How To Improvise – A Guide For Beginning Guitarists

There’s nothing magical about improvising, except the great feeling you get when you hit the right notes. In this article we show you how to hit those notes.

Here are the steps we’re going to approach improvising with:

  • Record yourself playing chord changes.
  • Play back the recording, while you play the pentatonic scale over it.
  • Play with the pentatonic scale: pick any notes from the scale you want.
  • Change to a minor pentatonic scale to add a blues feeling.

Before you begin doing these steps, you’ll want to practice this set of chord changes until you’re fairly smooth at it. In fact, using a metronome while you practice would be helpful to you. Here are the chord changes you’ll improvise over. Play these changes slowly, with a blues feeling.

Blues Changes

Blues Changes

Once you can play this piece with a metronome, it’s time for you to become just as comfortable with the pentatonic scale. Practice the following tab until you can play it with a metronome. Note the arrows, which indicate alternate picking.

What is alternate picking, exactly? It’s a down-up pick stroke that lets you hit notes a lot faster than you could if you just used down-down or up-up strokes. To use alternate picking on the tablature here, do the following: strike the first note (C on string 6, fret 8) with a downstroke using your pick. Strike the next note, (D on string 6, fret 5), with the upstroke of the pick. For the next note, you’d return to using a downstroke.

For the remaining notes, continue changing from up to down stroke and back again. Changing from one string to another when you’re also changing the pick stroke direction is a challenge at first. It’s much easier to use alternate strokes on one string at a time. Stay with it. The alternate picking will eventually become second nature. For more about how to use alternate picking, see Picking Your Poison.

Pentatonic Scale

Pentatonic Scale

Once you can play the pentatonic scale with confidence, it’s time to record the changes and play over them. Using a tape recorder, computer, or some other device that lets you record and play back several minutes of music, record the chord changes.

Now for the fun. Once you’re satisfied with the recording, rewind it. Play the recording, and play the pentatonic scale.

How does it sound? If it sounds a little stiff to you, it’s time to play with the scale a bit. Rewind the recording, and begin playing it again. This time, instead of playing a strict up and down pentatonic scale, play whatever pentatonic notes you want.

Don’t be worried about hitting wrong notes. All the notes are the right notes. All you need to do is pick some notes and listen. If you still need some guidelines in choosing notes, check out the following tablature.


Continue doing this, finding new ways to play the pentatonic scale. To improvise truly means to play. Let yourself have fun. Alternate the melodic patterns you use. Re-record the chord changes with a different rhythm. There are endless ways of getting the music to sound better than before. When you take a break from your experiments, try this new variation:

Play exactly the same pentatonic scale, except move it up the neck by exactly three frets so that your first finger is on the eighth fret instead of the fifth.

In this new position, continue playing over the changes. How does it sound? Welcome to playing the Blues.


Book: Creativity in Improvisation, by Chris Azzara.

Marc Sabatella’s Jazz Improvisation Primer at

Aebersold’s play along CDs