Where I'm at skill-wise

  • Played guitar on-and-off for about 5 years
  • Up until a year ago had only really learned by playing from tabs
  • Have been undertaking bi-weekly guitar lessons for just over a year
  • I don't know which notes are which on the fretboard, I just play using common shapes and experience

What I want to do

I want to be able to improvise and create my own melodies/lead parts on guitar using scales, but have struggled to pick up non-theory based ways of learning them, primarily in terms of how to apply them. I've previously tried using the major/minor pentatonic shapes (I guess this is a common thing). Is this one of the better ways for someone like me to learn? Or is there a better way? Someone told me that diatonic scales are the most useful in terms of jamming etc. I've also seen the pentatonic shapes referred to as a 'parlor trick', which makes me feel like it's not the most useful. My guitar teacher encouraged me to use the pentatonic shapes, but he's probably not the most experienced in terms of teaching, so I don't know if there's a better way. I found the pentatonic shapes were making me feel a bit confined, perhaps because I wasn't combining the shapes much, of that I just didn't understand the theory. Either way, I feel that it's worth finding out what other common techniques are used to teach learners. In terms of the style of music, I'm just looking to create music that is fairly 'pop' sounding, occasionally touching upon fairly standard rock.

6 Answers 6


Your teacher did the right thing teaching the pentatonic first. 5 notes is enough to learn to start with. But if you're finding it restrictive, now is the time to add in more notes.

Knowing what notes are what on the fretboard will be of some use and is not that difficult, so you should glance over it and have the ability to do it if you have to. On the A string, for example, we have A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# and back to A on the 12 fret.

but knowing which note is which within the pentatonic scale shape will be far more useful, and should become second nature. The pentatonic major scale consists of I II III V VI I (without IV or VII) which in C is C D E G A C (without F or B.) This is of course the pentatonic scale that you play when you are allowed to play all the notes on the 5th fret. The root note in that position (in this case C) is on the 3rd string.

Draw out (or print from the internet) three copies of a pentatonic scale shape. This can be whatever position you are most comfortable with, but I suspect it will be the ones where you have a certain fret in which you can play all the notes.

  1. Take that C major pentatonic scale and pencil in all the B's and F's. You now have a C major diatonic scale, the full 7 white notes on the piano.

  2. Now, take your second copy of the same position, and pencil in all the B's and F#'s. This is the G major diatonic scale. (Made by adding two notes to the C major pentatonic! Weird, but clever.)

  3. Finally, take the third copy, and pencil in all the Bb's and F's. This is the F major diatonic scale. (From the C major pentatonic. Again, weird but clever.)

These new scales will give you more flexibility, especially in playing single semitone intervals. Include these in your solos bit by bit, starting as trills, and your ear will confirm if you have the theory right.

Now, why did I make you do 3 copies?

Well, take your C diatonic major scale (which is of course the same notes as A diatonic minor, it just depends, which you consider to be the root.)

You now have two ways to think about turning it into an F diatonic major scale. You can either move the whole shape up 5 frets/ down 7 frets OR you can stay at the same place on the neck and turn all the B's into B flats.

You also have two ways to thing about turning it into G diatonic major scale. You can either move the whole shape down 5 frets / up 7 frets OR you can turn all the F's into F sharps.

Of course, with the second method the root note will change to a different string, but it's useful to appreciate the patterns in the notes.

And that's the diatonic. If you get bored with that, you can start adding in accidentals. These are often associated with different styles. For blues there is the blue note, Eb if you are in the scale of C major / A minor. G# and F# are other extra notes you may want to add in. You can find these theoretically with pen and paper, but you can also find them on the fretboard by ear.

But in order to orient yourself with these new notes, it helps to know which note you of the pentatonic you are playing. It will be more useful to say to yourself "that's the third, I need to go outside the pentatonic to play the fourth" than to say:

I'm in C major pentatonic, I know where E is, I want to play an F

I'm in Db major pentatonic, I know where F is, I want to play a Gb

I'm in D major pentatonic, I know where F# is, I want to play a G

etc, through all the 12 possibilities.

Because all 12 of these possibilities are equivalent to the previous statement.

EDIT: Now the OP has confirmed he was asking about scales, I'll throw in this handy diagram of some of the "pencilled in" scales.

It shows two positions of the pentatonic scale (marking the fret on which all notes can be played which would be 5th fret if you are in C major.) The additional notes F and B required for C major diatonic are shown in red.

Where you see red-black on consecutive frets on the same string, that's B-C (generalises to VII-I.)

Where you see black-red on consecutive frets on the same string, that's E-F (generalises to III-IV.)

For ease of understanding it is assumed you will play each of the following options separately:

(1) Use 5th fret and below (cover up the right hand side of the diagram)

(2) Use 5th fret and above (cover up the left side.)

If you do this you will need one F on the 1st fret for (1) and one B on the 9th fret for (2). However you will probably find it easier to play if you substitute for the equivalent notes on the 6th and 4th frets.

enter image description here

By applying the flattening and sharpening of individual notes mentioned above, together with moving scales up and down, in all possible permutations, it is actually possible to define all positions of the diatonic scale just with this diagram.

Disclaimer for any pedants out there: the notes are from the key of C major. It's only correct to call it the scale of C major if you play the scale from C to C.

