Improvising 101

When I propose to my beginner students that they try out improvising, most give me a funny look. It’s something like, “You’ve got to be kidding me, I can’t even play for more than a minute without dropping my pick in the soundhole.” I’d like to say it’s a “Master Yoda, I am not yet prepared to face Lord Vader” look, but I drop my own pick in the soundhole often enough to dispel any illusions of Jedi powers. I can’t even get my girlfriend’s dogs to sit.

Even so, I’m a decent improviser. You can be too. It takes years to sound really good, but you can sound pretty good right away. Let’s go!

Grab your guitar and play these three notes (click here if you need help reading tablature). Play the note on the 5th fret with your first (index) finger, and the notes on the 8th fret with your fourth (wimpy) finger:

If you’ve seen Ray, the movie that came out recently about Ray Charles, these notes might ring a bell. There’s this scene where a young Ray wanders in to a bar to listen to an old man playing the piano. The old man sits him down and shows him three notes, and then they jam. We’re going to do the same thing. (I realize doing this over the internet is an extremely non-blues thing to do, but you can make up for it by calling your boss and telling him/her you quit. There. Now you have the blues.)

Before we jam, practice playing these three notes by repeating this pattern about ten times:

Now download my 12 Bar Blues in A Jam Track. It’s a recording of 12-bar blues, a common chord progression used in blues songs.

Once you’ve got the jam track playing, start playing those three notes, in any order you like, along with the music. Don’t worry about sounding good, focus on playing in rhythm with the music. You could try playing a note every time you hear the guitar strummed, or play a note every time the strumming pattern repeats. Or your could stand on your head and cluck like a chicken. There are no rules!

Here are two guidelines for making your improvisation sound even better than it does now:

  • Vary your rhythm Sometimes play fast, sometimes let a note ring for a while.
  • Vary your volume Let some notes whisper and other notes scream.

Incidentally, those three notes the old man taught to Ray, and I taught to you, belong to the A minor pentatonic scale. That means it’s in the key of “A,” it’s got a special “minor” note in it that makes the scale sound sad, and it’s a five-note scale. “Penta” means five, as in The Pentagram, where the U.S. Department of Defense is. What’s that? It’s called the Pentagon? Oh yeah, I always get my symbols of evil mixed up.

I chose to teach you how to improvise using this scale because no matter what note you hit, it sounds good. If you hit a note that matches the rhythm guitar chord, great. If you hit a note that clashes, it just sounds like you’ve REALLY got the blues. Just make your best blues face…

…and keep playing!

Here are all the notes of the A minor pentatonic scale found on the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th frets. You’ll notice there are a lot more than five notes. It’s because they repeat in higher octaves. If this doesn’t make sense, don’t worry about it right now.

Try adding a few more nearby notes from this scale to the notes you already know, and play with the Jam Track some more. Keep adding notes until you’re using all the notes in the pattern.

Sooner or later, you’re going to want to learn some licks, which are tried-and-true little sequences of notes that you can memorize and weave into your improvising. I’ll share some of my favorites with you soon.

Have fun!

Comments 22

  1. That’s what I’m talking about! The A minor pentatonic scale is my favorite. You can improvise in this pentatonic world from sunrise to sunset (or until your fingers bleed – which ever comes first) and love every minute of it! Great post for anyone playing a guitar – beginning or expert.

  2. I dropped my pick so many times that in the end I never picked it up again. I just changed my style to a finger picking style, a sort of pick and scratch. It works for me. Never played with a pick since.

  3. this blog is awesome!! its helping me soo much!! with all the videos and the clips!! way cool way cool !! just dont stop with the posts and keep em coming!! be ever grateful!! 😀 knowing that there are no guitar instructors were i live this u are like a godsend!!

  4. great site!…..the tutorials are awesome and now i can upset my girlfriend with my never ending amateur blues jam in A. keep up the good work…this is fantastic

  5. Hey Rob,

    I’ve visited your web site many times and have always enjoyed my vistis. I’ve been playing and teaching for more than 24 years and I co-own along with my fiance, Badd Fingers Guitar Studio in Barstow, California. I am always intersted in other teachers/players approach to music via the guitar.

