How to Improvise Great Solos on a Guitar




About: 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 still occasionally lurk. I did a lot of dumb stuff on here but I'm past it now. I'm currently...

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

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

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

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

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!



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    46 Discussions


    2 years ago

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


    3 years ago on Introduction

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

    Should be:

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

    1 reply
    The JamalamDevonJ2

    Reply 3 years ago

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


    Reply 4 years ago on Step 2

    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.

    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.


    8 years ago on Step 5

    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.

    3 replies
    The Jamalamfdavies

    Reply 8 years ago on Step 5

    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.

    fdaviesThe Jamalam

    Reply 8 years ago on Step 5

    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 Jamalamfdavies

    Reply 8 years ago on Step 5

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

    The Jamalamskateydude

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    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.

    skateydudeThe Jamalam

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    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 Jamalamskateydude

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    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.

    skateydudeThe Jamalam

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

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


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    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.

    1 reply

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    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.