How do I get better at improvising?

Hi friends, the past year or so I’ve been focusing on improving my fretboard knowledge and improv skills. Here’s a couple of minutes of me improvising over a simple progression; any sort of constructive criticism is welcome :slight_smile:

The first half is pretty bad imo, I’m not really playing with intention and kind of just noodling the same old licks that I play over and over. I wasn’t really focused on crafting interesting phrases. The second half I think is a bit better, my playing is more in time and the phrases actually seem to fit the track, rather than just regurgitation of stock lines.
Anyways, any tips on how to “play with intention” or anything else you think I could improve on are greatly appreciated.

First, I think you sound pretty good! But if you are unsatisfied, my suggestion would be to actually spend some time composing long sections of solo, 16 or even 32 bars. Write out multiple solos over the same chord progression. Can you write something you are ultimately happy with? If yes, then keep writing and see how these ideas can come out in future improvisations. If no, then what are these little compositions missing that you want? Get as detailed as possible and figure out how to add those things in.


But I thought improvising is just pulling notes out of thin air???

[With troll bomb thrown, runs for cover while giggling]


Thanks so much man! I think your advice is spot on, and I’ve recently been thinking that that’s the next way to improve composition after the minimum of knowing where you are on the fretboard, seeing chord shapes quickly, not hitting wrong notes etc. It’s a very simple point, but it recently dawned on me that if I want to be able to improvise great lines, I need to be able to write great lines in the first place, given time. Composing solos is something I’ve done only a few times. Your method I think is something really helpful to strive for; my plan now is to hyper focus in on say, 2 bars, or even just a chord change, and play it over and over again until I come up with the most interesting line I can think of. If I do that enough, I’ll eventually have a 16 bar solo that sounds good. I suppose finally, the last crucial step is to figure out how to do that on the spot while improvising. My guess (and hope) is that the more I compose, the more that that will subconsciously bleed over into my improv. At least I hope, haha. I’m not sure if it takes some extra attention to transfer composition skills to improv skills.


This sounds really good to me, I think you are being too hard on yourself :grin:

That being said, when practicing improvising I think embracing that you will sound bad to start with is a big part of starting to sound good, this was a huge hurdle for me. I’d start improvising, wouldn’t like how it sounded, become discouraged and give up. Now I try not to set any expectation and just after doing it a lot I’ve started to like what I come out with.

The other part is stumbling across phrases or a set of notes you like while improvising and then stopping and refining and getting comfortable with the idea a bit more so next time when you end up at that point of the fretboard you have something preconceived that will sound good but that you are happy to change around as well.

These approaches have been the two big game changers for me recently :slight_smile:

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Phrasing, is what makes improv. Listen to singers and emulate that kind of phrasing.

There’s an added benefit to the “sing what you play” approach beyond just developing your ear and your “brain to fingers” translation. You only have so much breath and instead of playing lines that go on forever, you develop more interesting phrasing, similar to horn players. Lengthy lines are great but those moments where you have to take a breath are just as great.


1:18 to about 1:50 would make for a pretty decent take imo

best thing you can do is, every time you hear a phrase that you like, work it out on your guitar and try and figure out how it relates to what’s going on in the underlying chords/harmony

don’t just limit yourself to guitarists


When I think of the greats of improv one commonality is they all have disparate influence. Derek Trucks interest in Indian and Middle Eastern music. Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass and jazz influence.

Late 60s and 70s jazz fusion is a great place to get ideas.

I’ve been to parties where there were jazz musicians, and they would pick up an instrument, enter the circle, and play variations of what the last person did, passing things around; that was interesting, as it was clearly improvised. It sounds like good training?


To get better at improvising I would transcribe your favourite improvisers, analyse what they’re doing to find out how what they do ticks, then write some music based on similar concepts. This is all a bit abstract because some forms of improvisation are more idiomatic than others - but for jazz, or at least many forms thereof, it is important to sound somewhat idiomatic, so the emphasis must be on doing that which means acquiring vocabulary, licks and ideas, and work on varying them.


