Improv: what's in a name?

OK it’s probably just me but, the more I engage with the Community and guitar learning, the more I feel that the term “Improv/improvisation” has developed a new and secondary meaning.

The secondary meaning is that “improv” stands for creating your own solos as opposed to IMPROVISING on the spur of the moment like a jazz musician. Now some solos are improvised but others aren’t such as the duet in Hotel California.

What’s behind my question is if someone says it’s vital that I learn to improvise, what do they actually mean? Do they mean I need to know how to jam a solo or do they mean I need to know how to construct a solo? There is a difference in my book.

What’s prompted this, and I’m no way being critical of any of the playing here, is that some “improvs” on here are clearly pre-planned and have repeating phrases - so it could just be pedantic me splitting hairs and/or misunderstanding the current use of the phrase.

Any thoughts?


From a beginners understanding improvisation is like a language. First you have to learn some words, then be able to use those words to form a sentence, then be able to form a paragraph. Therefore , it’s not quite just playing random notes on the spot. It’s taking those words and phrases you have added to your vocabulary and using them in different ways on the spot to tell a story.


No its always meant playing something not pre determined. Whether that is a solo or the whole song it doesnt matter.

Yes that’s what I understand but I have just been listening to a Justin lesson where he says something like: “some guitarists are good at rhythm but can’t improvise”. Is he using improvise as a shorthand for “lead guitar” in that instance. It is possible that a beginner who does not have English as their first language might loose the true meaning?

Not quite, improvising can also be a chord sequence maybe using chord inversions or triads, diads etc, not necessarily soloing. I play mood music for fun, mostly improvising as I go along, I use Guitars and Bass and sometimes simple percussion, but it’s all improvised on the spot!

eh you can nail a predetermined rhythm part but still to be able to improvise one ( aka the strumming pattern or the chords etc)

Yes again. When I started learning the guitar the vogue was for a song to be a whole side of an album. I believe Yes had a double album with only four songs on it. I still have in the loft probably albums by obscure German bands with a song on each side which according to the sleeve notes was made up on the day. This is not what floats my boat. I do not want to improvise like that but I do want to master blues lead guitar.

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I think on the JG Community when people post an improv piece, it’s usually a lead-type improv over a backing track.

What is improv, though? It’s making something up on the spot… but it’s always based on stuff that you’ve learned before. Chords, scales… licks, whether learned or in your vocab (discovered). Hand patterns that you don’t even realise are part of the way you play guitar. I reckon most of the time on here when people post improv, it’s improv, but of course it comes from their previous playing.

Personally I don’t post much improv but I do improv-style playing all the time. I tend to gravitate towards rhythms, chord progressions and fingerpicking rather than lead style, though.

Well, on one level, its just semantics isnt it? On another level, does it really matter?
I think in the earlier stages, there is more pre planning going on. And I mean in the first several years. There has to be. We are all at where we are at.
As certain things become more automatic, I suppose it becomes less conscious. I think improvising to a high standard on the spot, technically, is advanced level playing.
I’ve been at it a bit less than 3 years, and I won’t be giving you any jazz musician level on the spot improv. I’ll need to get a bit familiar with the progression, try out a few different ideas, come up with a motif of sorts. Utilise the ideas, techniques forms, licks , knowledge that I’ve absorbed so far. But after that, if I played it 5 times in a row, it might be similar, but it would differ each time.
I suppose the more experience and expertise gained over years of doing this will progressively lead to less conscious planning, and move closer to what you refer to as jazz musician type improvising.
So whats in a name? The fun and adventure of it all really.

Cheers, Shane


I know it’s semantics which is why I phrased the question the way I did. But when someone pulls me up on my learning log for skipping all the lessons on improvising then it does matter. I don’t want to improvise. What you describe is teaching yourself to play lead guitar over a chord progression which is a skill in itself. If those lessons were actually about lead guitar then I need to revisit them.

But for example, if your ambition is to play in a tribute band, let’s say Led Zep, then you would need to learn all those solos note perfect. You would need all the skills described above. But none of the set would be improvised. The audience going to those kind of gigs would know all the songs and if they were improvised then there wouldn’t be too many repeat gigs.

I don’t see many lessons on this kind of theme whereas “improvising” as such is some kind of holy grail.

