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Make It up as You Go (Guitar Lesson)


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David Isaacs

Make It up as You Go

Some of you may have been waiting for this one! Now we'll focus on some improvisation...Some lead playing. It's not about knowing all the scales or trying to be fancy. It is about using what you know to make a lasting impression on the listener, and you'll be surprised at how little you have to play in order to do just that!

Taught by David Isaacs in Beginner Guitar With David Isaacs seriesLength: 12:45Difficulty: 2.5 of 5


In this lesson, we’ll start to explore a great big topic that some of you may have been waiting for: lead guitar and improvisation.

“Improvisation” simply means making it up as you go. “Lead” guitar generally means that the guitar goes from a supporting role to the spotlight: the focus of attention and the primary melody. So this lesson is really about learning to step up and have something to say when it’s your moment.

We’re going to start by taking another look at our minor pentatonic scale. Now, improvisation is about much more than scales, but scales provide the raw material we’re going to pull from. The pentatonic scale is a great place to start because it’s part of the core vocabulary of rock and blues, and gives us lots of simple options that will all work over basic chord changes.

The scale fingering we’re using appears at 1:15. It’s important to recognize that this is a moveable form: since it doesn’t use any open strings, the entire pattern can be shifted up or down the neck. It also lays neatly within our four fret position, making all the notes easily accessible. In this case, the scale we’re using is an A minor pentatonic because we’re starting from the A note on the fifth fret of the low E string. To play in another key we would simply move to another position, but since our backing track is in the key of A we’re going to stay there.

Be sure to note the explanation of the diagram as it appears at 1:45. Instead of reading tab, we’re using a picture this time. It works just like a chord diagram except that there are multiple notes on each string (as with chord diagrams, the strings are represented by the vertical lines). We begin at the upper left, move along the string, and then proceed to the next string. This “box” format is very useful for helping you visually identify patterns on the neck, as you’ll see. Also, pay attention to the notes marked by the white circles. These are the root notes, the musical “home” of the key, which is an important concept in this lesson.

When a student first begins trying to improvise, the biggest challenge is often figuring out how to begin. Even working within a single scale, there are so many possibilities that it can be paralyzing! The way to deal with this is to recognize an important fact about music.

Any piece of music can be broken down into a sequence of small ideas. We call these ideas phrases. A phrase can be as simple as two or three notes! When we’re improvising, all we’re really trying to do is to play one phrase at a time: one musical idea followed by another. When you think of it this way, the whole process becomes a lot less intimidating…you don’t need to play anything complicated, just a sequence of simple ideas one after another.

The diagram at 5:08 gives us a great place to start. At the top of the page you’ll see the full scale we introduced at the beginning of this lesson. The diagrams that follow break up the notes of the full scale into four-note segments. Each of these segments could be used as a small area to play a simple idea. The different pieces of the scale give us a variety of small pieces that can be put together in different combinations. So you’re never trying to find more than a handful of notes that sound good together.

The section that begins at 5:52 will give you some ideas on how to work with these small segments to create clear musical ideas. Remember that notes played in sequence will create a sense of line: notes moving up and down in large or small increments. Staying aware of the sound of your “home” note lets you choose to move away from home or back towards it: tension and release. This is a huge driving force in all music, and makes a good improvisation like telling a story.

Over time, a good improviser learns to construct longer, more intricate lines from these small pieces – but right now, one small piece at a time is all you need. If you’re new to this, you may find it challenging. Remember that at this stage, less is often more. Most of the notes of each segment will work over every part of the backing track, so there are very few “bad” notes. Think of your improvisation as telling a story. Leave space in between your statements, and notice how moving up or down through each scale segment moves the story forward.

This is a skill that can only be learned by doing, so go for it! Don’t be afraid of mistakes: for our purposes right now, there aren’t any. Some ideas will work better than others, but that’s part of the exploration. If you need inspiration, listen to some of the greats and notice how they use phrasing and line to tell their stories. After some exploration, you should soon be telling stories of your own.







Video Subtitles / Captions


Member Comments about this Lesson

Discussions with our instructors are just one of the many benefits of becoming a member of JamPlay.


coach2b12coach2b12 replied on February 23rd, 2017

How come there is no PDF file to download , Thanks

scottintacoma253@gmail.com[email protected] replied on October 17th, 2016

what an interesting way to explain improve. Thank you

PaulthebikePaulthebike replied on October 4th, 2016

This one is great! But where are the notes for the practice song? Improvising is great but I need a kick-off

kalorenz03kalorenz03 replied on August 23rd, 2016

Great lesson! Thanks David!

