If you are new to improvising, or if you are not satisfied with your improvisational skills, it might be helpful for you to take the large topic of improvising and break it down into smaller elements, in order to see on which topics you need to focus on, or what elements are missing in your playing, to enable you playing awesome solos.
Music theory/Fretboard knowledge
First of all you need to have a foundation on which to build on, which is music theory. Music theory is what enables you to know what to play over the accompaniment.
You want to know all the scale positions all over the fretboard to be able to play and change fluently between them all over the guitar. Depending on your style you may choose different scales like pentatonic, major/minor, harmonic minor or the blues scale.
You also want to know where the notes are on the guitar, if you want to be able to improvise in more than only one key. This also helps you with choosing specific notes you want to play over the harmonies of the accompaniment.
When you have mastered all your notes and scale positions on the fretboard, you might find that although you are able to play in key and hit the right notes at the right time, your playing might sound pretty random and nothing like what your favorite players are doing.
Often times this is, because you lack ideas, or find it hard to come up with cool sounding melodies on the spot. But fortunately you can overcome this obstacle. If you pay close attention to the solos played by your favorite players, you might notice that their playing consists of several small ideas which are combined to each other. You can use the same concept for your playing and create some small licks in advance on which you can go back when improvising.
That being said, I know from myself that you sometimes just lack ideas for creating your own licks. If this is the case for you, go back listening to some solos of your favorite players and see which licks of them you like the most and transcribe them. You can make changes to them to your liking. I will show you an example of this in just a minute.
Adding Color to your ideas
Whether you create your own licks, or use licks that already exist, keep in mind that you don’t have to play every lick only once before moving to the next one. You can keep a solo pretty interesting with only using a small handful of licks, by changing their rhythm, adding notes, using different ornaments, or playing it higher or lower on the fretboard.
I’m going to give you an example now, of how you can take an existing lick and add some variety to it with the methods described above. I’m using the opening lick of “Bohemian Rhapsody“ here and my main focus is going to be on the rhythm:
As you can see you don’t have to change a lot to keep your ideas interesting. You can now analyze your playing by the 3 points I gave you, too see which elements might be missing in your playing, or where you need to improve to make your improvising sound better.
Author of this article is Marco von Baumbach, who is a guitar instructor in Wuppertal, Germany. If you found this article helpful you may check out his website Gitarrenunterricht in Wuppertal