How Guitar Players Approach Soloing or Improvising
It seems to me that there are five main components (or things) that guitar players use when soloing or improvising on guitar. I’m talking about how guitar players think about or react to music while playing to create solos. The five components are knowledge (music theory), visualization (seeing the fretboard both visually and mentally), auditory (listening, or their “ear”), memory (mental library of licks, techniques, and knowing what works when) and technique (their physical ability to play things.) Some may favor some components over others, and some may almost completely disregard some elements, such as music theory. But to be successful at soloing requires at least a tiny bit of each thing. Let’s look at each element of soloing separately and see how they contribute.
Some players continually think about what notes, modes, or scales they are playing and how those relate to the chords or harmony they are playing over. They use target tones or knowledge of chord construction or modes when soloing. They essentially use music theory as the building blocks to construct their solos.
Some players claim to not know any music theory. And some even go as far as to claim that knowing music theory hurts your creativity. Yet theses players typically know about keys, and certain types of scales such as the Pentatonic scale. Even knowing the names of chords is in fact knowing some music theory.
These two types of players tend to be very far apart in their approach. Sort of the head vs. the heart (or gut.) And while using all head knowledge can lead to solos without much or any emotion, stumbling around on the fretboard clueless usually doesn’t make for a great solo either. The trick is to find a balance, or what works for you.
Some players visualize scale patterns and notes on the fretboard and use those as the road maps for their solos. They pick notes from the patterns they visualize on the fretboard and then use their ears to find the notes that sound best. I think most players at least occasionally look to see that they are playing at the correct fret or location.
Audibly (By Ear)
Music is organize sound, so obviously any good musician will use their ears to some degree. Some players claim to only “play by ear” but as I mentioned in the Knowledge section, most players have at least a minimal understanding of music theory such as chords, notes, or scale names. Still, using your ears to find good sounding notes or phrases is certainly a valuable skill in improvising, and should play a large role when soloing.
Experienced players usually have a mental “library” of riffs, techniques, note combinations, or phrases that they know will work in certain situations or styles of music. And memorizing scales or scale patterns is vital to most players when it comes to soloing.
The physical act of playing guitar requires practice and experience. The longer you play, the better you should get at playing scales and techniques such as string bending, hammer-ons, vibrato, etc. The better your technique is, the freer you are to focus on the other elements of soling. Of course, you can take technique to the extreme and focus on technique alone at the expense of feeling or taste. And we've all probably seen players with limited technique that still have the ability to play very effective solos. Technique is a valuable tool but it should not be the main goal. Music is the main goal.
How I Do It
It is very hard to explain, as I tend to be a mix of all five. But I am mainly visual and “by ear” when I solo. I mentally visualize scales as patterns on the fretboard when I play. Then I just start playing randomly on the patterns I visualize and use my ears to react to what I have just played and instinctively go from there. I usually think in musical phrases, not scales, when I solo. I rarely think of the underlying music theory once I start a solo unless I am targeting a note to a chord. I prefer to let my ears and instincts guide me.
Of course it all happens very quickly. So in a way it is quite “magical” to me and I don't fully understand how it really works. Or how sometimes it seems to flow effortlessly and sometimes I flub it big time.
So how do you improvise?