Four Tips to Improve Your Guitar Improvisation Skills

Throughout their musical journey, guitar players learn a lot of things and work on several skills. These include chords, scales, alternate picking, note reading, songwriting, music theory and techniques such as tapping, vibrato, string bends, hammer-ons and pull-offs, among others.

However, the ultimate skill that players work toward – by combining all of these guitar knowledge and arsenal of techniques – is improvisation. That said, you won’t be able to improvise well unless you become good – and we mean really good – at all of these.

If you think you need to revisit a particular lesson or work on a specific skill, do so, and take your time to master it until it becomes second nature to you. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going back to the basics if it contributes to improving your craft. We’ve found that taking guitar lessons online can help in reviewing the fundamentals and providing exercises for even the most experienced players.

It works the other way around as well – the more you practice and work on improving your guitar improvisation, the better you’ll become at all the other guitar skills you’ve got under your belt. In short, you’ll become a better guitar player overall.

So how can you become better at guitar improvisation? Here are some tips.

Practice with a backing track
Choose a backing track to jam over. It can be any backing track (there’re plenty online) or a favorite song; something that really gets you in the mood. As you get better, you can challenge yourself by turning on the radio or putting your music playlist on shuffle, then jamming over whatever comes next – no skipping! This helps you work on your reaction time to any changes in key, tempo, music style and time signature.

Pick a scale
When you’re first starting out with guitar improvisation, it’s better to stick to a basic scale shape that fits the key of your chosen backing track. Stick with it for now. Putting a limit on what you can do on the fretboard trains you to come up with something new. The pentatonic scale is recommended for beginners. Play the scale up and down – slowly at first – while observing the sound of each note.

Get down to improvising by playing sequences of notes – for instance, play up three notes, then down two notes, and then up another three. Don’t be afraid to experiment. What’s important is to get used to jamming. You can also practice techniques such as bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and other ways to tweak the sound of the notes.

Sing it
If you’ve ever hummed out a silly tune as a kid or made up a ‘song’ about your brother’s smelly socks, you’ve had experience improvising. You’ll need to do the same now, but with your guitar. The goal of this exercise is to improve your coordination and the connection between the fretboard and your ear. So whenever you play a note, sing. Choose whatever syllable comes naturally to you (dum-dum-dum and doo-doo-doo are common favorites), as long as you sing in tune with the notes you’re playing. This helps in coming up with melodies and licks.

How would you describe your guitar improv skills? What fundamental guitar skills do you think players should master to become really good at improvisation? Share your thoughts with us!

Ellie Mckinsey writes regularly about guitars and musical themes. She has been playing the guitar and piano since she was a child and went on to study music at the Royal Northern Academy of Music in England. Outside of music, Ellie enjoys socialising with friends and traveling to lesser known places.