This is a really interesting question. To me “improv” is just a shorthand for “improvisation”, which is different from composing a solo (like Hotel California) and playing the composition. To me improvisation sort of implies deciding what to play on the fly, as you are doing it.

As others have mentioned, the bits and pieces that go into your improvised piece of music can be (inevitably are) things that you have previously learned. Phrases and licks that might last a bar or two. (That’s why some improvised solos can sound “pre-planned”, especially by less experienced players whose bags of tricks are still fairly small.)

I guess the line between an improvised and a composed solo can be a little blurry. Let’s say I know 8 2-bar licks. If I play them in sequence, is that 16-bar solo an improvisation or a composition? I suppose if I play them in the same order each time I play the solo, maybe I’d call that a composition. If I randomly choose from my bag of 8 licks, 1 lick at a time, I’d be inclined to consider that improvisation.

I do wonder about the solos we hear, either on recordings or in concert, how many of them are composed and how many improvised? I gather that many (most?) of the iconic rock solos (I’m thinking Stairway, Bohemian Rhapsody, Hotel California) are actually composed. On the other hand, there are 3 versions of Let it Be, each with a different solo, which makes me think that George was probably improvising in the studio.

And certain types of music feature a lot of improvisation. Jazz, of course, blues, Grateful Dead/jam band-style music, prog. (Of course, these genres feature composed solos, as well).

Personally, I think learning how to improvise is pretty awesome. I can sit down and make (a semblance of) music after having learned 10 blues licks. I can play a thousand different solos (more actually), with those ten licks. It’s kind of exciting, to be honest.

Good topic!

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It’s rock and roll. Define the term “improv” for yourself.

That said, it’s analogous to milk. I drank some milk this morning. You don’t need to know, nor do I need to specify, how many ounces, if it was 2%, half and half, whole, grass fed, or pasteurized. You get the idea, it was a glass of milk.

I do a lot of improvisational playing because it puts me in the moment and challenges me more than learning to play something by rote, and/or note for note. It also allows me to find my own voice on the instrument. I may start out with a riff or concept that I just learned --that I want to develop or expand upon. I may jump in with some ideas in mind, entry and exit points, or completely blind. And yes, you can improvise a chord progression and then come up with fill and connective notes to glue things together.

It is easy to get bogged down with semantics. Focus on learning all the “things” and then work on applying them to your playing in keeping with your own sense of tone and style.


Somewhere I heard or read an interview with Brian May where he said that he constructed all his solos in advance whereas if he just let his fingers do the playing then he’d come up with the same solo every time. I would be the same. When you see BM play live he plays the solos pretty much as they are on the record. But you are right in that some are improvised in the studio. When you hear alternative takes you find out how much of a one off the recorded solos really are.

And on here on this thread there seems to be a divergence of opinion too. I know what I mean by “improv” but is that the same as others. Where it’s also important is when someone asks for advice here such as: “what scales do I use to improvise?” do they really mean on the spur of the moment or is the question really about: “which scales do I play over a given blues chord progression?”

If you have to think about the scales you’re not really improvising.

So I had a look at some of the lessons I skipped on JG and “improvisation” first appears at Grade 2 Lesson 13. And this lesson results in a set tabbed solo - so not really teaching improvising. As I thought, improvising is in danger of becoming a synonym for playing lead guitar.

Do you have to know how to improvise to play lead?

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Hey Peter,

Mate, I’m just not sure where you’re going with all this.
This community is mostly full of beginner and intermediate players, with a sprinkling of some advanced folk that we are fortunate to have with us.
If someone wants to learn how to improvise, find there own voice , play lead etc, then they’re gonna have to practice it. Thats what we’re doing here. And that obviously involves some thought, pre-planning, trial and error, and initially some forced, mechanical, type of playing. And plenty of time.
Over time, hopefully this process becomes more organic and fluid. Never as fast as we’d like though. And what someone is thinking about when truly ‘improvising’ is anyone’s guess. They may be thinking about scales etc, maybe not. They may be sweating bullets.
Call it playing lead, call it improv, call it finding your own voice, call it whatever you like. Its all in the mix. I just look at it all as a spectrum going from the mechanical and forced to the organic and natural over time.

