Last updated on January 12th, 2024
Have you ever wondered how some musicians can come up with musical ideas on the spot and make it seem so effortlessly? The truth is that the skill to improvise spontaneously on the guitar comes from having a solid understanding of various musical concepts and working through them in the practice room.
As we have a better understanding of music, the easier it gets to express our musical ideas on the spot and closer to what we we’re hearing.
In this post, we will cover six key concepts to help you learn how to improvise on the guitar.
Let’s get right into it!
1. Know your scales
Scales are the foundation where melodies and riffs come from. A scale is a set of notes which are related to each other so the better we know our scales, the more effective we can be at improvising.
If you just randomly pick out notes on your instrument and expect it to sound good, it will be very hard to get to a point where you can connect what you hear with what you play.
Regardless of the style of music, the essential scale you need to learn is the Major scale. Once you learn the 5 Major scale shapes on the fretboard, you are end up learning the minor scale because it includes the same notes but starting on different points. Eventually, you also want to be able to play your Major and minor scales in all keys.
Scale formulas for improvisation
Here is an overview of commonly used scales for improvising on guitar. The numbers next to each scale represent the scale degrees, meaning the notes in relation to the root note.
- Major scale: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
- Minor scale: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
- Major pentatonic scale: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6
- Minor pentatonic scale: 1, b3, 4, 5, b7
- Major blues scale: 1, 2, b3, 3, 5, 6
- Minor blues scale: 1, b3, 4, #4, 5, b7
- Melodic minor scale: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, 7
- Harmonic minor scale: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
Here are some examples of the scales we mentioned previously. Keep in mind that is just one way to play the scale on the guitar. The examples will help you to hear the notes of each scale.
C Major scale
C Minor scale
This scale is can also be referred to as the natural minor scale.
C Melodic minor scale
C Harmonic minor scale
2. Understanding diatonic chords
Now that you have an idea of some of the scales you will often use in improvisation, the next step is to learn how to apply these scales over chords and progressions by understanding what chords are related to each other.
One key thing that will help you know what scales to use over chords is the concept of diatonic chords. Diatonic chords are a series of chords that are all related to one scale. Understanding this will give you clarity on what key you are playing in and how the chords relate to each other in a progression.
If we build triad chords upon each scale degree of the Major scale, we naturally get different chord qualities such as Major chords, minor chords, and a diminished chord.
Here are the chord tones that belong to each chord quality:
- Major: 1, 3, 5
- Minor: 1, b3, 5
- Diminished: 1, b3, b5
If we take a Major scale and stack triads above each note, we naturally derive these chords from each scale degree.
- 1st degree: Major
- 2nd degree: minor
- 3rd degree: minor
- 4th degree: Major
- 5th degree: Major
- 6th degree: minor
- 7th degree: diminished
Diatonic chords in C
Here is a chart to help you see how diatonic chords are derived in the key of C Major.
If a chord progression included these chords, you could use the C Major scale and it would work over all the chords. However, if you see chords with sharps or flats, you have to look at how those chords fit within that particular scale.
For example, if a progression has the chords D minor, C major, and Bb Major, that would be the 6 minor, 5 Major, and 4 Major chord in the key of F Major.
You can also apply this concept with 7 chords which include one more chord tone. Here is a chart of what this looks like in comparison to triad chords.
Minor diatonic chords
The diatonic chord qualities for minor keys are the same ones starting on the 6th degree of the related Major scale. For example, the related chords in the key of A minor in both triad and 7th chord form are:
- A minor or A minor 7
- B diminished or B half diminished
- C Major or C Major 7
- D minor or D minor 7
- E minor or E minor 7
- F Major or F Major 7
- G Major or G 7
As you can see, knowing diatonic chords are helpful to find a key center much quicker so you can apply the right scale over a chord progression.
Keep in mind that songs also change in between keys or sometimes include non-diatonic chords. Regardless, use this concept as a starting point to learn how chords work together before getting into more complex concepts.
3. Understanding modes
In music, modes are scales derived from starting on different degrees of one main scale, also called a parent scale. Although the order of notes in a mode all come from one scale, each mode has a particular sound or mood when played over a chord or progression.
Let’s take the Major scale which has the scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.
We can derive 7 modes from the Major scale like this:
- The 1st mode is called Ionian. This is the sound you get when you play the notes starting on the 1st degree of the Major scale.
- The 2nd mode is called Dorian. This is the sound you get when you play the notes starting on the 2nd degree of the Major scale.
- The 3rd mode is called Phrygian. This is the sound you get when you play the notes starting on the 3rd degree of the Major scale.
