I have been playing guitar for a while now and I've decided (after playing with a guy I know and seeing how expressive his solos are) that I need to improve my improvisation.

My improvisations are dull to say the least. It sounds as if I am just randomly going up and down the given scale which frankly is what I'm doing.

I am aware that when soloing, it is important to use a variety of different techniques but I'm not really sure of to many bar sweeps and legato runs.

Some help would be greatly appreciated.


7 Answers 7


Learning licks and solos by other musicians can be helpful in this respect. Obviously you'll want to develop your own voice, but no musician exists in a vacuum and it's definitely helpful to learn and analyze (if even unconsciously) the kinds of things musicians you admire have played. Depending on your style and the direction you want to go, it may be helpful to focus on other instruments as well (I've transcribed solos by saxophone and trumpet players to help my guitar playing, and I've tried to learn chord voicings from piano players whenever possible).

In fact, it's probably helpful to spend some time with totally different styles of music from your own, to learn the width and breadth of techniques available. Think of the way Bach would develop a phrase through counterpoint, and the interaction of similar phrases. Listen to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and the way he develops a simple four note motif over the course of a half-hour piece of music. Think of the multitude of ways this concept of development of phrases or motifs has been approached, by Wagner, Copland, Coltrane, Clapton, and so on. Every one of them produced a lifetime's worth of music to explore and learn from.

Do try, too, to think about it in terms of developing a phrase. Ideas don't often come fully formed to an improvising musician. Instead, we'll take a phrase, either invented or from the content of the tune as the case may be, and expound upon it, using variation and invention to bring our own take and ideas to the framework we're working within. I neglected to mention this at first because it seems obvious, but be sure you know the tune. We guitarists are particularly prone to learning the changes but not the melody of the song. If you have the melody well in hand and in mind, it will help you to keep your improvisation "in context" as it were, and it'll be a rich resource for melodic ideas.

There are, of course, lots of technical things to think about in the mix, ideas which can span the whole spectrum of music really. A brief selection of my favorites might include:

  • Phrasing/Rhythm: Think about how your phrases develop. Are you playing straight quarter/eighth/sixteenth notes? Maybe you could introduce some triplets into the mix, or even some more complex polyrhythms if you're feeling ambitious. Spend some time on the evolution of these patterns through your phrases. Building from slower or simpler melodic statements into more rapid or complex ones is a common technique. Try that, or try subverting it. Think also about the length of your phrases, about syncopation, about using rests or sustained notes to break up a phrase. Another useful thing, particularly for guitarists (and indeed players of any instrument that isn't blown), is to try to be more conscious of your breathing when planning the length and rhythm of your phrases. This can lend a more "natural" feel to your playing.
  • Melody: What shapes do you use for your melodies? If you feel like you're running scales, try practicing arpeggios, and try breaking them up, changing directions, repeating only certain notes. Imagine a contour (not necessarily a precise one) of your melody. Is it repetitive, is it ascending, is it descending, is it all over the place? Try sketching a squiggly line on a piece of paper, then improvising a melody following the contour of that line. Do it again with a different shape. Learn how those shapes can affect the feelings expressed in your phrase.
  • Harmony: How does your melody relate to the harmony of the piece? Could you make a different choice that would make it more interesting? As a jazz player, one of my favorite tricks for getting "outside" is to take a short motif and repeat it some arbitrary interval away. Maybe you could choose notes from the Dorian mode rather than the natural minor over this chord. Obviously, this'll depend a bit on your music theoretical knowledge and the style you're playing in.
  • Articulation: How are you hitting the strings? Are you playing legato or staccato? Are you bending notes a little, or a lot, or not at all? Obviously experiment with this on your own to find your preferences. This is an area in particular where listening to and transcribing other musicians will be immensely helpful. Why do Chet Atkins and Leo Kottke and Yngwie Malmsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan each sound so distinctly different from each other? Don't cop out and say "equipment", either—try playing a phrase the way you think one player might, then another player.

Definitely do spend some time writing phrases out on paper, too. Improvisation is still composition, after all, and the same techniques apply. Approaching the process more deliberately will definitely help to broaden the range of intellectual tools you have to fall back on when you find your "natural" intuition for improvisation is stretched to its limits, and over time, you'll find those tools being integrated into that natural intuition.

  • Very nice answer. I think that the importance of melody can't be stressed enough, especially for guitar. Commented Mar 23, 2014 at 15:20
  • 1
    I'd emphasize learning and using the melody of the song that the solo is in.
    – Dave
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 14:00
  • Thanks, @Dave. I often forget to mention that sort of thing as it seems so obvious now in retrospect, but it did indeed take me a long time to learn that lesson. I've added a paragraph focusing on development and context. Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 14:22

With any solo, you want to tell a story. The licks, riffs and grooves are your words. Writers structure stories as narrative arcs.