AdamQAdamQ replied on June 6th, 2016

Great lesson, well explained which makes it understandable.

scannon120scannon120 replied on April 16th, 2016

Great practice tool. Thanks !!

Don.SDon.S replied on December 17th, 2015

The idea of small boxes to work out of is great, David. Thanks.

pedalerbobpedalerbob replied on December 14th, 2015

I think the A Minor chord diagram is missing a solid dot at the 5th fret on the 5th string. Nonetheless, great lesson!

GregGPGregGP replied on October 10th, 2015

This is a fantastic lesson. I could try to explain, but i't's great on more levels than I explain and even understand. For instance, the Zen stuff, the clarity... Thanks

jerseyfrankjerseyfrank replied on August 4th, 2015

Great lesson.

Beginner Guitar With David Isaacs

Found in our Beginner Lesson Sets

Whether you've never played before, or your coming back to guitar after brief startup attempt, you'll find everything you need to get going in this series. David uses real musical examples to teach even the most basic concepts and techniques.



Lesson 1

The Series Introduction

Don't get stuck learning chords, scales and theory with nowhere to apply the things you work on. Take the "David Isaacs" approach and learn the guitar by using real music. You'll be playing along with...

Length: 2:32 Difficulty: 0.5 FREE
Lesson 2

Strings & Things

Tune up, learn your way around your guitar, and explore a simple, musical picking exercise to help you learn the string names. You'll be playing right out of the gate!

Length: 22:20 Difficulty: 0.5 Members Only
Lesson 3

Hands on the Fretboard

Learn hand position, posture and see how to set up your playing for success when it comes to your fret hand. Dave goes in depth with his discussion and demonstration of hand mechanics. Don't miss this...

Length: 16:10 Difficulty: 0.5 Members Only
Lesson 4

Your First Song!

Learn the E7 minor and Am chords and then immediately put them to use with a simple song. Play along to the provided backing track and feel like you're part of the band...It's only your 4th lesson! Keep...

Length: 15:32 Difficulty: 1.0 Members Only
Lesson 5

Power to the Chords

Power chords are some of the most simple and ubiquitous tools for playing and making great songs. Learn the most basic shapes and put them to use right here! Dave also discusses the beginnings of strumming...

Length: 12:21 Difficulty: 1.0 Members Only
Lesson 6

Music & Melody

Learn a simple melody and take in a little info about what a 'key' is. You can learn the melody and have a friend strum the rhythm. Or, do it the other way around!

Length: 18:07 Difficulty: 1.0 Members Only
Lesson 7

Two Finger Chords & More

These simple, musical tools can take you a long way. Use your index and middle fingers to play a simple Am chord and a simple E chord. You'll also learn how to read chord charts and play through another...

Length: 16:46 Difficulty: 1.0 Members Only
Lesson 8

A Simple Melody

You will be introduced to a simple A minor scale and then learn a song that helps you get your new scale under your finger tips!

Length: 12:08 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 9

Finger Independence

Do you ever feel like you are wearing mittens while you are trying to practice your guitar playing? If you have ever experienced this sensation, this lesson is for you!

Length: 11:04 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 10

Let's Major on C Major

You'll be introduced to the C Major scale and then you'll be able to put it to use over a soothing acoustic guitar rhythm bed. Have fun!

Length: 10:37 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 11

The C Chord and G7 Chord

Here you'll get to spend some time applying some fundamental chord shapes. Dave shows how to switch between these two chords seamlessly and, as usual, has a creative example ready to go so you can put...

Length: 18:39 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 12

G and C Working Together

I know what you're thinking..."I just learned these!" Well, you did learn a C chord and a G chord, but this lesson goes over ways to play these chords together in a chord progression that REALLY sounds...

Length: 11:06 Difficulty: 1.0 Members Only
Lesson 13

Playing Most Songs

You've probably heard it before, but most songs out there can really be played with just 3 or 4 chords. In this lesson, Dave gives you the tools to play most of the songs you know and love!

Length: 14:04 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 14

Rhythm & Charts

We're moving into some new territory with this series now. You'll now be focusing more and more on material that you can play in a band setting. Up until now, you've been applying the basics to real music,...

Length: 24:54 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 15

A Taste of the Blues

Learn about the blues form and strum along with a cool, laid back, bluesy track. You'll be able to take the material in this lesson a long way down the road! Don't forget to have fun with it now though...

Length: 12:03 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 16

Major Pentatonic Music

Learn the C major pentatonic scale and put it to good use over a catchy tune! You'll be surprised how simple this is and how very musical you can be with just 5 notes arranged in a musically interesting...

Length: 8:38 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 17

Four Fingers and a Chord

The mighty and intimidating F chord is one that most beginners see as a major hurdle in learning the basic chords on the guitar. Dave offers some ways to make the F chord more approachable. Once you examine...

