Lead Guitar & Improvisation: Coming Up With Licks Off The Top Of Your Head

Lead Guitar & ImprovisationWouldn’t you love to be able to jump into any band or musical situation and fill in the spaces with awesome guitar licks?

The more experience you gain as a musician, the easier this becomes. But you need to have a willingness to explore the fretboard, even if what you’re playing doesn’t sound that great at first.

Ideally, this exploration should take place at rehearsals and jam sessions – low-pressure situations where your reputation and ability as a guitar player isn’t on the line.

Here are some steps you can take to become a better improviser. You can also find more tips on playing lead guitar here and here.

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Learn Your Scales Before You Can Improvise Guitar

This might sound a little counter-intuitive, so let me explain.

Even though improvisation is the act of coming up with and executing ideas on the spot, this does not mean that you have to – or even should – start without a framework.

First and foremost, you need to know what key you’re playing in. The good news is that there are only 12 key signatures in music, and all scale patterns on the guitar are movable – meaning you only need to learn the scale once. If you’re in a jam session and you’re unsure, just mess around until you find notes that work.

After you identify what key you’re playing in, you need to determine what the feel or genre of the song is, and how you’re going to complement it. Let’s say, for example, that you’re jamming with a friend and he’s playing a jazz chord progression. That leaves you a lot of leeway in terms of what to do stylistically. You could go with a bossa nova or Caribbean feel, or something else entirely – whatever you’re most comfortable with.

Every guitarist should familiarize themselves with these five scales: major, minor, major pentatonic, minor pentatonic, and blues. With a firm grasp of these scales, you can easily find your footing in 95% of musical situations. If you want to simplify even further, just learn the five patterns of the pentatonic scale and you’ll be good to go.

Build Your Technique

You don’t necessarily need to know every lead guitar technique under the sun to be able to improvise or even sound great. It’s just that you might feel a little bit limited if all you’re able to do is pick single notes.

Popular lead guitar techniques include: slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, tapping, and harmonics. Double stops and triads can also be used in lead guitar.

When you’re looking to add a little bit of flare to your playing, these techniques can really help you spice things up and bring more feeling to your improvisation.

But without a good understanding of your scales, you won’t necessarily know where to slide to, what notes to hammer-on to, how to keep your bends in tune, and so on. It’s all well and good to experiment, but this is why it’s a good idea to build off of a framework (i.e. scales).

You don’t need to be the world’s best technician to improvise competently. But lead guitar techniques do give you new ways to express your creativity.

Develop Your Ear, This Will Allow You To Improve Lead Guitar Better

If you’re tone deaf, improvising is going to prove an uphill battle (but I’m definitely not making light of what can be a very real condition for some).

How to improvise as a guitaristMost musicians don’t start with a great ear – they have to develop it. Experience is a great teacher.

Aside from listening to and playing music, the main way to work on your ear as a guitarist is to figure out songs by ear. This can be a long and tedious process, but keep in mind that this is how many of the greats – like Eric Clapton – used to learn. They didn’t have tabs back then.

Having a basic understanding of music theory can definitely help. For instance, being able to identify the key signature will immediately tell you what notes are most likely to appear in the song. I say “most likely” because the pros don’t always play by the rules, and sometimes pull out “outside” notes to create interest in their playing.

So when you’re trying to learn a song by ear, start simply. Don’t try to learn a Guthrie Govan or Yngwie Malmsteen song without any precedent. Begin with something like Tom Petty or Roy Orbison.


Don’t be afraid to experiment. This is a crucial building block to becoming a great improviser.

Learning scales and music theory is great, but if you get too locked into a certain way of doing things, you’ll rarely come up with anything original. Not sure if a certain note is going to work? Give it a try. Not sure if you can pull off that technique you’ve been working on? Give it a try.

Again, you’ll want to do most of your experimentation in a safe environment (i.e. not at a gig or in the studio), but your intuition will begin to improve as you keep trying different things.

Intuition is very important. When you first start improvising, you will probably have to think about what you’re doing. What key are we in? What’s the feel of the song? What scale can I play over that chord progression?

But you need to move past that. You need to get to the point where you’re comfortable winging it and not second-guessing yourself. This requires confidence, which usually comes with experience.

Final Thoughts

My friends tell me that I am a very versatile guitarist. I certainly like to think that I am. I started developing my ability to improvise the moment I began learning scales (even though I didn’t know exactly how to apply them).

Playing in a variety of different styles is fun for me, because I like a lot of different genres. I am certainly stronger in some styles compared to others, but there aren’t too many progressions or genres you could throw at me where I’d be at loss for notes.

It is definitely possible to become a great improviser, but it doesn’t happen by accident. It can be tough to wrap your mind around the concept, because a lot of music education is all about practice and rehearsal. There is some practice that goes into improvising too, but the goal is different, because the idea is to be spontaneous.

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