A narrative arc is usually:

  • Exposition: The introduction the story in which characters are introduced, setting is revealed.
  • Rising Action: A series of events that complicate matters for the protagonist, creating a rise in the story's suspense or tension.
  • Climax: The point of greatest tension in the story and the turning point in the narrative arc from rising action to falling action.
  • Falling Action (Anti-climax): After the climax, the unfolding of events in a story's plot and the release of tension leading toward the resolution.
  • Resolution: The end of the story, typically, in which the problems of the story and of the protagonists are resolved.

In good stories there's usually a series of rising actions (and slight falling actions) that gradually get bigger to the big climax and the resolution of the story.

So a guitar solo story might go like this:

  • Exposition: Restate the hook or some other melodic fragment

  • Rising Action 1: Start mutating the fragment by changing notes, rhythm or octave.

  • Falling Action 1: Either state the hook again or play a little chord-melody off the fragment or even stop briefly.
  • Rising Action 2: Continue to mutate the fragment. Get edgier, add some notes or chords that don't fit in the scale. Get louder. Start using effects.
  • Falling Action 2: Play the mutated fragment cleanly and simply
  • Rising Action 3: Start playing a completely different melodic fragment
  • Falling Action 3: Go back to your original or mutated original fragment
  • Rising Action 4: Start combining parts of the original fragment and the new fragment and switching between the two. This is dialog and conflict and interesting. Slice and dice, baby. Maybe play one fragment high and the other low. Get them arguing.
  • Rising Action 5: Keep combining and switching and slicing and dicing and effecting until combined statement is now really intense and difficult to play and busy.
  • Falling Action: Take out the parts that jar (or skip this step)
  • Climax: Add your special sauce, whatever makes listeners go "Woo!"
  • Resolution: State your original fragment and then segue back into the tune.

(Bonus points to nerds who noticed that this guitar solo is a sonata.)

The conflict in the rising actions are usually described as "tension and release" and the tension can be anything that is unsettled: busy vs. sparse, funky vs. straight, quiet vs. loud, playing up and down the neck, adding more chromatic notes or even playing in a key that's different from the song, playing behind the beat or in front of the beat, slow vs. fast, etc.


there are two important aspects of soloing: phrasing and selection of good target tones. Spend time with the pentatonic scale working on these two aspects. The pentatonic scale works over most chords in the key, so that's why it's the best starting point. Work on making "meaningful" phrases with the pentatonic scale, using specific tones you choose from that scale as targets to emphasize and end or start the phrases with.

Additionally you can check out a book called "Blues Scales: Essential Tools" by Dan Greenblatt. This is a very good learning aid for beginning improvisation. Realize that a blues scale is really a pentatonic scale with an added blue note. So your work on pentatonic and blues scales pays off together.


This is a bit like this post :

What is the best way to learn scales in order to improve improvisation/writing of lead guitar parts?

My answer was to 'gain inspiration' from either other guitarists or from within yourself (by deciding how your solo will sound in advance). From what you describe, you have a knowledge of scales and technique. However just doing the 'stuff you know' seems like just using your muscle memory without really applying any mood. I can say this because sometimes I slip into exactly the same situation. My answer was to be a bit more deliberate about how you want your solo to sound : smooth, soft, or harsh and blistering ? Or a mixture? and what mood would you like to convey? Melodic? Or blunt?

One other thing I've found works really well when playing live solos: Make sure you can hear yourself ! Sometyimes if you're getting drowned out a bit, there's no space for 'finding' a nice solo and muscle-memory widdling will prevail. Or it does with me anyway.

I shan't repeat the answers in the post I've linked but hopefully it will help :-)


I think that you should improve your skills up to a level where you can have the melody of the solo in your head and be able to transpose it directly on the guitar.

This requires a lot of practice.

As my guitar teacher says "The music doesn't come from your fingers, it comes from your head." So going up and down the scales doesn't mean/do anything (i.e. you shouldn't be playing just with your fingers and hoping that something comes out).

So, practice the scales, hear the notes you are hitting in your head and have the melody of the solo in your head when you start playing it. Eventually you should be able to transpose that solo into music...again, with enough practice.



Learn solos you like. Practice the things that are important to you. Keep practicing.

The number one lesson I learned from playing the guitar is that practice works, but it takes time and there are no shortcuts.

Longer version: What worked for me was learning other people's solos that I liked. And continue to practice them.

One of the first ones I started working on was Sultans Of Swing because I loved how smooth Mark Knopfler was in all the fills in that song. Then I moved on to Call Me The Breeze (Skynyrd's version) because it was my favorite song at the time ('70s :).

I repeated this pattern anytime I heard something I wanted to learn and my happiness level with my improvisation improved. A few things I focused on were getting bends right, simple phrasing and the ability to switch between pick and fingers.


What helped me was to think it terms of the vocal melody to get ideas for the solo. Use the vocal melody as a starting point and improvising will become much easier as you have a starting point. The listener will hear bits of the melody in the solo which give them a feeling of cohesiveness with the song. Hopefully this will give you a starting point to base your solo on and take the solo to new heights based on the melody of the song.

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