  • Downvoted as this answer is about how to learn scales not how to improvise. Related but still very different.
    – Fergus
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 0:54
  • This is a good way to explain scales and how they relate to each other. Sadly, it's the answer to a different question from the OP's. Find the right question (it's here somewhere) and you'll get upvotes !
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 8:48
  • 1
    @Fergus Thanks for explaining the downvote. I went with the text of the OP's question (which does mention scales quite a lot), rather than the title. It's important that the OP understands he doesn't have to throw the pentatonic out, just build on it either by using theory or by ear. How to improvise is a far more subjective question to answer. Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 8:52
  • 1
    @Tim Scales aren't mentioned in the title but they seem to be the main thrust of the OP's text. He seems to think the diatonic is different from the pentatonic, when in fact it is an extension of the pentatonic. In fact most useful scales are an extension of the pentatonic (whether you find them by theory or by ear.) That needed clarifying. I hope I have given the OP something useful. That's more important than a vote. Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 18:42
  • I think my post may have been poorly constructed in terms of what I was trying to ask. Indeed, in my head at least, I was asking more how to learn scales. Which is why I referenced specifically the pentatonic shapes that I was taught. Steve's post is very much in line with the sort of response I was wanting. Thanks Steve, and all others for your input!
    – Rich
    Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 21:57

This is how it has always been done:

  1. Learn your favorite lead guitar solos or parts of them you like (there are plenty of tabs in the Internet)
  2. Steal
  3. Profit!

I myself play along with records I think I might learn something of. I used to over-use the descending mixolydian scale in my solos but stealing interesting (surprisingly simple) licks from records helped. Now I play about a half of notes I used to.

On the other hand when you're jamming alone you don't have to be original or interesting. If you come up with an interesting lick, try playing it again. And again. And again. Can you add something to it or take something away? Our first ideas are often not that good, and they don't need to be. They're raw material. Beethoven wrote a lot of clumsy sketches and hammered them through endless variations until he came up with masterworks.

Playing again helps you learn to listen to your playing. If you know why your solos suck, you're pretty near to realize how you can make them not to suck anymore. Or maybe what you don't like is really something your own and you can elaborate it to become your personal distinctive style.

The key is to use both your and other's ideas, jam a lot and listen to your playing.


It sounds like you might need to "Gain inspiration" ?

When I was starting out I was listening to the likes of Hendrix and Dire Straits. Learning a few of the tricks involved there seemed to help me out a lot, because although their sound is totally different, some of the techniques are pretty similar. Add to that a bit of Van Halen (ie, something quite different technique-wise) and mix it all together and I have ended up with a kind of pallette of 'stuff' I can use which suites what I want. Needless to say I like rock ;-)

Incidentally you can use the pentatonic just as a basic "Shape" meaning you can solo in any key, and also add extra notes in to make it more interesting. Where/when depends a lot on the song though and would get more into the description of a scale, already provided here by steve verrill.

I think the main thing I have learnt, though, is to consider what kind of sound I want to make when going into a solo. If I don't do this, I just start using "muscle memory" and while that's ok, it can get a bit samey and routine-like. I play much better solos if I think to myself something like "I think a smooth jazz one at first then rock it up towards the end". That is, I'm kind of setting myself a 'mood'.

I guess you could do this either way before playing, perhaps establish a practiced solo, then reveal it when playing live, or think about it just as the solo is coming up. I personally prefer the "just in time" approach because I like the spontinaity, but some prefer to work things out in advance.

Also sometimes, especially when jamming, the notion of what would work changes halfway through though so a bit of flexibility to go with the mood works well.

  • Thx for the acknowledgement and +1. There's actually 2 questions here, one about improving improvisation in the title and one about scales in the text (OP mentions pentatonic 4 times, complains it's limiting and even questions his teacher's wisdom in teaching it. I HAD to say something about that, so I'm slightly annoyed by multiple negative comments.) Everything I do is based on pentatonic, with notes from diatonic and blues scales thrown in, and other notes that I don't know if they're from a scale but like you say, it fits the mood. Thinking ahead what moods to express really helps a solo. Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 13:16
  • pleasure! seems obvious to me that scales ahve a place in soloing and pentatonic is commonplace for a reason :-) Commented Mar 12, 2014 at 9:44

Yes, start with pentatonic scales. A pentatonic scale is a subset of the diatonic scale. So, once you become proficient at making good solos with the pentatonic, then you can learn how to incorporate those extra two notes.

A very good book to start with is: "The Blues Scales: Essential Tools" by Dan Greenblatt. A blues scale, after all, is just a pentatonic scale with an added blue note.

This book will keep you busy for a while.


I can really recommend pages like:

http://www.songsterr.com/ - Where you can see the tabs and actually play along with a computersimulated version of the song.

If you just want to learn the cords, you can see them on for example Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chords_guitar Try to learn the chords E, A, D, G. First try to make them sound good and clear, then fx 4 strokes on one chord, then change fast and precise. After some days practicing, you will be able to change through a few chords and play your first song or make your own!

Note: Acustic guitars are often harder to do chords on, because the strings are often further away from the fretboard, which makes your fingers work harder to make the chord clear sounding... If you have money for it, buy an electric Fender Squire or something like that, and a starter amp + jack cable. It's often way easier to learn chords on an electric guitar, or at least, that's what I found out :)

Hope this helped.

Good luck, good practice and keep on rocking ;)


Learning all the notes on the fretboard will be of immense help. For example, try to find all C for 5 minutes, until it becomes completely natural. Next try to find all D and so on... Once you're done with the C major scale, go for all the F#, then Bb...

If you're working on scales, then you can spot all notes of a scale (that is, with all its # or b) while you're working on this scale.

Fretboard discovery and understanding is of great importance when going for improvisation.

You can also checkout David Walliman free lessons on YouTube. He's got a super understandable approach to modes (scales) including pentatonic scales.

And practice everyday!

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