Why Improvisation is The Most Important Guitar Skill - And How to Improve Your Improv!

  • by Tom Boddison
  • 04 Dec, 2017
NOTE: This is just a short lesson this week. I'm working on some really exciting stuff to be unveiled soon, so stay tuned for it! For now, have fun with these improvisation tips.

When it comes to learning guitar, there are  dozens of different skills to work on.

Scales. Chords. String bends. Alternate picking. Tapping. Vibrato. Songwriting.

But there's  one  skill that combines all of this stuff. It's like the ultimate test of how good you are as a guitar player. What is it?

Improvisation.

In order to improvise well, you need to be good at all  of these skills and be adept at combining them in a musical context.

You have to have good scale knowledge. You'll need good all-round theory knowledge too, so that you can follow chord progressions effectively.

Your intonation will need to be good to make sure you don't sound out of tune, and your phrasing needs to be really solid.

You'll need a solid grasp of techniques like legato, slides, and picking, so that you can add dynamic variety to whatever you improvise - and you'll need a good ear so that you can come up with nice melodies.

If your songwriting is good, that'll help with your improv - giving you a sense of structure and overall song dynamics.

In short - if you want to be good at improvisation, you have to be good at  everything!

The Reverse is Also True...

The reverse is also true, though.

Yes, you need to be good at lots of things to be good at improvisation, but if you practice improvisation a lot then you'll  become good at a lot of other skills .

Your scale and chord knowledge will be strengthened. Your aural skills will improve. Your technique will become more fluid simply from doing lots of repetitions of the same movements.

Your sense of dynamics and structure will improve, which will help to make your improvisations sound more deliberate and pre-composed - like you really  mean it , rather than it being a random collection of notes.

The more you practise your improv, the more you improve  overall . It's a superb thing to practise if you want to be a good guitar player.

In fact, I've probably spent more time on guitar improvising that doing  anything else . Even if it's just me and the guitar, without a backing track, it's still incredibly useful.

Some people would call it noodling, but really it's improvisation. You're coming up with new melodies and sounds on the spot, and aiming to make your playing sound just a  tiny   bit better every time.

Improvisation Vs. Noodling

Noodling is often defined as "undisciplined and unstructured practice".

That might be accurate, but there is an easy way to make noodling  highly effective in making you a better player.

Simply make sure that you're  always playing something new.

There are a few ways to do this. You could take a lick or riff you already know, and create some variations:

  • You could play it with a different tone. Is it normally clean? Try it with some heavy distortion and see what it's like! Change up the gain levels and EQ completely, or add in some cool effects to get a different sound. This is a great way to get used to how different factors affect tone, too - playing the same riff but with different tone settings allows you to highlight what's different about certain equipment/settings. 
  • You could play the same notes and rhythm, but in a different way. Varying the dynamics is a great way to do this - how about playing really quietly, and then really loudly, and going between the two? Try substituting some pick strokes with hammer-ons and pull-offs for a softer sound, or doing the opposite for a more aggressive style. Can you add in any bends, or take some away and replace them with slides? Experiment with it and have fun! There are no rules.
  • You could even try creating variations on the riff or lick. Change up the rhythm, or play it at a different tempo. Try changing up one note at a time, and seeing where it takes you. You might even use the riff/lick as the basis for your own compositions!

Of course, when you're doing this you're not thinking about it too much. You just let it "flow" and see what happens. Learning these tips  will help though, because they'll give you a starting point for your own ideas.

Instead of starting with a riff or lick you already know, you could come up with some stuff that's original. That's what we're dealing with in the next section.

How to Get Started Practising Improvisation

In the beginning, lots of people struggle with improvisation. There are so many possibilities of what to play, that they don't know where to start!

Thankfully, there are a few easy steps you can follow to get started:

  1. Grab a backing track, or put on a song you like. You could use one of the backing tracks from this guide , or you could put on your favourite song and jam over that. I've spent HOURS jamming to AC/DC songs and soloing over the top of them - and it's great fun! Choose something that really excites you.
  2. Get a basic scale shape ready. If you're new to improvisation then DON'T try to use every scale you know! Take ONE simple shape that fits the key of the backing track, and stay within it. The better you already know the scale shape, the better. You could even take just four or five notes from a larger shape, and stay within that small chunk.
  3. Start playing! The nice thing about scales is that if you're using the right one,  all of the notes work. That's the whole point of a scale! Just play the shape slowly up and down at first, noticing what each note sounds like and seeing which ones sound tense, and which ones sound stable.
  4. Start to improvise. Play any note within the scale, and it should sound decent. Try playing sequences - so up three notes, down two notes, then up another three, and so on - all the way up the scale. The key here is just to experiment and have fun! It won't sound great at first, but the more you do it the better you'll get.  Don't worry about playing wrong notes. Forget about trying to make it "perfect" and just have fun rocking out!
  5. Add in some "ornaments". This is the term I like to use for bends, slides, legato, and so on - stuff that changes the sound of the notes you play. Once you've got used to using the scale for improvisation, add these in to make your playing more interesting. Just focus on one at first - say, bends - and try to use it as much as possible. Can you improvise over a whole backing track and bend  every note you play? Challenge yourself! Then, when using bends in improvisations is the easiest thing in the world, try slides. Then legato (hammer-ons and pull-offs), and so on, until you've got used to using loads of different ornaments when you play.
  6. Sing what you play. This sounds strange, but it's  super effective. It trains you to "know" what the different notes of the scale will sound like before you even play them, making it really easy to come up with awesome melodies and licks on-the-spot. Whenever you play a note, sing the same pitch as you play it. Keep singing  everything that you play as you improvise. Don't worry if you're not a singer (neither am I!) - the point isn't to make your singing sound great. The point is to improve your fretboard-to-ear connection, which is a vital part of being a good guitar player. Focus on playing well and making your singing in tune with the notes that you play.


For more fun and exciting ideas to spice things up, check out this guide on 44 Essential Improvisation Strategies to Skyrocket Your Skills .

Have fun, and keep rocking!

Note: As I said, this is only a quick lesson while I put the finishing touches on something very exciting that's coming out within the next couple of weeks - have a go at these ideas, and stay tuned for more info!
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