Guitar Improvisation


In this lesson you will learn 3 useful guitar improvisation techniques. Improvising on guitar should not be hard or confusing if you follow a few simple tips and tricks which we are going to discuss in this lesson.

Any guitarist who learns to improvise lead solos will at some point address the dilemma of what scale to use in the seemingly endless variation of chord progressions. This can be a very difficult subject that requires a lot of experience and theoretical knowledge.

Most sources of information on the subject will either go into too many details or, worse, it will be very vague. A large percentage of chord progressions in songs that the average beginner will play will often be on one key. This quick guide may not apply to everyone, but the concepts we’re going to learn in this article will help you be a better guitar improviser.        

Improvise solo using arpeggios

Rule 1: Use arpeggios

Let’s say our song is in the key of C and this is our chord progression, 

II – IV – IV – II

Dm – F – Am – Dm

For this rule you need to know your major scales and you must  know already that you can create major chords by taking the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the major scale , if you do not know these two concepts (major scales and chords construction), I highly recommend you check them out before reading this lesson.

Now let us get back to the lesson. To be a good guitar improviser you need to listen attentively to the song, hear the chord changes and play the appropriate arpeggio. For instance

While the song is on Dm, play a D minor triad (D – F – A), while it is on F play a major triad (F – A – C), while it is on Am play an A minor triad (A – C – E), and so on…

Example 1

Example 2

Remember this is the most basic approach to soloing. You can also use other colorful arpeggios like major/minor 7 arpeggios and major/ minor 9 arpeggios to spice up your guitar solos.

Rule 2: Use pentatonic scales

Before using pentatonic scales to solo over a song you will need to first find the key of a song. You have to look at the chords of the song and find the key to which they belong.

Keep in mind that some songs will not be on a single key, so what we’re looking for is which chords appear more often and which seem to be centered on a set of keys.

You will need to either use a Major scale Chart or learn how to memorize the major scale. This is the best method and it is not too difficult to do it with a little practice.

In western music all songs will be on a major or minor key. Just learning the major keys is sufficient because the minor keys use the same chords, only with a different starting point. For instance in a C major scale to derive a relative minor scale you need to go to the 6th step of the scale and build an eight note scale there.


Now let us take a look at a more elaborate example, let’s say on the  C major key, the chords are C Dm Em F G Am B dim C (Harmonizing the C major scale). The sixth chord (Am) is the relative minor of the C major key. So for the key of A minor we have the same chords  (as C major) but now starting from the A minor (Am B dim C Dm Em F G Am).

From this example I want you to understand that, if the chords of a song all belong to the key of C, but the home key feels like A minor, then the key is more likely to be minor. Another example is, if the song is in the key of D major but the home key feels like B minor then the key is more likely to be in B minor.

Now all you need to do now is to memorize or print out the basic chords for the major keys. Here they are:

harmonizing every scales

Once you find the key of a song you’re trying to improvise you can use pentatonic scales to solo over the root note of all chords in that song.

Rule to use pentatonic scales

  • Major Pentatonic scale for a major chord
  • Minor Pentatonic scale for a minor chord.

Don’t’ worry too much about minor pentatonic scales, because once you know major pentatonic scales you already know minor pentatonic scales. You just need to pay close attention to the root note of the scale you are playing. You can play minor pentatonic scales the same way you would play major pentatonic scales but you need to start and end on a different note.

Pentatonic Forms

(The red squares represent the major root and the yellow circles represent the minor root)

all pentatonic forms

Now, let us use the same chord progression above:

II – IV – IV – II

Dm – F – Am – Dm

When the song is on the Dm chord, you can play some of the notes from the D minor pentatonic scale, when the song is on the F major chord, play some of the notes from the F major pentatonic scale and so on…


Rule 3: Use Modes

Modes are just variations of the major scales. For lesson on modes, check out my postMaster The Theory of Guitar Modes.

Rules to use modes for the chord progression above:

II – IV – IV – II

Dm – F – Am – Dm

When the song is on the Dm chord, you can play some of the notes from the Dorian mode, when the song is on the Am chord, play some of the notes from the Lydian mode and when the song is on the Am chord play some of the notes from the Aeolian mode.
Memorizing the names of each mode is not important, but changing the tonal center to match the chord is very important! Try each of these modes on the appropriate chord progression.


2 Responses

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