The Secrets to Mastering Improvisation: Connecting to the Fretboard

In my previous post I talked about the source of improvisation, your inner jukebox. Your inner jukebox fuels your ability to improvise, it is your inspiration, it is the tool by which you express yourself as an individual. If you can tune into your inner jukebox, tap into the musical ideas that it generates, and play these ideas on-the-fly then you can truly and freely express yourself as a musician.

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The Secrets to Mastering Improvisation: Your Inner Jukebox

In this post I want to talk about how you take all this creative energy and translate it to the fretboard, preferably in real-time, since we want to play something on the spot.

Let me begin by stressing that there is no magic pill, no magic way to learn how to master improvisation in two weeks, or a couple of months’ time. Being able to play the guitar or any instrument well requires a lot of focused and consistent practice. We are learning a very delicate skill here, one that requires your brain to make a lot of different and new connections. This simply takes time. Remember the 10,000 hour rule.

Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix

Learn two or three basic scales

One thing that can put people off is having to learn all these different scales and modes. This is especially true of jazz improvisation.

When you play the guitar, especially when you improvise you want to have a clear mind. If you don’t, and are constantly thinking about chord changes, modes, and what have you, you lose that connection with your inner jukebox. There is simply too much on your mind to be able to relax and listen. That’s when you start noodling. And the last thing you want is aimlessly running up and down some pattern of notes.

Some people swear by this approach, though, and some musicians do really well improvising by thinking about a ton of different scales and modes. (If you are one of these people, then have a look at this excellent post.)

I personally can’t think that way, it’s too much. I don’t know how these people do it.

So, which scales do you learn?

Well, for rock, blues and pretty much every other genre of music where songs tend to stay in a single key throughout, you start off with the pentatonic scale, both the minor as well as the major versions (see here and here). Learn to play the pentatonic scale across the entire fretboard (see here). If you limit yourself to only knowing it in one position it will eventually hinder your progress.

For jazz improvisation it is a bit more complicated, and this is where different people will have different opinions. You can divide chords roughly into two camps: Minor and major. This doesn’t work for all chords, for example, diminished chords. However, I would advice learning just two scales, initially. The first one is the minor triad scale (that is, root – minor third – fifth) across the entire fretboard. The second is the major triad across the entire fretboard (that is, root – third – fifth).

View more complex scales/modes as adding notes to the basic scales

Once you know your basic scales inside and out, playing more elaborate scales with more notes becomes a lot easier. For example, extending the basic minor pentatonic scale to a Dorian mode just adds two notes to the existing scale.

You need to get the basic scales down cold, only then can you add new notes to it to make things more interesting.

You may ask, what is the point in learning scales, even these basic ones? Well, for one, scales add structure, they add guidance. The next section will make it clear how this can be used in practice.

Learn every chop/lick/phrase you hear and like, by heart

Now we come to the interesting bit. Our goal is to be able to play what we hear. How do we go about accomplishing this?

Simply put, we build a whole arsenal of individual chops, licks and phrases that you can play. These should be relatively short, self-contained, pieces, maybe a bar or two long. These can be licks you hear being played as part of a solo on the radio. Or it can come from something you heard earlier and stuck in your head. Or, if you have a hard time coming up with licks, you listen to a load of music or search the internet for blog posts with headlines like “12 cool blues licks everyone should know”.

The idea is that you hear something, and you copy it. You try and figure out how to play it. Vocalisation can help you with this (see this post). Repeatedly pausing, rewinding and restarting the CD or mp3 helps. For fast passages, being able to slow it down (in software or otherwise) definitely helps. Knowing your basic scales provides guidance in that it present you with 5 or so notes (not all 12) to choose from when figuring out how to play something. This can help tremendously.

When you have figured out how to play it, you memorise it. You want to be able to play it without thinking about it, your fingers should do the work. The less thinking you do during playing, the more time and focus you will have for listening to your inner jukebox.

So you build your arsenal, and as you do so you will find that some licks are similar to some other licks in ways. For example, there are different ways of moving up or down a particular part of the scale. Or licks that somehow involve bending the 3rd note in the minor pentatonic scale (the `blue’ note). After a while you will be able to categorise licks in your head like that.

So now what do we do? Well the goal is to, next time you improvise, match a lick to the idea that you have in your head. The greater your arsenal of licks, the better the match will be. After a while you become so good at this that you can hear something and even if it doesn’t directly fit with a previously memorised lick or passage, you will be able to play it because you have become so familiar with the fretboard.

But what about harmonic improvisation?

I have implicitly written about melodic improvisation, and haven’t mentioned harmonic improvisation: improvising with chords, adding harmonic embellishments, etc. Knowing your basic scales is not going to help much with this. Knowing chords and how to build these up from individual notes, is. The principle is the same though: You hear something, you play it, you build up an arsenal of chord progressions and connections. I will discuss this in more detail in a future post.


When you first start out, it will probably not sound anything like what you hear in your head. Your arsenal is not big enough yet, you are still thinking too much about the mechanics of playing. Initially, you will more often than not end up noodling, or running up and down the scale quite aimlessly. Persevere. The more you practise, the more stuff you hear and figure out, the better you will become. Eventually you will be able to hear something and let your fingers do the rest. That’s the goal.

Got a question? Comment?

If you’re stuck somehow and need some help, or if you have something else to say, write a comment at the bottom of the page. I — or perhaps another reader — will be able to help you.