Learning to improvise killer blues guitar solos is often seen as “The Holy Grail” of guitar playing. It’s fairly easy to learn and repeat existing solos, but creating a solo yourself off the cuff is a different beast entirely. The good news is, learning to improvise is a totally achievable goal for any level of guitar player. All you need to know is which areas to focus on to improve that particular skill.
Trust me when I tell you, in my years as a guitar tutor, I’ve seen so many people playing incredibly fast guitar solos. You know the type of guys who love Joe Satriani or Steve Vai? The problem is, those guys often crumble completely when asked to improvise a simple 12 bar blues solo.
So, long story short you don’t need all the big fancy skills to improvise your own solos. Heck, if you asked BB King to bust out some sweep picking or tapping, he’d have probably told you to go take a long walk off a short pier. All you need to do is laser focus on the key skills needed to improvise. If you work hard on those areas, before you know it, you’ll be improvising killer solos at the drop of a hat.
So, let’s take a look at 10 of the best techniques to help you improve your improvisation skills:
As a guitar teacher, I firmly believe you can never be “too good” at your scales. You may know all 5 pentatonic shapes, but do you know them in all 12 keys? Do you know exactly where each and every note is in each and every pattern? Even if the answer to those is “yes,” you can always benefit from more practice with your scales.
The optimal way to get better at improvising is to combine your scale practice with learning popular solos at the same time. You’ll see why this is important in step 4.
What better way to learn to improvise than by learning some existing solos? When you think about it, there are a grand total of 12 notes available to you on the guitar.
Everybody from Eric Clapton, to Stevie Ray Vaughan to Jimi Hendrix all had access to the same set of notes. So, it makes sense to learn some of their solos as a starting point. That way you can “reverse engineer” them and learn how they did it
If you do this enough, over time, you’ll see ‘flavors’ of those players creep into your own improvisations. Again, more on this in step 4.
Sometimes you can capture the essence of a guitar player’s sound with just one or two licks. If you take someone like David Gilmour, one of his signature techniques is the multi-tone bend. This is where you bend a note, then move the bend up or down to hit more notes while still only having picked the string once.
If you were to use this one technique in your improvisations not only would you be adding a cool new technique into your skill set, you would have successfully “absorbed” some of Gilmour’s style into your own playing.
Over time, if you mix in little pieces of all your favourite guitar players, you’ll start to notice some “magic” happening. By the very process of blending together YOUR favorite players, you’re making something unique. And that’s what eventually creates your own signature guitar sound.
This is the most important step in learning to improvise. If I had a dollar for every time a student has come to me asking for help with improvising to find they’d never tried this, I’d be rich!
As I mentioned in step 2, learning existing solos is one of the 6 key essential steps in learning to improvise, but it doesn’t stop there. Once you can play that solo note for note, it’s time to “pop the hood” and find out exactly how that solo was written.
Firstly, you need the entire solo written out in tab. Then, you break the entire solo down into individual licks. You can simply draw brackets around each phrase, so you can easily see where each lick begins and ends. Then you need work out which pentatonic or blues scale shape each phrase uses.
Important: There might be other scales involved too, though for blues these are the most common. Next up, it’s time to start experimenting with those licks and using them as a starting point for writing your own solos.
Chances are when you first do this, your first experiments will sound pretty bad. That’s just a natural part of the process. No matter what you do, don’t give up at this stage. If you stick to it and keep pushing forward, you’ll gradually start to develop your ‘creative ear.’ Before long you’ll be able to fuse licks together to create some truly awesome solos.
This is step is where many people falter. If you don’t do this, you’ll be seriously stunting your development as a lead player.
Step 5 is to practice improvising over as many different backing tracks as you possibly can. This is absolutely essential and should not be skipped. Playing over tracks in different keys, styles and tempos will be fundamental in helping you develop your skills.
With a little practice it really won’t take long to become competent in all sorts of different playing situations. Of course if you can jam with other musicians too that really helps. Though with that said, the convenience of putting a few backing tracks on shuffle and spending a good 20-30 minutes improvising can’t be beat!
It sounds pretty simple (and maybe a little obvious) but consistency is key here.
You need to set your sights on improvisation as one of your primary goals and practice the relevant skills as often as you possible can. I actually advocate practicing in shorter bursts rather than longer 2-3 hour practice sessions. In fact I highly recommend working in 20-30 minute blocks. That way you pickup skills much easier and retain your progress for the long term.
Plus you don’t get burnt out by putting in too much time all at once. In my experience as a guitar teacher, I’ve seen it time and time again. Shorter, more focused sessions work the best.
So, there you have it: If you follow these 6 steps you’ll be on the path to blues solo mastery before you know it. Be sure not to skip anything.
These are all essential and there for a reason. If you’re looking for some help getting started, check out my flagship course Blues Guitar Master. It’ll give you all the scale shapes you need, some cool licks, how to play across all 12 keys and even the ‘secret sauce’ t0 becoming a guitar solo master.
You can find out more about it here!
Tom has played guitar for over 25 years and been a full-time professional tutor for over 18 years. After starting his own UK based “bricks n’ mortar” guitar school, Brighton Guitar Academy, he later moved on to create BluesGuitarMaster.com in 2010 going on to help thousands of guitar students across the world.
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