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To give some context, I am able to easily solo over a backing track based on the key of the track - all over the guitar's fretboard using most of the advanced guitar techniques and scale runs.

My solo compositions over chord changes sound neat through some trial and error but I want to improve on improvisation. The improv playing is mostly by ear but I'm looking for guidance as to how I should go to the next step of consciously playing chord-tones/arpeggio-notes to sound better.

If someone can shed light on what is the best (i.e. a digestible) way that you found during your learning to get started on this path? Cage system approach? Learning triads? Arpeggio patterns for each chord? Switching scale to target chord? Something else?

For purposes of discussion, let's stick to C major scale and I–V–vi–IV progression (C–G–Am–F). I'm looking to get started. I really appreciate any insight into this topic.

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Learn your scales and arpeggios

Cage system approach? Learning triads? Arpeggio patterns for each chord? Switching scale to target chord? Something else?

Yes, all of them. I wouldn't worry about CAGED vs another fingering system necessarily. There are pros and cons to each but most people choose either CAGED or "3 notes per string". You can try both eventually. For now just pick a system that works for you and start learning your scales. But knowing your major scales really well is probably your first priority.

Also pentatonic scales—if you don't know them already—are really helpful especially for blues, rock and pop. I'd actually probably start there if you haven't already.

Then move on to both triads and 7th chord arpeggios within whatever system you've chosen. So given a C major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, you should be able to start from a position in the major scales you've learned and play the arpeggios that are diatonic to that scale (CMaj7, Dm7, Em7, FMaj7, G7, Am7, Bm7b5). So C (C, E, G), Dm (D, F, A), Em (E, G, B), etc. Or CMaj7 (C, E, G, B), Dm7 (D, F, A, C), etc.

Eventually you'll want to know melodic minor, harmonic minor, and more. But you can get really far with just major scales and arpeggios.

Don't worry about learning it all before you start improvising. Start with one scale pattern or whatever and once you get it under your fingers immediately start improvising with it. Then pick up another pattern or scale or arpeggio the next day/week/whatever.

Know what notes you're playing

When you play these things make a conscious effort to sing, say, or think the note that you're playing as well as the degree of the scale and/or chord it is. Because of the way fretboard shapes are so easily movable/transposable, guitarists have a tendency to rely on only shapes.

But knowing what notes you're playing and even better how it relates to the underlying chord/scale is important to your goal of improvising. Within a given chord it makes it easier to work with tension and release. And when connecting chords it makes much easier to map that path if you know what chord tone you're on and which one you're headed to on the next chord.

Don't get stuck just practicing

Play these scales and arpeggios but don't get stuck on practicing them in isolation. Quickly move on to using them over chords melodically.

Also while it's helpful to do a bit of isolation work to hear how various scales and arpeggios sound over a particular chord, don't get stuck doing that either. Quickly move on to playing over whole progressions and whole tunes.

While you should do some daily work on learning the fretboard and theory, the bulk of your practice time should be playing music because otherwise what's the point of any of it.

Connect the changes well

When you practice over changes one thing you'll want to put some focus on is connecting from one chord to the next. It usually doesn't sound good when you suddenly jump from one idea or scale or whatever when the chord changes. "You want to play through the changes and not over them" (I wish I knew who to attribute this quote to, I think maybe it was Jimmy Bruno). "Target notes" and "guide tones" are something to look into.

Also try using sequences in your lines. So when you play a motif or idea over one chord, try transposing and restating that idea again over the next chord. You can keep the melodic the idea the same but slightly vary the rhythm and articulation to make it feel a bit different.

Slow it down

It may be helpful to slow down to a rubato (free of tempo) so that you can really think about what you're playing and how to connect to the next thing. Go as slow as you need to so that you can think about your pathway through the changes. Do count though. So maybe restrict yourself to playing 8th notes and count 1 & 2, etc in your head so you know when the chord change is coming up but don't worry about doing it at tempo.

Compose lines, too

And ultimately your goal is improvisation, but that doesn't mean you have to be doing that all the time. Try composing some lines and then playing them. Even if you don't want to do that for an actual performance, it's helpful for trying out new techniques and analyzing what's possible without having to worry about actually playing it correctly yet. You mentioned you've done this, but I think you should try more later once you get some more of the theory in your head. It's especially helpful for things like connecting changes (as is the rubato technique).

Steal

Listen to other solos you like, figure them out, and then analyze them. It many not feel creative or in the spirit of improvising but it's something everybody does and important part of learning especially when it comes to the idiomatic differences between genre. The things I've mentioned so far apply to all genres but if you want a jazz, or metal, or blues sound then you need to listen to those types of music and figure out how those lines are made up. You don't need to play them exactly like the recording or even use them in your own performances at all. But the process of transcribing and dissecting them will teach you a lot.

  • Very sound advice. I like the way you've organized your response. Very easy to digest. I already know pentatonic scales, but I haven't tried every system there is - maybe, as you say, I need to try all and only then I will know what works for me. Also, relating to the "connect changes well" studying basic 'approach notes' technique has been helpful to me. And your last point is spot on. Studying my guitar heroes is probably the best exercise for me once I know my scales and chords well. Thank you!! – Fenil Sep 22 '17 at 16:52
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I learned to solo improvise using blues tracks, not necessarily backing tracks, buy back in the day you used to be able to get some great blues compilation albums from garage forecourts for a couple of quid.

Not only did i get some good practice in, as they key and artist changed throughout the albums, but I also discovered some great artists.

And practiced for hours using mainly pentatonic scales.

Great fun to practice with.

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Have a listen to Mr Neil Young, some times one note will do. Played with felling and passion. BEND IT, HAMMER IT, HOLD IT, PLAY IT LOUD, PLAY IT MUTED,VIBRATO, STACCATO, This man does not play by the rules, scales and note patterns are good for the purest but what is music ? Written music is a tool we learn to try and reproduce the writers work, You will learn more by the felling you get from an off note that you worked on to make fit than any level of formal training and practice, remember you are most likely only a semitone away

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