It takes a lot of practice to improvise. The jazz dudes practiced so much that it became second nature and it is this second nature that was what improvisation is. It also takes ear training because you will want to know what you want to hear. That’s why singing and trying to play what you sang is a really good tool.
You will want to know what chords you are playing over and what the next chord is so that the lines become tied to the chord they are on or going to. One way is doing lines that are strictly arpeggio-based that follow the chords. This is one step. the next is to play they scale but have target notes that are part of the chord that you are going to in the 4th beat or resolve on the one as well as notes of the chord you are over. This will flow. Use 8th notes to do this. Some things to try may be to target the root or the 3rd. You may want to chart out the chord progression then write out the notes of each and see if you can find where one chord changes to the other with half-step approaches or no more than a whole step which isn’t as good as a resolution. I know it seems like a lot but take it one thing at a time and build on it. It does not happen overnight.


Or copping a singer’s melody

Any excuse I get to post this clip I will, the end climax trade off is awesome.

This is a good example of how phrasing like vocals is amazing.


Absolutely, I’ve noticed that that’s a really good way of building licks and stumbling upon cool sounds. The added benefit of doing things this way is that the new phrases will automatically be available to you while improvising; you won’t have to go through the extra step of integrating the new lick.

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I agree completely. Sometimes I notice that I overplay. There’s a time and place for playing fast, but a great solo only earns that right when it is also slow and melodic.

I’m still really struggling with the “brain to fingers” translation too, and was considering making a whole new post about it. I can’t sing because of a throat condition, so I’m finding it tough to visualize the correct sound before I play it. I’m not quite sure how to train that ability without singing…

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Thank you, yes I think if I could improve the average level of my improv to something like that I would be pretty happy. The funny thing is that I don’t think I was more “keyed in” or anything during that section compared to the first half, and yet it sounds way better. I think some of the main reasons out sounded good is that my phrases outlined the chord changes, everything was in time, and most importantly there was a rhythmic motif established right when the chorus started. The following lines reinforced the motif while also expanding on it, and then it all culminated in that fast bluesy pentatonic stuff. Again though, I’m hard pressed to explain how I did that, it just sort of happened; I don’t really know how to practice that.

This is exactly the kind of practice I’ve been doing the past year. I feel like I have a reasonable solid handle on being able to find chord tones, or at least I know how to practice that to get better. I feel like the next step is to be more intentional with what you play in between landing on the chord tones, and this comes down to ear training; i.e. singing what you play. This I’m not too sure how to develop, especially since I can’t sing due to a throat condition.

Can you whistle? Probably more difficult than singing/humming but it might work about as well for this purpose. Or even just a half-assed whistle, where you’re just making an airy tone through your teeth (there’s probably a name for this but I don’t know it).

Years ago I was working on my laptop in a coffee shop and this guy came in for maybe 10 minutes and… he was whistling the entire time with the most incredible vibrato. I didn’t even know that was a thing with whistling. It was so inspiring that I obsessively tried to replicate it myself over the next few months. I never figured out just how he got the vibrato so smooth and consistent but I got a hell of a lot better at hitting notes consistently and articulating. Nowadays I can whistle just about whatever comes to mind with ease. So, it may take a bit of extra work if you’re not already good at whistling but with a bit of practice it could be an alternative option to singing.


That’s a great suggestion. I’ve always been jealous of people who could whistle, I could never do it myself. Is everyone capable of whistling? If I could manage to get it down though I think it would be a workable alternative to singing. Time to hit YouTube and check out some whistling tutorials lol


I don’t improvise much and usually like to write my own solos in advance.

However, I can definitely tell you how to NOT improvise, which ironically is the way I (and many others) were taught: the chord-scale method, where they tell you chord X goes well with scale Y etc. etc. That’s way too much maths to do in your head while playing.

How I would do it now is by first learning a ton of vocabulary (i.e. beautiful phrases / solos / melodies from accomplished musicians in the genre). You can keep scales, arpeggios etc. in mind as you do that, in the same way as you can think of grammar when reading a book in a foreign language you are trying to learn. But at the end of the day, when you speak a language fluently you’ll stop thinking of the grammar and will just think in terms of longer phrases and patterns.

TLDR: if you want to improvise in a style, learn a ton of great solos in that style :), e.g. if you want to improvise Gipsy Jazz, learn a lot of Django solos.