Improve Your Improvising – July 2013


Welcome to the first article in a new regular monthly column on improvisation.  I will be covering many different approaches to improvisation that are applicable to most musical contexts and hopefully they will give you some ideas to put into your own playing. The exercises are designed to enable most guitarists to get something out of them whatever their level of ability.

In this first article, I would like to show you an exercise that is suitable for beginners and advanced guitar players alike. It takes you through step-by-step from simply playing a scale to improvising within certain rules. This type of practice is very important for developing improvisational skills and we will be using it a good deal in future articles. Beginners who do not know where to start can do this exercise and more advanced players can learn some important lessons from it too (more about that at the end).   


Step 1) Choose a scale and a chord that goes with it e.g.: F major scale & F major chord; G mixolydian scale & G7 chord, Db minor pentatonic scale & D♭7#9 chord. If you do not know any scales yet, learn this one: The E minor pentatonic scale:

Image of the E minor Guitar Scale

E minor Pentatonic Scale


The chord that goes with this scale will be E minor:

Image of the E minor Guitar Chord fingering pattern

E minor Guitar Chord







Step 2) Create a backing track using your chosen chord. Backing tracks are excellent tools for practising improvisation and you do not need any special expertise to make them. You can either: get another musician to play along with you (the ideal solution if you have the luxury), use an app like iRealB to create the backing track for you (this is the best choice for most people – highly recommended), use a sound recorder to record yourself playing e.g. an MP3 recorder, your phone’s voice recording app, a looper, or use music software on your computer (Garage Band, Audacity etc.). The backing track just needs to be your chosen chord played repeatedly in a regular rhythm. It can be any style, tempo or feel you like – fast metal, laid back Bossa Nova, Jazz funk etc.

If you are recording yourself with a microphone then just play your chord for as log as you want (the longer the better), preferably to a metronome to keep you in time and then loop it, if you can. If you are using software such as iRealB then create a new song with twelve or more bars containing the same chord and set it to repeat many times. If you are not sure what to play whilst recording yourself, just play something very simple like this:


The exact content of the backing track is not important beyond having the correct chord and being in time.

Step 3) Play your scale in time with your backing track at any tempo you are comfortable with. Just play the scale continuously with an even rhythm, ascending and descending, as many times as you like. Note: My backing tracks are played using a looper pedal).

Using the E minor pentatonic & E minor chord given above:


A different example using a D Dorian mode (scale) & D minor 7 chord:



You have now established the sound of the scale over the chord in your ear – a very important concept in improvisation. All subsequent instructions involve playing the scale over the chord backing again, each time adding a new variation. Stay in time with the backing track at all times – this is vitally important.

Step 4) (1) Play the scale as in Step 3) but this time pause and hold on notes of your choosing for as long as you like before continuing with the scale. e.g. With E minor:


With D Dorian:



While performing this and every other variation, concentrate very hard on listening to the effect of what you are playing against the backing track. So, in the above exercise some of the notes you choose to stop on may clash with the chord on the backing track while others may sound beautiful. Try to notice these things as much as possible and use this knowledge to make good choices of notes on further repetitions.

Step 4) (11) Play the scale as in Step 4 (1) but after each pause, continue the scale in the opposite direction. e.g. play the scale ascending to the fifth note, pause and hold that note for a few beats, descend to the third note, pause and hold, continue ascending the scale etc.

With E minor:


With D Dorian:



Remember to use your ears and stay in time.

Step 4) (111) Play the scale as in Step 4 (111) but at each pause make a leap (higher or lower) to a note several steps away in the scale before continuing in the opposite direction. e.g. ascend the scale from first to fifth note, pause and hold, leap to the eighth note of the scale and descend to the fourth, pause and hold, leap to the seventh note and ascend etc.

With E minor:


With D Dorian:



Step 4) (1v) Play the scale as in Step 4 (111) but use any rhythm you like – as long as it’s in time with the backing track. If you don’t know where to start with rhythms just try playing some of the notes twice as long (two beats per note) or half as long (two notes per beat) and experimenting mixing it up a little.

With E minor:


With D Dorian:



What are the important lessons from this exercise?

  • It makes you play in phrases with gaps between – not a continuous stream of noodling.
  • It helps develop ‘Question & Answer’ type phrasing.
  • It forces you to be inventive with simple scale fragments.
  • It doesn’t allow us to fall back on familiar ‘licks’ or patterns. If you are already an experienced improviser – this is one of the important points about improvising with ‘rules’.
  • It helps you get used to the sound of all the notes in a particular scale when played over a particular chord.

Next month I will be going back to basics: what is improvisation? What do you need to know and what skills do you need to be a good improviser? Also, we will start looking at targeting notes while improvising on a blues scale.

Check back on the 1st August for the next edition.

Jamie Howell has been performing and teaching for over 20 years. He studied jazz at Leeds College of Music and has been running his own jazz, funk and rock bands ever since. He has taught privately and in various institutions and has a special interest in improvisation.

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