Cheers, Shane


Some people need to know. :slightly_smiling_face:

Interesting discussion folks.

My take improvisation is not learning to play a solo, its applying what you know spontaneously over a backing track or when jamming with friends.

When I first started to improvise in the early days of Justin’s old Intermediate, it seemed to be pushing towards messing about with the major or minor pent and exploring. Playing melodic patterns and throwing in a few slides and bends. It always sounded wooden and one dimensional. The impression I got at the time, was if I stuck with it, I’d suddenly discover my lead playing chops and be setting the fretboard on fire, making up riffs, licks and fills all by osmosis. And it never happened.

In the intervening years I started to lean some licks from Justin’s Blues Lead and elsewhere.
Add to that some melodic riff patterns. I’d play and continue to play just one lick repeatedly over a BT to figure out when it sat right, same with the runs. I started to build a vocabulary which continues to grow.

When I impro now, sometimes I’ll listen to the BT and think about what licks would be a starting point and go from there. Or I may just hit play and jam along. A lot of the tracks I improv over are 10 minutes long, so there plenty of opportunity to apply the same licks in more thoughtful ways but still in an intuitive sense.

Guess what I am saying is that having built an arsenal to use, I could then improvise with anything from that repository. So to me Improv is applying what you know and not necessarily making things up on the spot. But yes extrapolating things from your vocabulary and applying them in a way that compliments the BT (ha yeah and that always happens !).

Stringing the licks together with this kind of improvisation, has helped me to learn to “solo” pieces a little easier as I recognise patterns and licks from my library and am not necessarily learning them from scratch.

Anyway that’s my 2 cents and I’ve waffled on long enough.



I would say exactly this.

I have a bit of an acting hobby and, in the acting world “improv” is about trying to create a scene in the moment, based on a supplied situation. It’s quite hard but, when it works, it’s a heck of a rush.

I see musical “improv” the same: it’s made up on the spot.

Of course, it’s not entirely original: you are using musical phrases and licks that you have learned from others. But how you put them together and how you phrase them is up to you.

I don’t consider pre-prepared pieces as “improv”, personally.

Bear in mind that many skilled players can come up with solos on the spot which sound polished enough to be constructed solos.

But, also, a lot of guitar solos on social media are composed in advance. And, probably, endlessly rehearsed before they are recorded and uploaded.

One question seems to be: why should I bother?

It’s up to you. It’s your journey. But, IMO, improvisation will improve your understanding of music, including theory, performance, and how solos can be constructed. It will benefit your lead guitar playing.

Exactly this!

There’s a place for note-for-note learning pieces (and, TBH, that tends to be my preference with the limited time I have for playing at the moment) but there is also a place for improvisation, even if it’s not your main thing.




This is a very good point and made me think a lot. I guess the question is born out of my own frustration with my playing.

I dismissed improvising not because I hadn’t learnt it nor that I couldn’t do it, but I didn’t see that as the way forward for me to advance as a guitar player. But in having dismissed it, am I loosing out by ignoring lessons on improvisation; has improvising developed a wider meaning such as a shorthand for more advanced techniques?

Justin drops the phrase in many times in lessons but is he really teaching things so we can “improvise” or is he teaching them because they are more advanced?

I’ve concluded that the way for me to advance lies in transcribing. How many people in the Community transcribe?

I always have done, when there was no internet or it wasn’t affordable you didn’t have much choice, it was learn by ear (as in transcribe) or buy expensive sheet music that was all squiggles that you didn’t understand.
Just out of interest I posted some of the stuff I’ve done in the past that should be interesting for you, you might understand why I’m doing what I’m doing now; I’ve just moved on to my next interesting phase!

Hi Darrell

Yes I’d actually found and listened to your pieces before I’d penned this. Very impressive and wide ranging. And I’d found your Peter Green’s “Need Your Love So Bad” well before I thought of doing mine and it inspired me to continue. Your last piece I think might be Muse which is not a genre I’m familiar with but good nonetheless.

I’ve also learnt by ear and memory from vinyl though I did acquire some books over the years. I was amazed to watch an interview recently with Rory Gallagher he did in 1976 where he said that they did not have any records at home and he learnt off the radio!

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