    I have a question for you. I have a 9 year old student, who will be participating in a talent show in March of next year and he would like to play a very easy, but recognizable rock tune (3 chord kind of deal). Any suggestions? He is a beginner, but quick on the draw. In other words, he picks up things pretty fast I would say. I have more than 40 students and my brain is fried to be honest. lol.

    I could use your help, from teacher to teacher. I’m thinking the old classic “Wild Thing,” but I also thought maybe something more current. In any case, any suggestion here, would be welcomed. Thanks again for a great and helpful web site. Keep up the good work.


    Tired and burned out guitar instructor (but loving my job just the same… 🙂

  6. Hey August,

    Thanks for stopping by! Wild Thing; Louie, Louie; and Twist and Shout are all basically the same thing…I – IV – V power chords…

    Hmmm…How about Nirvana? “Come As You Are” is a four-chord song if you play it in the key of Em. Also, a few Green Day songs fit the bill–“Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is about four chords, I think, and “Good Riddance” is also four chords and somewhat easier, I think.

    Does that help?

    Thanks again for writing. It’s always fun to hear what other teachers are up to. And I used to stop in Barstow driving to Joshua Tree back when I lived in San Francisco. I love that CA desert.


  7. I usally don’t do this kind of thing, but after following the instructions given here I had to write this to let people know this is one of the helpful site I’ve found in over a year of looking that has given me hope of learning the guitar and the best part is that it simple to follow and it was free. Thanks a lot.

  8. If you want to see an example of improvised Jamming, then check out Master Exploder, by Tenacious D, on you-tube (on rent Pick of Destiny). Note, this is a great next step for intermediate electric-driven pickers. It’s standard tuning, using E-minor pentatonic all over the neck. Enjoy

    nice site – Where can i hook up up with tabs like “irish waserwoman”. If someone is familiar with this type of music, i’d really appreciate some insight.


  9. Hey Mr Hampton – I have a question. Not sure if it’s stupid, but I’m still confused.

    I sing and I used to play the piano so I’m fine with reading sheet music. You linked: to help get the notes but that showed me the way I already knew to read guitar music, whereas yours just confused me.

    As far as I can see, the first note is a middle C or a very high A. I didn’t understand the second half of the graphic at all. I get that they’re frets, but that’s all :S

    Hope you can help, (and sorry I clicked submit twice last comment, I know that must get annoying if everyone does it.)


  10. Hey Jane,

    The top half of the graphics is written in standard music notation, and the bottom half is the same music written in tablature. The three notes in the first graphic in this article are…

    First string, 5th fret
    First string, 8th fret
    Second string, 8th fret

    Does that help?

    Hope so,


  11. YOU ARE GOD!!! I have been playing the guitar for a while, but I’ve been guilty of not having sat down to practice any. Plus, since I only got actual guitar instruction when I was an absolute beginner, nobody ever taught me how to play the scales, and improvise. I came across your website today, and the Am pentatonic scale, and I played my first ever improvisation session accompanying your pentatonic scale chords!!

    Thank you so very very much!! This website is absolutely fantastic! I’m going to make it a point to be a regular, and be a better guitar player in ’09.

  12. My Daughter howls with laughter every time she see’s BB King’s ‘Blues face’.

    When I first started blues playing I really struggled even with using the blues scale you suggest above.

    It wasn’t until I tried playing around with the timings and phrasing that the penny dropped and I started to get a better feel for the blues.

    I got a bit of video of a blues player and copied a few notes as you suggest here. Copying their phrasing to get the feel as they play it, then play around and have some fun. I used the copied phrase as a framework to build on. It worked for me pretty much the way you have written in your lesson and I am still improving.

    I’m still working on the blues face too.

  13. I’ve always found improvising hard, or maybe I just envisioned it being hard. I never practiced my scales and learned the various modes as I should have. So, I’ve never been too comfortable straying very far around the fretboard. I’ve always focused on rhythm playing instead. But, your little guidance here opened up my eyes a bit. It doesn’t have to be as difficult as one might think.


  14. Hello, the graphics does not display anymore and the MP3 jamtrack link does not work anymore :-S Please, update so new beginners can learn from your great teachings 🙂
    Best regards

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