Improv: what's in a name?

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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My goal has been to build a tool kit and hopefully master those musical elements well enough to apply them wherever and whenever I need them, either on the fly or in some preconceived fashion.

Playing/learning by rote can be cool if you really dig something. I’m in this to be creative and express myself, so I usually try a cool riff or section of a track that I like and then find ways to use it elsewhere – again that tool kit principle. Case in point, there’s a particular bend in “Smokestack lightning” that I use in a number of progressions. What I do before and after and when I apply it is up to me.

Improvisation is an amalgamation of what we know and what we are able to explore and discover. Not a thing in the world wrong with having an idea of what to do when the IV or V chord comes around.


Learn a lick, get it under your fingers, get it in your head. Then find the Unisons. Then find the Octaves. Play it all over. Change the ending to make it a question or throw in some tension. Stop half way through and work back to the start. Then go home and let things settle. Or just leave it hanging out there, with folks wondering, next ?

Do this for all licks. Simples.



Hi Peter being mostly acoustic and fingerpicking, I am bound to learn songs with a particular picking and melody pattern. The only improv happens when I mess up, and I try to dig myself out of a hole whilst playing :wink:. So what I say here below, comes with a jolly big disclaimer - and is more based on what I have seen others do, than my own personal experience.

When we jam together with our Bluesharmonicaplayers, and we have more than 2 guitars playing a blues shuffle pattern, I do decide on the spot how I will play the chord sequence of a song, which is given, and try and find a chord voicing and a rhythm that will complement what the others are doing. Because there are not many options there that is relatively easy, but it is not predetermined. I sometimes may try adding a riff to link the chords together, but it is safer to have that riff committed to memory in advance so as not to throw the groove. I haven’t studied nor agreed in advance with the others. I’ll just find out. As a last resort I will just try to find some right notes, and play a solo line, or some arpeggiating, without much advance thinking about it, and without having a library of licks to help me out. Each time I try that, it will be different, and its not a proper solo, because the acoustic will not cut through two other guitars strumming or a blues harmonica. It just adds a little colour.

Maybe one day, I will be able to play a solo, but I am not consciously studying it, other than having more or less committed the minor pentatonic / blues scale in 3 positions to muscle memory.

I guess if music is like a language, there are different ways to learn it. You can learn it as a baby would, repeating certain words and patterns, and have a response to them, and reacting to that response. You can try and learn it as an adult, from the useful phrases section of your travel guide, and not having had the benefit of the feedback, be in for some rude surprises when after you arrive in the country of destination, attempting to apply your newfound linguistic skills.

What I am trying to say here, is that in learning how to solo in Bluesland, it is probable that you will improvise rather than copy someone else’s solo verbatim. Maybe the solo would be too difficult for your skill level, but you can borrow a part of it, and you fill in the gaps with licks that you do know. Maybe on the other hand, it would be a song that you don’t know, but you still get the solo during a gig - what do you do? I guess improvisation is a part of learning, learning to solo and coming up with your own solo’s to given songs, which you can commit to memory or just coming up with a solo during a jam.


Like @sclay mentioned, most of us on here would be beginner or intermediates - with some advanced guys that have been playing a long time. Being a learning site catering from absolute beginner, that would be expected, I think. I’ve watched a few of your videos, you’re very good. You’ve been playing guitar for longer than I’ve been alive!

I think that means that what is going to help you progress would be very different than what someone who’s only been playing guitar for 6 months, 1, 2 or 3 years would need doing. I imagine you’re decades beyond encountering techniques for the first time, or struggling to hit the right strings.

Why does Justin teach improvising? I can’t remember if he actually explains it. One reason, I think, is that he wants people to explore the instrument and discover what they can do with it. To get into songwriting, creating our own melodies and songs. The other lessons seem to line up with this (chord explorers, songwriting lessons, etc). It’s surprising that many people if not shown they should explore and create, might not - might not feel they have permission to, or they are “good enough” yet. A while ago I asked my niece who was learning piano to have a jam with me - just create a melody in the key of C and I’d lay down some chords and rhythm. She’d never done anything like that, had only played set pieces!

I found that surprising, but I think it’s common.

For me, so far (with far less experience than you), I’ve found improvising helps me learn more about scales and what can sound good together. I don’t think it has helped me at all with learning techniques - however it helps me with applying them.

You’re more advanced - what you need may be different. I take the approach of giving everything Justin suggests a try for a while, some things I spend more time doing than others.

I’ve done a small amount of transcribing. I found it hard, but has really helped training my ear. I found it really hard to transcribe songs I didn’t know well or didn’t like, and songs I knew well were much, much easier.

From what I understand transcribing trains your ear and allows you to build that connection between what you hear and your fingers better. It’s not going to make your fingers faster or get you playing jazz standards though. I think at your level, progression becomes very specific, so what you focus on is what you’ll get better at.


I use the grateful dead as an example of my understanding of improv. their songs are all written out in tab and/or standard notation but they never once play them the same way. the lead guitar, the rhythm guitar, the bass, the drums, the piano all go on journeys by themselves within the song and play off each other. so its not just the lead that is improvising, its the entire band. but i think you already know that given your experience so I’m not really sure what your after :thinking:

As many other have said, to me improvisation is coming with something on the spot.
Otherwise it’s a composition. Nothing wrong woth either, just different things.

Now improvisation may consist of licks put together and filling the blanks in between or something new I suppose.

I think an excellent example of improv is in this video around the 2 minute mark. Just see how Billy Gibbons calls out the guitarists and puts them on the spot really. Amazing. Lots to learn.

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As I stated at the start, “it’s probably just me”, so let’s draw this to some kind of conclusion.

What you described as Grateful Dead improvisation is one extreme but it’s not what @jkahn described. JK uses improvisation to explore the instrument and understand what works and what doesn’t. Grateful Dead did it as it seemed a cool way to play. They are not the same things in my book. And yes it is me because the phrase probably always did have different meanings and it’s quite subtle. Does it matter; no.

Where I’m coming from is, as an experienced player, if someone asks on here for advice on improvising do they mean in the Grateful Dead sense or the JK sense? It would help me to understand but I’ve probably got there now. Actually probably better not to dig myself into any more holes…

As a further example of improvising, here’s something I’m transcribing at the moment. A masterclass in band dynamics too. If anyone can work out what scale he’s playing please let me know but it isn’t the minor pentatonic. A clue - it’s in D:

PS: I always longed for a beaten-up Strat like that

Not me as my ears are not really tuned to for this. Anything played at more than snails pace would be a problem to differentiate chords/notes played.

I mentioned earlier about random songs from obscure German bands and oddly enough one such band came up of all places on a Peter Green Facebook group. Apparently he was influenced by this after he left Fleetwood Mac before he made his first solo album. Wish he’d stuck with the blues.

This was the kind of thing that was seen as cool to “improvise” on when I started out. It’s a bit like the soundscapes of today but over 50 years earlier. According to the comments, no acid was harmed during its making. Enjoy