Length: 15:35 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 18

Chord Shapes & Arpeggios

Work on precision with your picking hand and more finger independence with your fretting hand using a soothing practice track called "Chimes". You'll get a good taste of combining melody and rhythm playing...

Length: 15:34 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 19

Work Those Rhythms

Dave works you through eight different strumming variations, discusses how to feel the groove while keeping the rhythm, and shows you how to take a handful of examples and create any strum pattern you...

Length: 14:18 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 20

Complete C

Look at the C major scale once again. This time however, you'll get to complete the first position C major pattern. You'll play every note within reach of your first 4 frets. You'll also learn a catchy...

Length: 16:28 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 21

The Return to Chords

Work in the Am, Dm, and Em chords and play them in a melancholy, yet soothing example. You'll also get to work on your basic strumming.

Length: 12:18 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 22

Shifty Pentatonic

Learn the E minor pentatonic scale with a small position shift that will get you out of the open position and moving around the neck a little bit. This is where it really starts to feel like you are owning...

Length: 13:53 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 23

Let's Major on A Minor

Earlier in the series, we explored the C major scale. In this lesson, the A minor will get some love. Learn the basic open position and use it in a new melody.

Length: 15:43 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 24

In 7th Heaven

Back to some chords now. In case you couldn't tell from the title, we'll be focusing on 7th chords for this lesson. You learned A7 a while back, and now you'll learn E7 and B7.

Length: 13:32 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 25

Walkin' The Blues

Take a moment to pat yourself on the back! You've covered a lot of ground so far! You've been playing real music now for some time, and in this lesson, we're going to learn a walking blues line. What is...

Length: 10:50 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 26

Moveable Chords

Chords that don't have any open strings in them AND chords whose open strings fit comfortably within the chord all called "moveable chords". Learn how to play a couple chords up the neck.

Length: 15:31 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 27

Moveable Pentatonic

In this lesson, you'll take another big step forward when it comes to working outside of the open position. You'll feel like doing some jamming too!

Length: 8:44 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 28

Syncopated Strumming

There are eight more strum patterns for you to dig into in this lesson. This time, they are a bit trickier. Follow along with the rhythm charts and take each example in chunks if needed. Combine them with...

Length: 19:33 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 29

And Now...Barre Chords!

You knew it was coming! This is the lesson where we stop dancing around full fingered moveable chords and dive head first into the most common barre chord shapes. They're not as bad as you may be fearing....

Length: 19:21 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 30

Advancing with Blues

As the musical examples continue to distance themselves from that stereotypical beginner sound, Dave works through this track with a simple, moving melody inside a blues progression.

Length: 14:47 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 31

Make It up as You Go

Some of you may have been waiting for this one! Now we'll focus on some improvisation...Some lead playing. It's not about knowing all the scales or trying to be fancy. It is about using what you know...

Length: 12:45 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 32

Like a Drummer

Learn how to create motion and percussive interest with your strumming. If you look at and listen to how drummers accent general grooves, there is a lot of insight there in to how to make your rhythm playing...

Length: 17:29 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 33

New Chords, New Strums

Learn B minor chord and continue developing your feel and grooviness when it comes to strumming. Be sure that you are combing over older lessons as well so that you can incorporate many ideas into what...

Length: 21:19 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 34

A Start to Alternate Picking

Develop precision in your picking. Learn when it's best to use alternate picking. Get comfortable with a few exercises and then apply the technique in a musical context!

Length: 20:26 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 35

A Little Bluegrass

We're going to continue with rhythm playing and 16th note strumming, but this time we're going to touch on some laid back bluegrass playing. This is another simple style of playing to add to your arsenal.

Length: 10:06 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 36

A Bit More on Barre Chords

Learn a few more barre chord forms and get more advanced with your strumming. As you've come to know and love with these lessons, you'll have a chance to learn a new song!

Length: 13:51 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 37

Here You Are

You've made it a long way if you've made it to the end of this series! In this final lesson of Mr. Isaacs beginner course, you'll spend some dedicated time moving both major and minor barre chord formations...

Length: 21:58 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only

About David Isaacs View Full Biography Nashville-based Dave Isaacs has made a name for himself as one of Music City's top guitar instructors, working with both professional and aspiring songwriters and artists at his Music Row teaching studio. He is also an instructor in the music department at Tennessee State University and is the coordinator and artistic director of the annual TSU Guitar Summit.

A seasoned performer as well, Dave has released eight independent CDs and gigs steadily as a solo artist, bandleader, and sideman. He continues to write, record, and perform as well as arranging and producing projects for other artists.

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