When I first started developing my solo skills, it seemed like every book, DVD, article, video etc that I looked at preached how important it was to spend large amounts of time practicing scales up and down. I am a blues and rock player so the pentatonic scales were the most important in my soloing education. Each instructional video or book would lay out the 5 box patterns and then have you drill them up and down, over and over.
Then the instructor would tell you to just play notes from the scale to improvise your own solo. This was somehow the big secret to spontaneously creating an epic lead line on the spot.
Once I got really good at playing the boxes I would put on a jam track and try to create the next great solo. Guess what? I sounded like a baby learning to talk or a drunk idiot at 3am on a Saturday night. I did everything the teacher told me. So why didn’t my improvisations sound good?
It wasn’t until much later and much frustration that I finally began to understand what was wrong with my approach. Learning to improvise solos isn’t just about being able to play scales. Don’t get me wrong, understanding scales is important but you need to go beyond that. For me, the best approach was examining tried and true licks. Not only being able to play the lick, but learning from it. Being able to manipulate it and find its home in my improvised solos.
By combining my knowledge of the pentatonic scale and having a bag of cool licks, I was able to develop my improv skills.
You might think that memorizing licks and playing them back in your own solo isn’t really making anything up or being spontaneous. Any idiot can string a bunch of licks together from memory right?
Remember my analogy above about babies learning to speak? Think about it this way… when a baby is learning to talk, all he does is copy the sounds he hears. Understanding that is the key to developing your improvisation skills. Certainly understand the scales and be able to visualize them on the fretboard but take all that time you spend playing those scales up and down the fretboard and learn licks and solos from the artists that inspire you. Pull out bits and phrases that you love and insert them in to your own playing. Pick up a quality licks course such as 96 Blues Licks or 96 Rock Licks, make a list of the ones that you like from the course and work them over a backing track. Don’t be afraid to alter them to your liking. That’s what this is all about.
Did I still sound like I was babbling like a baby at first? Sure I did. Just like a baby learning to master their native language, over time my groups of random “words” became “sentences” which eventually became “paragraphs” and before I knew it, I was telling a full “story”.
You can’t change the process. But more importantly you can’t give up on the process.
Think about it this way, if you have a baby and after a few months the baby can’t talk very well do you give up?
Of course not! If you are a baby you just keep learning and soaking up new sounds and you enjoy the process.
Stop doing scale exercises. Learn some good blues or rock licks or whatever style of music you enjoy. Learn solos from your favorite guitar players. Take bits and pieces from all of those influences and be tenacious. Don’t be in a hurry. Relax and enjoy the process. Think of that cool new lick you just learned as another phrase you can use in a guitar solo “story”.
All of this is assuming your lead guitar skills are up to par. If you’re new to lead guitar or want to improve your chops, check out one of the best selling guitar courses of 2012- Steve Stine‘s SoloFire. Not only does he cover the essential skills and techniques you need to be a lead guitar player but he discusses different methods of improvising as well.
Check it out- SoloFire Lead Guitar Course