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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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This blog is intended to relate playing the guitar to composition, and vice versa. Learning to solo can lead to learning scales and trying to play them as fast as possible. That doesn’t apply here.

But learning about creating riffs and melodies does. Scales are good for this.

(It doesn’t mean that you can’t use what I say here to play solos. It’s just not my focus.)


Learning tapping, sweeping, and legato techniques for their own sake is fine. Learning one of these techniques, and having it inspire some writing is better. That seems more interesting to me than simply learning technique so you can play a more impressive solo. I’ll look at these techniques in later posts for their compositional value.

First steps

The first thing you need is a scale. The minor pentatonic is probably the most common scale in popular music. Here are two ways of looking at the A minor pentatonic scale:


A minor pent


…and a diagram. The numbers indicate what fingers to use.


A minor pent diagram


So what do you do with this?

Try this. Play a recording of a song you like. Get your guitar and play along with it using the A minor pentatonic scale. If you’re lucky, the scale will be in the same key as the song and it will sound fine. But you’ll probably have to move the scale shape to different spots on the neck until it sounds good.

This just means that you start the scale on a different fret than the 5th fret. By the time the song ends, you’ll most likely have found the right scale. If not, start the song from the beginning and keep going. Be patient.


Once you have the right scale, start the song again. Play only when the singer is singing. This gives you a feel for something called phrasing.

Phrasing is a personal way of playing a series of notes. It’s called phrasing because it’s related to the phrase lengths we use when we speak. When we play like we speak, it sounds and feels natural.

Playing like you speak

Playing like you speak means to play phrases that are no longer than the length of your breath. It means to pause like you would at the end of a sentence. It means not playing way too many notes. Playing along with the singer gives you a sense of the natural length for a single phrase.

Think of the solo as a story. Stories are built from sentences and phrases. A good story doesn’t have run-on sentences because they annoy people. So keep your phrases concise. Don’t play anything longer than a natural sentence length.


Take a breath. Now breathe out while playing the minor pentatonic scale. That’s a good measure for how long a phrase should be. This is a rule of thumb, not a hard and fast rule. Some phrases might be a bit longer, some a bit shorter.

As you do this work, be aware of the compositional implications. Getting a feel for optimum phrase-lengths in a solo transfers to writing good melody. Focusing on scales as a tool for writing melody transfers to playing good solos. Think compositionally and your playing will be better.

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There’s a lot of isolation involved in being an artist. But there’s a lot of collaboration, too. Collaboration is pretty obvious when we work with others. It’s not quite so obvious when we appropriate material from others without their knowledge. Yes, I mean stealing.


Stealing is collaboration. You use somebody else’s stuff to make something new. They take what you’ve made from their stuff and do the same.  Stealing becomes a way to generate ideas collaboratively without ever meeting your collaborator.


Information gathering

Using other people’s stuff is somethingwe all do, whether consciously or unconsciously. When we do it, we’re just gathering information. It doesn’t matter that we take it. It matters how we use it.


To use it well, it’s helpful to think of genius as the mastery of information and the ability to communicate it, rather than as a solitary figure struggling for originality.  When we take this attitude, the information we gather becomes something we can use to make something new.


(A relevant aside: “Books are made from other books.” – Cormac McArthy.

 To paraphrase, music is made from other music.)



Mastery of information means knowing where and how to find it. Communicating information refers to how we put it together to express ourselves. The method of “putting-together” that we use says as much as the information itself.

This is most easily seen our use of language. Two people with the same vocabulary will use it differently. In the same way, two people with the same drum track will use it differently. We make these decisions based on personal style.



Check out this site for examples of musical collage.


The work found there is a collage of other people’s work, and it creates something new.  This is one aspect of collaboration. Ideas from one person (or from several persons) filter through another person to become a different thing altogether.



Another good example of stealing is Tori Amos’s album of covers, Strange Little Girls. Listen to the originals, then listen to Amos’s versions.



And then there’s Jonathon Lethem’s article on plagiarism. A great read.


Make something

Now go download Audacity (or use whatever recording platform you might have). Make some empty tracks, and put a different song on each track.


Listen closely to each song. Try to hear how one is similar to another. It might be instrumentation, tempo, style. Maybe the guitar sound is the same between songs. Maybe you want to alternate a male singer with a female singer.


Cut out parts of songs that you want to fit together. Don’t be a censor. If you think it might work, do it. You can always throw it away later.


Even if nothing works, the exercise of listening and editing will make you more aware of common musical relationships between songs. And the process is fun.










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