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Improvisation if you’ve never done it

Improvisation is like conversation. We have a general idea of what we want to say, but nobody thinks about what words they’re going to use before they say them. When we improvise on an instrument, we don’t know exactly what notes we’re going to play before we play them.

But if you’ve never improvised before, how do you start? How do you know what notes to play?

Improvising on a chord progression

First, you need a scale. Then you need to know that that scale will sound good on a given chord progression. We make it sound good by using it in the key that the chord progression is in.

This is easy if you know what key the song is in. If it’s in A minor, you use the A minor pentatonic scale. Simply start the scale on A on the sixth string. Here’s the scale again. Just in case…

A minor pent diagram

If the song is in C minor, start the scale on C on the sixth string. In B minor, start on B, etc.

Ninety percent of the time, the first chord of the song will tell you the key.  You can figure our what the first chord is by listening to the recording. This can be difficult. If it is, search “song-name chords” online.

Make a progression

Here are the chords in the key of C major:

Cmaj            Dmin            Emin            Fmaj            Gmaj            Amin            Bdim

To get the chords in the key of A minor, simply start the sequence on the A minor chord:

Amin            Bdim            Cmaj            Dmin            Emin            Fmaj            Gmaj

In A minor, you can use E major instead of E minor, and G# diminished instead of G major.

Make a three-chord progression in the key of A minor. Choose any three chords and organize them into an 8-bar progression. Now loop the progression.

If you don’t have something to loop your progression with, download the free recording platform Audacity. It’s a great idea to learn how to use software like this, if you don’t already know how. Hours of fun.

Or you could use a jam track:

Using jam tracks online is a nice way of practicing scales in different styles. Check out the youtube page for other videos in A minor.


All you need to do for now is play the A minor pentatonic scale over whatever progression you’re using. Don’t worry about being a genius. Just play the scale. Make sure you go slow enough that you aren’t making mistakes. You’ll hear stuff you like as you play. Repeat that stuff.

I’ll have concrete ideas for improvising in later posts. For now, just get comfortable playing the scale. When you play something you like, find a way to remember it. Write it down, record it…

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