All guitarists learning to play improvised solos have at some point gotten stuck in a creative rut, playing the same handful of tried and true licks over and over again, but shying away from trying anything new. It makes sense how it happens. Learning the guitar is a practice that relies heavily upon muscle memory, and once that muscle memory is established you find yourself entering into a comfort zone not previously associated with the instrument. But trying out new licks and phrases requires venturing out of the safety of your newfound comfort zone, and like any venture out of a comfort zone, that can be intimidating.
You’re finally feeling confident and in control of your instrument, and now you’re expected to throw yourself at the mercy of unknown territory in a way that’s disconcerting similar to that feeling when you first picked up the instrument and weren’t quite sure what to do with it. It’s something that has happened to just about all of us (myself certainly included), and so we compensate by digging deep into a handful of beloved phrases that we know will sound cool and get us through the solo, but without actually playing anything that we haven’t tried before.
However this tendency is a real shame, because it results in virtually interchangeable solos without any real personality that do little to reflect the musical context happening around them. I believe that every improvised solo should be distinct and in some way entirely its own. At the end of the day, playing something that has never been played before kind of the point of improvising a solo instead of just playing an already written solo verbatim.
If playing a pre-composed solo is like reading an already written speech off of notecards, then improvising is like having an organic conversation. And while it might make sense to say something along the lines of “I just came up with the great sentence, I should find a way to work into my upcoming big speech,”, it’d be pretty odd to tell someone “I just came up with the great sentence, and I’m going to try to work it into conversation a bunch of times today,”. The same principle applies to playing improvised solos.
Much like a conversation between two people, an improvised solo should be organic, unplanned, responsive, and reflect what has already been said. It’s just about impossible to achieve this when you’re mostly or even entirely relying on a few licks that you pretty much always play. While I’ve found that this issue tends to hit players who’ve recently graduated to intermediate status the hardest, it can be found to some degree among improvisers of all levels, fro beginners all the way to many working professionals. Below all three exercises designed to help force you out of your comfort zone and into playing some new ideas. These exercises are primarily aimed at intermediate-level players, but can help out beginner and advanced guitarists as well.
Exercise 1: The One Note Solo
For the first exercise, you’re going to try playing an entire solo using only one fret of the guitar. Although it can be done on any fret, for the sake of this series of exercises let’s make that fret the 5th fret of the 1st string, which is an A-note. You can play that fret as many times as you want, you can bend the note as much as you want, you can slide into it, you can play harmonics on it, you can play mutes on it, you can use a whammy bar on it, or apply any other technique that you can think of. The only constraint is that you can’t venture onto any other spot on the fretboard.
In order to make such a melodically contained solo interesting, you’ll probably have to focus on coming up with interesting and creative rhythms, including some rhythms that you’ve never played before. A nice added bonus for this exercise is that it might force you to explore some of those previously mentioned extended techniques as well.
Exercise 2: The Sliced Sale
For the second exercise, we’re going to chop up a scale into three equal parts and use only one at a time. Much like the last exercise, this exercise could work for any scale you know than spans all six strings, but for the sake of this piece, I’m going to give an example using the A-minor scale. I’m going to chop this common A-minor scale shape into three equal parts, giving each part two full strings. You can see each of the parts tabbed out here:
First, try playing an improvised solo using just the six notes in Part 1. Relying on the thicker strings of the guitar can make it hard for your solo to cut through, so for this part of the exercise, I would recommend leaning into that fact and try making the most out of the bassier end of the guitar. After you’ve played using the notes in Part 1 of the scale, try moving on to the five notes Part 2. This part is the middle two strings, so you’ll have a nice balance between bass and treble in your solo.
Finally, try improvising a solo using just the six notes in Part 3. Part 3 consists of the highest-pitched strings of the guitar, which means that your solo will clearly cut through the air (and possibly any backing track you may be jamming along to), but could potentially sound a bit thin without having any bassier notes to fall back on. Much like when playing the notes in Part 1, my advice is to lean into the sonic qualities of the notes you have to work with and embrace their shrill, trebly goodness.
Exercise 3: The Vertical Sale
While you have likely learned all of your scales up to this point horizontally across your fretboard, that’s not the only way to play a scale. Any way you can find to play the notes in a scale in the correct order is a valid way of playing that scale, and that includes just playing them vertically on the fretboard. Sticking to the key of A-minor that the last two exercises were in, below is tablature of the A-minor scale played vertically along the first string.
Try playing through the above A-minor scale, going up the scale and then back down. The highest end of the scale may not be easily accessible on some guitars, especially acoustic guitars without a cutaway, so if you can’t reach all of the notes of the scale don’t worry about it, just play the ones you can. Once you feel comfortable with the shape of this scale, try improvising a solo just this A-minor scale shape. While the same notes as the A-minor scale shape you are likely already familiar with, the vertical shape will likely force you to abandon your go-to licks, and the visual element of the scale may cause you to think about the melodic elements of your solo in a more direct way than you previously have.
Now Put It All Together!
Once you’ve finished all three of these exercises, try taking a solo without any of these constraints, but still bearing in mind some of the things you may have learned from them. Try incorporating some of the rhythms and extended techniques you experimented with on The One Note Solo, some of the new phrases you may have come up with when using The Sliced Scale shapes, and some of the melodic phrases you may have tried out during the vertical scale. Note that since the vertical A-minor scale is the same notes as the more common A-minor scale shape you likely already know, you can totally mix both scale shapes together into a melodically cohesive whole that won’t clash at all. Hopefully this will help you come up with some new ideas and break out of the rut of only playing a few favorite licks!