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What would you do if you had to improvise a guitar solo and had never done it before? Let’s say you were in a band situation and you only had a few minutes to figure out what you were going to do.

Analysing a chord progression and figuring out which scales should be used at different points can be tricky. It can also be hard to execute scales on the fly, while being musical and sounding confident. The hardest thing for guitarists who are just starting out with improvising, is just that – getting started. I often teach students who simply want to know what to do, when jamming in a certain key with friends, or who are asked to take a solo in an ensemble.

For these reasons, I think it’s good to have a basic battle plan. A kind of simple rule of thumb that can work as a starting point, but can also be your go-to tool when improvising.

I should point out, that I’m generally not fond of ‘quick short-cuts’ and the ‘one simple trick’ approaches. But in context they have their use. It only becomes a problem when people start pursuing these approaches as the goal of playing guitar. Learning guitar is a journey that gets more and more rewarding and mysterious the further you go. We should never try to shy away from that reality. Having said that, shortcuts can be worth their weight in gold, if they’re used as starting points for approaching a bigger topic.

The Ultimate Shortcut For Improvising

  • Learn 1 pentatonic shape
  • Learn the notes on the 6th string
  • Be able to calculate relative major/minors
  • Observe the first chord

We’ll come back to these simple steps shortly, but let’s do a little bit of pentatonic scales revision first.

If you know the major and minor pentatonic scale, you can use them quite easily over many chord progressions.

If you’re new to pentatonic scales, it would be worth reading the lesson on major and minor pentatonic scales. Just as a recap, the major major and minor pentatonic scales are 5-note scales.

Major Pentatonic

The major pentatonic scale contains the 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 of the major scale. We can play the A Major pentatonic scale, starting on the 5th fret, using the following shape:

This is how it would look in notation/tablature over two octaves:

The notes are A – B – C# – E – F#

Minor Pentatonic

The minor pentatonic scale contains the 1, b3, 4, 5, b7 of the major scale. We can play the A minor pentatonic scale, starting on the 5th fret, using the following shape:

Minor-Pentatonic-Scale

This is how it would look in notation/tablature over two octaves:

A Minor Pentatonic 2 Octaves

The notes are A – C – D – E – G

Remember, this is just a quick recap of the pentatonic scale. If you want more details, you should read the following lessons:

The beauty of using pentatonic scales is that if you’re using the right one for the right key, all the notes just seem to work. Of course phrasing and rhythm are important, but it’s much easier to just jump in and use pentatonic scales straight away, without getting to fussy about note selection. All you really need is the right scale and the right key.

I mentioned earlier that you only need to know one scale, yet so far we have looked at two. Why’s that? I’ll get back to that shortly, but firstly, let’s look at something else you need to know.

Learn The Notes On The 6th String

If you know the notes along the 6th string, you can play the two pentatonic scales that we looked at in any key, by moving the scale to the desired starting note.

Let’s look at the notes along the 6th string:

6th String Note Chart Naturals

You should memorise these notes. It’s not hard. Read the lesson on the music alphabet if you want to know how to figure out any note on the guitar.

With a knowledge of the notes on the 6th string, you can play any pentatonic scale, by using the shapes that we looked at earlier. If you want to play the G minor pentatonic scale, simply play the minor pentatonic shape, starting on the 3rd fret (3rd fret = G). If you want to play the C minor pentatonic scale, play the minor pentatonic shape, starting on the 8th fret (8th fret = C). If you want to play the B Major pentatonic scale, play the major pentatonic scale starting on the 7th fret (7th fret = B).

You get the idea.

The above table does not show any sharps or flats. That’s because it’s easier to memorise the natural notes and then deduce where the sharps and flats are. If you need a table though, here it is:

6th String Note Chart Sharps Flats

Observe The First Chord

Part of improvising using scales, is knowing which key to play in at any given time. Sometimes, this can be as simple as someone saying, “hey, let’s jam in E minor”, that’s easy. But other times, you need to figure it out yourself. If you’re looking for a shortcut, simply use the first chord as your reference point. This is probably the biggest shortcut of the lesson and is obviously not going to be perfect all of the time, but it will work a lot of the time. Not all chord progressions use the starting chord as the key centre and there are other things to think about as well, such as key changes. But remember, in this lesson, we’re looking for the easiest plan of attack, when you don’t have the luxury of time for analysis and you don’t have the experience to recognise certain patterns and rules.

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If you observe the first chord of the song/chord progression and apply the appropriate pentatonic scale, chances are that you’ll be able to get by.

Given that most chord progressions stay in the one key, the first chord can often be a dead give-away. So the rule is this – if the first chord is B minor, use the B minor pentatonic scale. If the first chord is Db Major, use the Db Major pentatonic scale. If the first chord is C Major, use the C Major pentatonic scale. It’s that simple.

