Situation: I can play chords, barre chords, major and minor pentatonic, and diatonic scales. Have been playing for a couple of years but most of that was spent improvising on scales I already know, so I haven't progressed much and have reached a plateau.

Problem: I don't really like learning songs as i only want to learn the bits that sound cool, not the whole thing. Also, I would really like to learn songs if I knew how the songs were made (what scales and why they fit the chords etc).

Goal: I want to be able to quickly find a key and then just improvise to my hearts content with solos, chords arpeggios the lot?

Question: what is the learning path to get there? I don't really have the money for regular lessons so what alternatives are there? Do books work well? Any advice appreciated :)

  • Play in bands. That's your best learning tool. Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 23:29
  • 1
    I dont really like learning songs as i only want to learn the bits that sound cool, not the whole thing -- this will really hold you back in your development. Get a copy of the Real Book (a well-known Fake Book). Pick a tune that you like in its entirety and spend a few weeks with it. With each tune you learn thoroughly you will grow as a musician and an improviser. Commented Nov 14, 2015 at 5:10

5 Answers 5


I want to be able to quickly find a key and then just improvise to my hearts content with solos, chords arpeggios the lot.

I recommend you find a band or group of musicians that like to "jam" and jam with them. You'll have to learn to pick up what others are playing by ear (although you can sometimes cheat by looking at what frets the bass player is fretting, for example). Then you'll learn to play along with single notes or chords that mirror what the band is playing, then you'll start playing your own solos, etc. Personally I would suggest spending some time in a 100% improvisational environment to every musician.

If you really can't find anyone to jam with, you can get some live concert recordings from bands like Phish or Umphrey's McGee or Robert Walter's 20th Congress or tons of different bands and start playing along with them by ear. If you want to go with a more classic vibe, James Brown or Jimmy Smith would be good ones to play along with.

Really any music that you like is a candidate if you don't mind repeating them (if they are short). One great way to learn to play by ear is to noodle around while watching a movie and then attempt to jam with the closing credits music, which is often symphonic, long, fairly simple, and in only one or two keys (I'm think of the Marvel and DC superhero movies here, primarily).

You could get one of those huge jazz fake books, open to the first tune, and record or use a looping pedal to record and loop the first chord progression, and then start riffing on that.

Jamming with real people is the best option, but not so easy to make happen.


Play songs or backing tracks from your pc (there are lots on youtube) and try to improvise on these songs. At first try songs with slow key changes or no key changes at all. Blues backing tracks are a really good start because they fit to minor and major keys at the same time. Just find the key that they are in (try to do this using your ear). Don't try to play fast at first, just be accurate, fit to the key and experiment. Learning a couple of solos from songs you like is not bad though. It will help you see things from another musician's perspective and also learn new ways to express yourself.

Books are good too. I used books of Joe Satriani with tabs and i remember that I found new 'tricks' and 'moves' that I could take and use in my solos when I improvise.


One thing that definitely helped me was getting transcriptions to songs I liked. Or even for songs I didn't like, but that had something I wanted to learn. You can get books that have song transcriptions for almost any well-known guitar band. If the books are too expensive, you can also buy magazines like Guitar World, Acoustic Guitar, etc. that do transcriptions.

For you, I would recommend the Signature Licks series of books. They cover a bunch of different players, like Brad Paisley, Robert Johnson, Duane Allman, etc. They don't do whole songs, just the interesting parts. You get the note-for-note tablature, along with a short discussion about technique and theory for each part. I think it's a really good way to learn, because you learn licks and technique, and a little theory along the way. Where you go from there is up to you.


Playing scales is great for learning where to find the notes you can use to improvise. But it sounds like you are ready to start applying your knowledge of scales and exercising your creativity.

There are tons of videos on YouTube that teach various ways to improvise and you can learn quite a bit from those (for free). Make a word document and paste the link for the ones you like with a brief description of what the video is about. This will allow you to start a "collection" of the videos you find most useful.

You will also get a great deal of mileage from simply playing along with others, jam tracks, loops, or backing tracks. One of the best ways to improve your skills is to simply use them often to improvise over the aforementioned sources of harmony.

Since you play chords, you might try a simple looper to lay down some chord progressions. Although that won't help in identifying the key.

Another option is to make your own jam tracks using the free open source audio editing program Audacity Audacity Free Download to remove the lead guitar from many popular recorded songs. There are many articles on line that explain how this is done. Here is one Remove Lead Guitar From Recording. Then you can play along and improvise with your favorite bands.

Where I live, there are many open mic nights at local restaurants, pubs, sports bars and other venues. The ones I participate in provide opportunities for folks to "sit it" and improvise with some of the performers. You might try searching on line for "open mic in ________" (insert name of your city).

In the USA try Open Mic US Website

Open mic nights are also a great way to meet other musicians to jam with. I met all the members of my band at various open mics around my town.

Bottom line, I think you have the foundation you need. Now it's time to start putting your knowledge into practice. The more you play - using your creativity, the more natural it will become.

Have fun!


Simple advice-

Start transcribing, chuck tabs, that is the way out. Learn them by ear. Download a software (like transcribe! software) that helps to slow down a song that would help you transcribe songs.

Once you do that, you will start understanding the feel of a song and how your guitar hero maybe thought of it and started improvising on that scale, the note choices etc.

Start with simple stuff and build your way up, maybe start finding the notes of a simple jingle or melody you would hear in a t.v advertisement to maybe more complex songs. It will take time, there will be some frustrations and sometimes completely wrong notes played, but stick to it.

After some practice you would get to a point where you'll just straight up be able to play a melody in your head on the guitar! Listen to a song and play along with it just by ear. Play to different backing tracks too, that will help.This is the way out!

P.S This comes from a self taught guitarist, hence not a lot of technicalities in my answer :p. I have faced a similar situation, when I had the techniques and stuff down and could do a decent improvisation but after a while I was stuck and everything sounded repetitive. This is what worked for me (still working)!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.