A few questions about improvising


Hi everyone! I’ve been playing guitar for quite a while now, but I just started learning how to improvise about 2 months ago, so I have some pretty embarrassing questions! :confused: I pretty much get the basic idea of improvising, and how to put together licks to compose a lead, but I have a few pretty in-depth questions about how a lead corresponds with the rhythm. I hope my questions make sense!

Let’s say the chord progression is G-C-D. How would I go about making a lead? Would I just do a G lick when the chord is G, a C lick when the chord is C, etc. Or, since the progression is in G, could I play a bunch of back to back G licks, or any other licks that are in G? Do the licks have to be tied completely to the rhythm? Could I just play any lick in G, and use the root note of the chord to start the lick, even if it isn’t a lick that is that same as the chord. For example: Could I play a C lick when the chord progression goes to D, but use a D note to star the C lick? Also, what classifies a C lick, G lick, etc. The notes that you play in a row? Pulling notes from a scale? Using the most common tone of the scale as the center, or core of the lick? I know these questions probably don’t make any sense, but any help would be greatly appreciated! Thanks in advance. :smiley:

One more thing. Here is a video of Dan Tyminski and Ron Block. I was just wondering what they were doing in their leads. The song that they were playing was in G, and it seems like they were playing back to back G licks, but using the chord tones of each chord. For example, they would play a D note when it switches to D, but the rest of the lick is in G. Is that true?
The part I’m talking about starts at 1:59: youtube.com/watch?v=mwRpKCL3Iac


This is a huge question and one that is too big to answer fully here. Here is as short an answer that I can give that still is somewhat complete enough to get you moving in the right direction.

If we are talking about how solos are produced that always sound “right”, here are some ideas that might get you moving in that direction.

  1. Start and end every improvised phrase on a chord tone from the chord that is being played at that moment. For example, if you are playing over the chord “G”, then the chord tones are G, B, D. For a riff/lead phrase to sound correct over that chord, you need to start and end your phrase on one of those notes. If your riff plays between two chords and the first chord is G and the second is C, then you would need to start your riff on G, B, or D and end your riff on C, E, or G.

  2. You need to keep your riff in the key of the song. If the song is in G major, then you are using the notes from a G major scale for producing your riffs.

  3. Blue notes are often used, but can be tricky. When you get more advanced, you start to think in terms of each chord; that is to say that you begin to think about not only chord tones from each harmony happening at that moment, but also blue notes as they pertain to that harmony. For example, the blue notes over the chord G are Bb, Db and F while the blue notes over the chord C are Eb, Gb and Bb. The note Db played while covering a G chord sounds bluesy while the note Db played over a C chord sounds wrong.

  4. Even though there are exceptions to this rule, I believe it is important to have contrary motion in each riff if possible. That is to say that a riff or lick is more interesting (has more energy) when it includes a change of direction. A riff that only ascends and descends is okay, but riffs that ascend, descend and then ascend are much more interesting and visa versa.

  5. When first beginning to learn to improvise, keep your riffs short and to the point. A long rambling riff can lose energy very quickly if not memorized. It is much easier to develop lots of short riffs and then string them together than to memorize lots of long riffs.

  6. In bluegrass, it is extremely important to mimic or paraphrase the melody, even when going off and doing lots of improvising. Keep in mind that you can mimic the melody even with as little as using the melody rhythm with completely different notes or using melody notes but played with a completely different rhythm.

  7. Repetition is also extremely important when improvising a solo. Use of repetition helps the audience relate to your solo by recognizing repeated musical phrases or rhythms. Your audience often has no idea what sounds good, so you are there to sell the solo. Make it fun to listen to by throwing them the repetition bone.

Well, there are a few ideas. Good luck!


Thank you very much for taking the time to write such a great and in-depth response. Everything you said made a ton of sense, and I really think I get the theory behind improvising now. I’ve been doing research on this subject for quite some time now, and no one has hit it right on the head like you did. Thanks again!



I have mentioned it before and will again that I had a one-on-one lesson with Ben regarding this very subject. I guess we talked about it for around 3 hours or so. So I will tell ya what he suggested I do in order to learn this.

First get acquainted with the bag-o-licks and know them inside and out. Then try to sit down and work out at least 10 “simple songs” that are very common like Happy Birthday to You, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, etc and work out the melody.

The idea in working out the melody is to slowly start to be able to play what you hear…I mean in all practicality you have to get good enough on your instrument to “not think about it” and use the instrument to “sing”. So for instance whatever you would “hum” in your head you should be able to make the guitar give you that same sound. This is one of the reasons why so many teachers want you to hum the notes when doing your scale practices…it’s familiarization with intervals and recognizing where a “sound or note is”.

A valuable tool that some of us use is the Tef Player…one can work out the melody there and then look at the “blank spots” between notes on the melody then fill them with licks, maybe it’s your own lick or maybe it’s one you’ve heard before through Ben. It does not have to be a complete lick, could be just part of one that you’ve learned from Ben or elsewhere.

Now you are probably saying “Wait this is just like memorizing a song vs. improvisation”…well you have to practice doing this! Once you practice this enough then it will start coming natural.

Drguitar mentioned how bluegrass likes the follow the melody…no doubt about that. I like sticking pretty close to the exact melody notes but will leave out ones that are not really important if I have a passage that sounds cool for a measure or so, then I will get back on the melody…so always have that melody close by!

For instance sing this in your head “happy birthday to you…happy birthday to you”…well notice the “space” between the 2 phrases, now sing it like this and keep it in the same time “happy brithday to you…you crazy fool…happy birthday to you” If you keep both in the same time signature/beats per minute then you’ve improvised in adding in the “you crazy fool”…you’ve filled up that “blank spot” with improv and still are following the melody.

I’ve been working on these types of ideas over the last year and I am finding myself to be a much better player…at least I am able to follow a melody line a lot better. :smiley:

You have to learn to “talk or sing” with your instrument just like you would with humming a melody…I mean we all can hear a song we’ve never heard before and listen to a verse, chorus, then a verse for the first time and although we might not know the lyrics we can hum the melody…now we all have to get good enough to use our instrument to play the melody without much thinking going on…just like we can recognize or hum the melody with little effort.

Hope I have helped.


Doc and Jesse (yes, I called Jesse “Dave” again initially… I don’t know why that happens),
Great posts! Thanks!


As Jesse pointed out, you can play the melody and improvise during the rests like this short version of “Happy Birthday”:

When I am teaching improvisation (usually blues or jazz) to students, I actually have them write out dozens of riffs using some simple rules, and then play them to decide which ones they like. This works pretty well to help them come up with ideas that are different than they might if they had tried to work out riffs by pounding out note repeatedly on the guitar for hours on end (in which case they tend to make up riffs they have already heard somewhere in the past).

Also, Jesse makes a good point about singing with your instrument. When students are practicing their scales and then starting to improvise freely, I will have them sing “doo doo” along with the notes so that their brain figures out which notes sound good when. It also helps get ideas that are hidden in the brain out to their fingertips.


Great example in the audio file (mp3) Doc…you the man!


Thank you everyone for taking the time to help me with this. I really appreciate it. I am trying all of the tips you guys have suggested, and I really think I am getting closer to my goal. I may have a long way to go, but you guys have given me an excellent start!