- The 4th mode is called Lydian. This is the sound you get when you play the notes starting on the 4th degree of the Major scale.
- The 5th mode is called Mixolydian. This is the sound you get when you play the notes starting on the 5th degree of the Major scale.
- The 6th mode is called Aeolian. This is the sound you get when you play the notes starting on the 6th degree of the Major scale. (Commonly known as the natural minor scale).
- The 7th mode is called Locrian. This is the sound you get when you play the notes starting on the 7th degree of the Major scale.
To dive further on this topic, check out the modes and their related emotions in music.
Major scale modes
Here is a chart of the 7 modes related to the Major scale with their respective scale degrees.
7 Modes examples starting on C
Here are examples of the notes of the 7 modes with C as the root note. You also see the related parent scale (where the scale notes are coming from.)
- C Ionian scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B (C Major parent scale)
- C Dorian scale: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb (Bb Major parent scale)
- C Phrygian scale: C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb (Ab Major parent scale)
- C Lydian scale: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B (G Major parent scale)
- C Mixolydian scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb (F Major parent scale)
- C Aeolian scale: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb (Eb Major parent scale)
- C Locrian scale: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb (Db Major parent scale)
Also, note that many people use the word ‘mode’ with ‘scale’ interchangeably. For example, they might say D Dorian mode or D Dorian scale to mean the same thing. However, you can also think of modes to refer to the sound being outlined in a series of chords.
We can also build different modes from the scales we covered in the previous sections but for this post, we are only covering the modes derived from the Major scale.
4. Practice playing scales over chord progressions
At this stage, you want to have a good understanding of how to play your scales before playing over a series of chords. I recommend starting with playing over one chord and then work your way up to 2 chords, then 4 chords for example.
If a chord progression has diatonic chords, you could improvise over them using the parent scale, meaning where all related chords are derived from.
Chord progression example 1
For example, here are four chords in the key of G. A basic way to improvise over this progression is to use the G Major scale.
Chord progression example 2
However, it gets more complex though when you switch between two chords that have a different set of scales.
G Major to C minor.
Chord progression example 3
Here is another example of two non-diatonic chords in a chord progression and what scale you can use over each of them.
Tip* Whenever you have minor chords without any context I suggest using the Dorian scale.
As you learn to apply music theory, always let your ears guide you to see if the scale you are using works over a chord progression.
It’s important to learn play the right notes but also to make everything sound musical. You can can do this by using different intervals or patterns which we cover in the post: How to practice scales on guitar. You may also want to learn how make your melody lines sound jazzy.
Transcribing means hearing and writing down the music that you are learning. This helps you to develop your hearing and be able to extract ideas and from the material. This can range from learning a few phrases to an entire solo or learning the chords and rhythm from from a song you like.
Even though this can seem like your emulating someone else, the goal is to make the phrases or ideas your own. For an example of this, check out these 7 jazz and blues licks over a dominant 7 chord.
Think about how we learn a language when we are young by hearing it over and over and eventually make sense of how people use certain words or expressions. We also imitate the language and even though we make mistakes, it eventually becomes second nature to us.
Bassist Victor Wooten said it like this:
“If we approach music in the same natural way we approached our first language, we will learn to speak it in the same short time it took to speak our first language.”– Victor Wooten
Here is a link to the video where he talks about music as a language.
6. Improvise over songs
After going through the previous points, you will have more confidence and understanding on how to improvise over songs.
A song is usually is typically built on a series of sections with specific chord progressions. It’s helpful to what the chords are for each section so you know what to expect.
Also, use your ears to make your improvisation as musical as possible instead of only thinking about what the right notes are.
Here are some more things to keep in mind when improvising over a song:
- Use the melody of a song to give a framework for improvising.
- Analyze the chord progression and see how the chords relate to each other. Check if there are any non-diatonic chords and what scales you can use through the chord changes.
- Use scales to make your improvisation sound musical (as if you were to sing it).
- Use repetition to keep your improvisation engaging.
- Connect ideas through your solo as if you are telling a story.
You can check out the sheet music with tabs resource to learn songs and practice improvising over them.
Learning how to improvise on the guitar is something we continue to get better at with time and intentional practice. We can always dive deeper to explore musical ideas and concepts that make our solos sound better.
To review what we covered, the key concepts for how to improvise on the guitar are:
- Know your scales
- Understanding diatonic chords
- Understanding modes
- Practice playing scales over chord progressions
- Improvise over songs
The better you understand and spend more time working through these concepts, the easier it becomes to let your musical ideas flow. To learn more, see these 9 tips to get better at improvising on guitar.
All the best,
JG Music Lessons