known thing in jazz circles?

It's fairly well known past Grade 5 theory for ABRSM, it's a very useful tool for writing all kinds of music (although it's just as easy to remember each key signature as it is). I don't actually use it for jazz often. I put most of my music in F, Bb or Eb as I work with saxophones and trumpets who transpose. My parents taught me this at a young age and I have used it frequently; I'd recommend it as a teaching technique as well.

fdavies (author)2011-02-12

Difficult to grasp this as presented. Maybe I can help?

I teach my students a single way to finger the major scale.
One fret per finger, beginning with the second finger, having them memorize the following: 2 4 - 1 2 4 - 1 3 4 (with the dash representing the next string.)

If the fingering progression should move to the 2nd string (the 'B' string) then they are told to just shift one fret up (higher note) and continue. And of course reverse this going down scale.

They can then play the major scale in any key. they only have to start on the note which names the scale (Start on C for C major, on G for G major etc.)

Next, I have them play it for two octaves, asking them to instead of playing the final note with their 4th finger, to play it with their 2nd finger and basically play the same pattern twice.

Finally I tell them about the other modes. The same fingering is used, but by starting on the second note of the scale, they are playing the Dorian mode.

The modes are in order: Ionian (also called Major), Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolean (also called the RELATIVE minor), and Locrain.

It's a great alternative to teaching multiple scale/mode fingerings as the student catches on to the single pattern quickly, and readily sees the relationship between the modes.

Beyond this are slight variations to cover additional scales, and also other possible fingerings. I usually throw in the blues scale (as presented by the author) but I have found that students learn best if this is done in a separate lesson after they have learned the major scale.

The Jamalam (author)fdavies2011-02-13

It's always difficult to be taught anything substantial over the internet, which is why instructables is usually used for step-by-step guides rather than theory or teaching. Thanks for your help, this was made well over a year ago and I'd only been playing for just under a year. It's no good expanding this one as I rarely receive comments on it.

fdavies (author)The Jamalam2011-02-13

Yes, the urge to teach what we are learning is at times... overwhelming. However, a few more years of study would be good to have under your belt before instructing others. That way we don't lead folks down the wrong path allowing them to pick up bad habits which need to be unlearned later.

As you said, one step at a time... Learning a single way to finger a scale, followed by learning the mental part, ..modes, .where to use it, variations, etc. seems the most straight forward way of approaching this.

Most helpful is learning to read music. Then the student learns the names of the notes and where they can be found on the guitar. Once a student has a handle on the notation the instructor can move on to theory.

The idea is to help the student become a working musician. To survive as a guitarist they will need to be able to play anything from rock to classical to jazz etc. as well as understand theory well enough to teach.

Again, as you mentioned, this is difficult to do on the net. I highly recommend students begin with a qualified instructor from day one. This prevents learning those bad habits and really speeds things up for them.

The Jamalam (author)fdavies2011-02-13

Also I forgot to mention; thank you for your advice, it's nice to have another teacher's perspective on this.

skateydude (author)2009-03-10

hey how do you do those awesome arpeggios? jw.......

The Jamalam (author)skateydude2009-03-10

G major for eg: d string 5th fret, g string (lol) 4th fret, b string 3rd fret E string 3rd fret. G miner eg: d string 5th fret, g string 3rd fret, b string 3rd fret E string 3rd fret.

skateydude (author)The Jamalam2009-03-12

hey dude can you put that into more simple .....uh thingy? i havent been playing fo long so.... and do you know how to do those pinch harmonics?jw ps lol on the g stringy thingy :)

The Jamalam (author)skateydude2009-03-12

umm you'll have to ask someone else about the arpeggios then. The harmonics, you have to use the tip of your finger precisely over the fret bar. Pick that string. It only works on the 5th, 7th, 12th, 17th and 19th frets.

skateydude (author)The Jamalam2009-03-18

oh no i know how to do those its those " pinch harmonics" or squealies fordeath metal that im talking about

norsehorse (author)skateydude2009-04-26

You take a finger from your pick hand and slightly touch the string near the pickups while fretting a note. I use my thumb and just slightly hang it over the edge of the pick.

fdavies (author)norsehorse2011-02-12

Another method which works (for finger picking) is to use the thumb to dampen the string (just enough to make it a NODE) and pluck with one of the other fingers. This is of course a right hand technique.

The above technique works when the left hand is fretting the note too. Of course you must adjust you right hand as the position of the nodes will change with the fretting.

A string can vibrate at any fraction of it's length. The 12th fret of course is the octave and easiest to do, but 1/3 ... 1/4 ... 1/5 ... 1/6 ... 1/7 ... etc will all work. A few of these are not exactly over a fret.

dchall8 (author)2009-02-24

One of the key things about improvising that I'm trying to teach my daughters is that the word improvise does not mean the riff was created spontaneously on the fly. There are some genius types who can truly create as they play but for the most part, an improv is highly rehearsed at home before it makes it to a performance. There are no shortcuts for most of us. After a few years of playing you will get to know where the notes are on the neck but probably the last thing on your mind is whether you are playing Dorian or whatever scale.

fdavies (author)dchall82011-02-12

Actually, I'd call it a SOLO (even if other are playing too) or a lead, and yes, it should be rehearsed.

