I have recently been trying to hone in my improvisational skills. I'm stuck in the first position of the Am pentatonic box and can't move away from it. Whenever I try to move out of it, I randomize the next box that I go to, which most of the time leads to bad sounding improvisations.

I have narrowed the problem down to it being me having a bad sense of rhythm. I think I've got technique as a rhythm guitarist, but in regards to musicality, I don't.

I don't know which chords go together well, what goes after a chord, how minors, majors and 7ths are formed (don't know if this is important to be a good rhythm guitarist though), etc.

5 Answers 5


Your question covers several different topics but I think what you're interested in is Harmony. This is a very vast subject. As for the importance of what you lack as a rhythm guitarist, it largely depends on the style you play.

Lots of artists just don't know what they're doing when writing stuff and just happen to know empirically what goes well with what. In some styles like ska, punk or metal, a deep understanding of harmony is not mandatory, and learning a lot of tunes of this genre will give you a basic understanding of the underlying harmonies.

Scale Harmonization

The basis of understanding which chord goes well after another is known as scale harmonization. You don't need to know how to do it perfectly, just to do it once or two to grab the idea.

You should find many many tutorials, here's one.

Don't be deterred by the relative difficulty of it. Depending on how your brain is wired it might seem quite hard to do, but you won't need it on a day to day basis.

As a result of scale harmonization, for each note of the major scale, you've got a chord (major or minor). You can shuffle through each chord of the seventh, and it will sound ok.

In C, the chords are C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim.

Now each one has a particular weight, a particular sound, or effect if you will, not only in association with the tonal center, but also to the previous and next chord.

For example, the degree I feels at rest, and most song will end on it. The V pushes the ear toward the I or the IV for example. Switching to the VI will go minor. For example a really cheesy progression would be I, IV, V. The bridge could go VI, III, V for example.

(this is a very basic explanation with lots of weakness but I think it's a good start).

There's a set of very common chord progressions. Some of them have even names (50's progression etc, I don't really know them in English).

What I like to do is learn the songs I like, and transpose them to C (for the sake of simplicity). Then I try to identify the chord progression. This way I can tell what I like about this changes. You can also tweak each chord in certain ways, some of them are done very frequently. There's rule for that, but you can just learn empirically (for example, you can play the IV and then the IVm, I've found this many Muse songs and I like the sound of it, so I use it in my compositions. But it doesn't work with the V for example :)


To further describe the way each degree is attracted to another, let's take the V. The reason why the G7 (V) push toward C7M (I) is the following:

The seventh of G is F; its third is B.

The third of C is E; its root is C (obviously).

It means that two notes of the V chord are only one semi-tone apart from those of the I chords. A semi-tone interval is a very strong one, it is so close that the ear "wants" one chord to resolve to the other.


If you try to do harmonization by yourself, you'll find that each chord has also a seventh, which can be major or minor. As for the other extensions (6, 11, 13 etc), this is also a very vast subject. Know that each degree of the harmonized scale may or may not be extended with each scale note.


For the technical aspect of rhythm playing, I would advise you to take a look at my answer to this related question.

On a side note, while I agree that rhythm playing is linked to your abilities as a lead player, it is still another topic and this will not necessarily solve your problems.


I think a good instinctive understanding of harmony is important, and one good way to get there is to work out chord progressions yourself.

Start with simple three-chord rock'n'roll standards. Assume that you're working with the root, the fourth and the fifth, and it's just a matter of working out which order to play them. Start in A, so you're working with really easy chord shapes: A, D, E. If you pick a song and realise it's got a fourth chord, put it aside and try a simpler song.

Forget about 7ths at first. Work out the root of the chord you're looking for (often listening to the bass part helps here), then work out whether it's major or minor, either just with your ears, or by reasoning about the scale you're in. For example, if you're playing in C, and the chord has a root of A, then it must be Am because there is no C# in the key.

To be more clear - take a song like "Blue Suede Shoes". I can promise you it can be played with three chords. Don't worry about what key the original is in. Have the lyrics written down, and make sure you know how it goes. Don't refer to tabs or chord sheets. Strum an A chord, and sing "One for the money...", and keep singing until your ear tells you that an A chord isn't right any more. Change chord. Experiment and use your ears to decide whether the next chord should be a D or an E. Keep doing that until you've got through the song.

Pretty soon you should be able to play chords for most three-chord songs in A on-the-fly. Even that's useful at parties! Now try it in other keys. C, D, E, F, G at least.

... and in parallel, start tackling those songs with more chords. You can still put songs aside if it becomes obvious that the chord structure is too complicated to tackle just yet. Build up to these things. With experience you'll be able to tell at first listen how complex the chord sequence of a song is.

It's fine to look at chord sheets when you're stuck, but try not to rely on them too heavily.

As for your improvisational skills, and getting out of the pentatonic box, try learning/copying the solos of people you admire. When they leave a box, think about why what they're doing works. Some people like to learn a variety of scales. Have a go at that.

Other people hear what they want to play, and play it, rather than play something in a scale and see what comes out. That's a great skill to have. Try singing a lick, then playing it -- trying repeatedly until you get it. Then try singing in unison with your guitar, as you improvise. Sing what you want to hear, and try to play it at the same time.

  • So it's like playing the song without tabs nor chord books and then determining if whether the song only uses the chords A, D and E and through that I can pick up a sense of harmonization to it? Or did I misunderstand? Im sorry. Aside from listening to the bass, can I determine the key/root of the song by just knowing which chord was first played for the entire song? Or could that be just categorized as an assumption? Also after reading your answer I think Ive come to the conclusion that I don't even know what's the difference between a root of a chord and a key of a song. research time
    – reverb
    May 8, 2013 at 8:39

I think there's some possibility for confusion of terms because lead and rhythm means different things depending on what precise area you're talking about.