Using this approach, you only need to know two scales – the Major Pentatonic scale (for major chords) and the Minor Pentatonic scale (for minor chords).

But Wait, There’s More! (or less)

Earlier on, I mentioned that you only need to know one shape, but so far we have looked at two. Learning two shapes really isn’t that hard, so you could probably just learn the two shapes without much fuss, but you can get away with only knowing one. A big part of  improvisation is getting comfortable with shapes/scales etc. If you only have to remember one shape, it can make things seem more familiar and comfortable, which can translate to better improvisation.

So why only one shape? Because the minor and major pentatonic scale are actually the same scale, sort of. While they are technically two different scales, they both have the same cycle of intervals, from different starting points. This might sound confusing. You can read about it in more detail pentatonics, but the main thing to remember for this lesson on shortcuts, is that you can substitute one scale for the other. This is because every major key as a relative minor key and vice versa. Let’s look at a few examples:

The C Major pentatonic scale contains the following notes:

C – D – E – G – A

The A minor pentatonic scale contains the following notes:

A – C – D – E – G

They’re the same bunch of notes, but from a different starting point. Which is why we can learn one scale and then substitute it for the other when needed.

Let’s use the minor pentatonic shape as the one shape that we’ll use for everything. Here it is again.

Minor-Pentatonic-Scale

Remember, when we want to play in a minor key, we just need to make the root note match the first chord of the chord progression. So for example, if the first chord of the chord progression is D minor, we would play the above shape, starting on the 10th fret (with the root note being D), which means we would be playing D minor pentatonic. If the first chord of the chord progression is Bm, we would play the above shape, starting on the 7th fret (with the first note being B).

How To Figure Out The Relative Major

When playing in major keys, all we need to do is figure out the relative minor of the major key in question and play the corresponding minor pentatonic scale.

To do this, we’ll use another shortcut. Simply find the Major chord root note and then move down 3 frets (the interval of a minor 3rd) to get to the relative minor. For example, if the starting chord is C Major, we need to find C on the 6th string, which according to the table we looked at earlier, is on the 8th fret. We then move down 3 frets which takes us to the note ‘A’. Therefor, the relative minor of C Major is A minor. Which means we can improvise using the A minor pentatonic scale when the first chord of a chord progression is C major (or when someone says “let’s jam in C Major”).

Let’s do another example. Suppose the first chord is D Major. The note ‘D’ is on the 10th fret of the 6th string. If we move down 3 frets, we get to ‘B’ (7th fret). Therefore, the relative minor of D Major is B minor. Therefor, we can improvise using the B minor pentatonic scale when the first chord of the chord progression is D Major (or when someone says “let’s jam in D Major”).

Let’s finish with a few chord progressions and analyse which pentatonic scale we would use:

Chord Progression Example 1

Chord Exercise 1
  • What’s the first chord? A minor.
  • Can we use the minor pentatonic shape that we looked at? Yes, because the first chord is a minor chord.
  • Where do we play it? 5th fret, because the 5th fret on the 6th string is A.

Chord Progression Example 2

Chord Exercise 2
  • What’s the first chord? B minor.
  • Can we use the minor pentatonic shape that we looked at? Yes, because the first chord is a minor chord.
  • Where do we play it? 7th fret, because the 7th fret on the 6th string is B.

Chord Progression Example 3

Chord Exercise 3
  • What’s the first chord? A Major.
  • Can we use the minor pentatonic shape that we looked at? Yes, but since the first chord is a major chord, we need to find the relative minor.
  • What is the relative minor? The relative minor of A Major is F# minor.
  • Where do we play it? 2nd fret, because the 2nd fret on the 6th string is F#.

Chord Progression Example 4

Chord Exercise 4
  • What’s the first chord? E Major.
  • Can we use the minor pentatonic shape that we looked at? Yes, but since the first chord is a major chord, we need to find the relative minor.
  • What is the relative minor? The relative minor of E Major is C# minor.
  • Where do we play it? 9th fret, because the 9th fret on the 6th string is C#.

So, What Are The 4 Steps?

  • Learn 1 pentatonic shape
  • Learn the notes on the top string so you can move the pentatonic shape to the right key
  • Be able to calculate relative major/minors
  • Observe the first chord and use that as your guide

And there you have it. Remember, this is only a starting point, or shortcut. The world of improvisation is so vast that I actually feel a little bit guilty for writing such a ‘quick guide’. But the best thing you can do is get started. It’s much better for you to improvise with a point of reference that allows you to give it a go (even if it’s not perfect) than totally wing it and feel helpless.

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Genaaron Diamente
Genaaron Diamente

I play guitar. I teach guitar. I like making music. I'm trying to build this site up to be a valuable resource for guitar students and teachers.