IMPROVISATION really is about making it up on the spot.

It's difficult to teach someone how to be creative although you can give your daughters a few hints to help, such as 'playing around the melody' and being consciously aware of not just which notes they are playing but which scale or mode they are playing against which cords within what progression.

It might sound old fashioned but as you stated: there are no shortcuts and so I recommend all guitarists (especially beginners) follow a classical approach: ---Learning to play the classical guitar (properly) and sight reading.

babbagevigniere (author)dchall82010-09-20

From wikipedia;
"Improvisation is the practice of acting, singing, talking and reacting, of making and creating, in the moment and in response to the stimulus of one's immediate environment and inner feelings. This can result in the invention of new thought patterns, new practices, new structures or symbols, and/or new ways to act. This invention cycle occurs most effectively when the practitioner has a thorough intuitive and technical understanding of the necessary skills and concerns within the improvised domain. Improvisation can be thought of as an "on the spot" or "off the cuff" spontaneous activity."

I dont know about you, but spontaneous, off the cuff activity sounds pretty much like creating a solo spontaneously on the fly. In fact, among most musicians I know and play with, they wouldn't count anything prearranged as improvisation. Kind of the opposite actually. Yeah.

The Jamalam (author)dchall82009-07-19

Hmmm. I am a member of the school jazz band. I use blues, dorian, lydian and mixolydian when apropriate. I actually do improvise as I go. But, I do sit for about an hour a day doing a constant solo. I love playing, it helps me forget... *shivers*.

rockadio101 (author)2011-02-06

dude i have the exact same guitar on the firs pic it is awsome

babbagevigniere (author)2010-09-20

Woah woah woah woah. The relative mixolydian scale is in the fifth position from the tonic major. So where a C major scale has no sharps or flats, the C mixolydian would be taken from its relative major, F major, and have a Bb note (the dominant seventh for the jazz sound). The lydian comes from the fourth of the tonic, so the C lydian would be taken from the G major scale (in which C is the fourth note), and so it is the lydian mode that has the sharpened fourth. the confusion comes from the double step of working out both the relation of the mode to the tonic, and then applying that to the orignial tonic and using a different relative tonic.

Your description of the dorian is pretty accurate. It would be nice to see the above points clarified, and maybe a quick description of when to use these modes; all create a jazzy sound, of course, but the C mixolydian would be used over a C7 (C dominant seventh) chord, for the dominant seventh note of a Bb, with the lydian and dorian mode being used in the more tonal Cmaj7 and Cm7 respectively (lydian and dorian being relative major and minor jazz scales.)

Overall though, great post, its nice to see a improv post with an explanation of modal jazz.

pyroninja21 (author)2009-08-22

my guitar looks almost exactley like this guys but mines a peavy

abadfart (author)pyroninja212010-03-10

its a strat knock off  

darkdragonv (author)2009-07-06

I have a peavey rockmaster....amazing tone for the price i got it at

whatsisface (author)2009-02-22

Pacifica 012? Aren't they the MDF ones? I learnt on a 112x, really nice guitar for a beginner.

amdead (author)whatsisface2009-07-02

012 is made from agathis, its a pretty cheap wood, normally gets referred to as a plywood type wood. The 112x is a nice guitar I have one, sounds pretty good for the price, also looks pretty cool

The Jamalam (author)whatsisface2009-02-23

nah its a hardwood body with rosewood fretboard

SeMi_AuToMaTic (author)2009-03-10

I think i might get this guitar in the near future...

amdead (author)SeMi_AuToMaTic2009-07-02

Love Ibanez's i have a RG 350DX love it, its so nice to play and look at

Ah, the Ibanez Prestige... good choice.

If you look up 'Ibanez 3EX 1 grayburst', that's what I have. Ibanez has some of the best guitars I've played

barrax (author)SeMi_AuToMaTic2009-03-10

is that the one stevie vao has?, just with out the customness?

SeMi_AuToMaTic (author)barrax2009-03-11

I don't know.

feralin (author)2009-03-18

awesome i didn't know you play guitar! i play guitar and violin and am good at music theory! my music teacher said that i should do AP music theory in 9th grade(lolz ya!(not kidding))

SeMi_AuToMaTic (author)2009-02-22

Dorian is interesting. i have a song in band in dorian. nice instructable, though. i am wondering where slashes tophat is? weird......... (goes depressed)

barrax (author)SeMi_AuToMaTic2009-03-10

His hat was thrown up right before the solo.

SeMi_AuToMaTic (author)barrax2009-03-10

Ah. okay.

barrax (author)2009-03-10

the top hat was thrown up in that video.

ajleece (author)2009-02-22

This is pretty useful. I was gonna so something like this but i will move on. I have finished my ball machine! Pics up soon.

The Jamalam (author)ajleece2009-02-23


wazupwiop (author)2009-02-22

"For major keys I move the minor pentatonic scale is moved so that the 2nd note on the 6th string is playing the tonic note." what does this mean?

The Jamalam (author)wazupwiop2009-02-22

in the minor pentatonic scale, usually the tonic is the first note on the 6th string. but move this down 3 frets to make it a major, thus making the second note the tonic.

About This Instructable




Bio: Figured it was high time to give this a quick edit. I was an active part of the K'Nex community from about '08, I ... More »
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