In a rock band, there's usually a division between the rhythm guitar whose job is primarily harmony and chords (the left hand of the piano) and the lead guitar whose job is to play little melodies and solos (the right hand of the piano). You don't need to learn rhythm first. Rhythm isn't any less musical than lead playing. And playing lead well requires lots of rhythmic ability.

Definitely work on your rhythm-playing even if you don't intend to be a rhythm player. Many lead-guitar effects like syncopation and suspension require a keen rhythmic sense to accomplish. Sometimes a lead can be as simple as copying the rhythm part, replacing full-chords with power-chords, or replacing power-chords with dyads or just the root notes.

If you try to view the two guitarists as team whose job it is to play the song, then you can steer away from the view that the lead is more important and the rhythm should be delegated to the junior of the two. Rhythm and lead both have a function to serve and sometimes the rhythm is more important, sometime less important. Sometimes you gotta tell the soloist to chillax a few bars and let this groove breathe. The lead is the driver, but the rhythm is the horsepower.

And lead playing can be very rhythmic. Listen to some Louis Armstrong trumpet solos where he's just wailing the hell out of one note. But all the bending and wiggling is in rhythm.

  • thanks for the info, it does seem that my question is a little unclear. It's certainly the rhythm or the harmony part of my playing is the one I want to work on since I don't want to continue on relying on guess work when improvising or making random chord progressions.
    – reverb
    May 7, 2013 at 8:42
  • now your edited answer was an eye-opener, I can't believe I still have this juvenile perspective on what lead guitarist/rhythm guitarist is. your answer cleared that off my mind.
    – reverb
    May 8, 2013 at 8:41

I'm addressing only your first paragraph. Assuming you want to stay pentatonic for now, and know the box in A based around the 5th to 8th frets, this should help. The box below that has basically two notes per string, as the box you know. Each higher note on each string is the SAME note as the lower one in your known box.So you already know HALF of it !! Guess what - the next box up uses for its bottom notes the same ones as the TOP notes of your known box. Thus you already know HALF of that one !! So - in order to use all three boxes, you only need to replicate the pentatonic notes around frets 2/3 and frets 7/10. If you start the higher box on 6th string, 8th fret, and use the Am pent. notes, you'll hopefully realise that it's actually C maj. pent. you're playing. It happens to use EXACTLY the same 5 notes, so you can solo along regardless.

  • I can't quite grasp what you're trying to say here, but I think I read something related to your answer here link or did I relate your answer wrongly?
    – reverb
    May 9, 2013 at 4:35
  • Yes, quite similar. But I've tried to explain how shape 1 can be related to the shape (box) below it - towards the head of the guitar, and the box above - towards the guitar body. Also, I've covered all 6 strings rather than one octave, hopefully to give more scope to your playing. Grab your guitar and try to understand this, it'll make sense eventually !
    – Tim
    May 9, 2013 at 7:55

There's a box of questions here, without a strong theme. I'll pick off what I can.

  • For most circumstances, the difference between a rhythm and lead guitarist is artificial, because most of the time, the lead guitarist is also playing behind a singer or other instrumental player. The number of musicians who only play lead and never have to support another musician is very small.

  • The way to work on your rhythm is to play rhythm. Turn on the radio and strum along to the songs. Mute the strings because the core here is rhythm, not harmony. Listen to the drummer and try to connect to that rhythm. If you can't connect to simple 4/4 pop/rock rhythms, there's no use trying to get to the more fun stuff. My rule here is: it is far better to play the wrong note at the right time than the right note at the wrong time.

  • For playing rhythm in an improvisational rock context, you don't really need to know the rules of harmony. In the rock context, certain jam bands to the contrary, you aren't improvising as rhythm guitarist, you're providing the stable foundation for the soloist to take off from, and improvising too much erodes that stability. You need to know the song as written by someone who knew the rules of harmony and obeyed them as desired. Eventually, once you see lots and lots of songs, you'll start noticing that songs that have G major, C major and D major often have Am and Em, and certain patterns. Knowing the rules of harmony is good, but to become a technically more proficient musician doesn't require that you know them yet.

  • The rules of harmony follow the rules of melody, and that's a bigger topic than can really be covered here. Certain genres follow different rules. Your Am box problem point to me that, playing leads, you're stuck to one pattern. There are many guitarists whose music I love who admit to never going far from that same pattern. I can say learn the scales, learn the modes. It wouldn't be bad for you to do so, but honestly, I'd say you can hold off until you're more comfortable with rhythm, know how to play the harmony part of a few songs, and can start to move that pattern around to different songs. Once you have that, scales and modes will make a lot more sense to you.

  • so it's all just about experiencing the harmonies per se you mean? Ill take on your suggestion of playing along with songs, I do that anyways, only problem I have is I do alot of guess work when determining what chords I am to use on a song, which I think means I just can't decipher chords by ear
    – reverb
    May 9, 2013 at 4:32
  • Barre chords are the shortcut here. Even more to the point, "power". Root and fifth to start. The third gives you major and minor, and eventually you'll get to sevenths and sixths and ninths and thirteenths and diminished and augmented, but if you do the low two strings of barre chords, that'll get you the basics of finding out the chord structure. May 9, 2013 at 14:38
  • Also, while you can throw chords together in all sorts of ways, be aware that popular music tends to use a few well-worn patterns. Look up "Axis of Awesome" on YouTube and you'll see now many songs are made up of root, fourth fifth and minor sixth. May 9, 2013 at 14:47

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