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How to Start Improvising in 6 Steps

Lesson ID: TB413

Stuck when it’s your turn to play a blues solo? Or just want to be able to jam freely by yourself on your guitar?

This method will help.

In this lesson, I’ll show you how to strip away the confusion and start improvising your own bluesy licks in 6 steps.

Let’s get started.

Step 1: Pick a Key

If you are brand new to improvising, begin with guitar friendly keys like E or A – assuming you’re in standard tuning.

These keys work well for fingerstyle blues since we can play the open strings for the bass.

Our example will be in standard tuning, but in case you’re using another tuning, here’s a quick list of keys you could use.

Since this example is in standard tuning, let’s use the Key of E.

We’ll keep the bass simple and play the open sixth string on the quarter note count. This is a simple but wonderful platform to begin improvising blues licks.

Step 2: Choose a Scale

With your key chosen, it’s time to choose a scale.

You can use any scale to jam with, but keep this in mind – the scale will define the mood that you create.

In general, if you’re looking to create licks with a darker, grittier sound, choose a minor scale. For rock and blues music, the minor pentatonic scale is a great choice.

If you want to create a brighter sound you can use major scales.

For the example, I’ll choose the E Minor Blues Scale (Scale Formula: 1 – b3 – 4 – b5 – 5 – b7).

The notes are E, G, A, Bb, B, D.

Step 3: Play the Scale on One String

Next, play the scale up and down one single string.

This self-imposed limitation causes you to think differently and work within a constraint.

Practicing a scale – and using it to make music – on a single string helps you hear, see and feel the intervals. This gets to the heart of making music and pulls you out of thinking about finger patterns on the guitar.

Let’s use the E Minor Blues Scale on the 1st string.

Make sure you know where the notes are. Cold.

That’s key to this method and it’s a great reason why you’ll want to start with simpler pentatonic or blues scales.

Step 4: Develop a Bluesy Melody

Enter creativity.

Think of this step as freeform jamming…

…but with constraints.

You get to play whatever you want as long as it’s in key, of the scale and on one string.

Nothing fancy here.

Don’t try to play complicated licks. Not at first anyway. You can say a lot with a few notes – see Mississippi Fred McDowell.

The goal for this step isn’t to create the next great guitar solo. It’s to listen and make music with the scale. Under these forced constraints of course.

Once you play a few notes, perhaps something like this:

Then start creating more complete phrases using time tested blues frameworks like:

Try two smaller call and response phrases followed by an answer phrase like this:

Spend time on this step. You’re actually using the scale versus just memorizing fretboard patterns. That’s huge.

This should be a high impact part of your practice session.

Step 5: Move to the Next String

We’ve made this easy for ourselves by picking the Key of E and playing entirely on the first string.

It’s important to stack the deck in your favor, but it’s also important to challenge yourself.

Do that by moving this exercise to each of the other five strings but remember to:

  • Stay in the chosen key
  • Map the scale on the single string
  • Create simple licks on that string
  • Develop the licks into a solo using call and response

Here is the E Minor Blues Scale mapped out on each of the six strings:

After you jam with single-string focus, take a step back and reflect. Notice how much of the fretboard you’ve covered. Notice which notes from the scale you gravitate toward. Notice which notes feel like home.

This exercise has far reaching benefits. Not only are you learning to create music, but you’re getting to know your fretboard on a much deeper level.

You’ll start thinking about the fretboard as a means to make music and not as a collection of box scale patterns. Fingering patterns are important but not as important as making music. Make this exercise a complement to any scale study.

This single concept has helped me break out of the pentatonic box shapes more than anything else.

Step 6: Expand Your Licks to Two or More Strings

Now it’s time to expand the scope of the exercise so your licks include more than one string.

By now, you’ve spent time in the woodshed on each individual string which helps you know the scale cold. You’ve taught your brain where the notes are – on all six strings and in all positions. You might be surprised by how easy it is to incorporate additional strings.

Start simple at first by playing on two strings and slowly adding other strings.

Here’s an example set of call and response licks using our E Blues Study.

Now is a great point to incorporate your own, short, tried and true licks. Don’t have any?

Well, this process will help you create some!

But of course, you can borrow a few of mine. These microLicks are a great place to start.

In Summary

The six steps to creating your own licks are:

  • Choose a Key
  • Choose a Scale
  • Learn the Scale on One String
  • Play a Simple Melody
  • Repeat Steps Three and Four on Each String
  • Incorporate More Than One String

Remember, you don’t have to get fancy with this.

This process will help you get comfortable with the fretboard while making music. That’s what it’s all about and this is one of my favorite methods for getting there.

Good luck and Play On!

When you are ready, there are two ways I can help you:

Back Porch Blues Course:  A proven system to fingerpicking the blues.  This step-by-step course guides you through building fundamental fingerpicking skills.  Plus, you’ll learn three levels of a delta blues style performance study to put your new skills into action.

Become a myBGI Member: Get a proven plan to playing better blues with one of BGI’s structured roadmaps:  The Fretboard Roadmap, Fingerstyle Roadmap and Slide Guitar Roadmap.

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