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Minor Scale Improvising (Guitar Lesson)

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Dennis Hodges

Minor Scale Improvising

Dennis introduces the minor scale. You will improvise within this scale and work on a written solo as well.

Taught by Dennis Hodges in Lead Concepts & Techniques seriesLength: 26:20Difficulty: 2.0 of 5
Chapter 1: (01:38) Lesson Intro Welcome back to the Lead Concepts and Techniques series! Dennis kicks off lesson 2 with a ripping solo in the key of E minor. In the scenes that follow, you will learn how a minor scale is formed as well as some commonly used fretboard patterns in the minor tonality. Similar to the previous lesson, Dennis works through a step-by-step process that will get you acquainted with improvising in a minor key. He has also included a written solo in the "Supplemental Content" section for you to practice.
Chapter 2: (08:02) Minor Scale Basics In the previous lesson, Dennis explained how to play a one octave version of the major scale. You learned how to play this scale horizontally across a single string. A transposable, vertical pattern was also discussed. Before he progresses to minor scale theory and fretboard patterns, Dennis demonstrates a two octave pattern for the major scale that can be transposed to any key.

2 Octave C Major Scale

A. Features of the Pattern

This common fretboard pattern is played in ninth position. The first finger must perform several out of position stretches to fret notes played at the 8th fret. Three notes are played on each string throughout this entire pattern. This feature of the pattern makes it conducive to playing rapid triplet licks with hammer-ons and pull-offs.

B. Practicing the Scale

Always ascend and descend when practicing any scale. Dennis ascends from the lowest root note in the pattern up to a C note two octaves higher. Then, he descends the scale back down to the lowest root note.

After you have memorized this pattern, play through it along with a metronome. Begin by playing quarter notes at a slow tempo such as 60 beats per minute. Then, gradually increase the tempo. Once you reach 120 beats per minute, move the metronome back to 60 bpm and play through the scale in eighth notes. Repeat this same process with sixteenth notes. Use strict alternate picking regardless of what rhythm or tempo you are playing with.

Comparison to the Major Scale

The minor different scale can be analyzed from several different angles. Frequently, the minor scale is compared to the major scale in a "parallel" manner.

Parallel keys are major and minor keys that share the same letter name but have different key signatures. For example, C major and C minor are parallel keys. The tonal center of both keys is the note C. However, their key signatures are different by three accidentals. The key of C major has no sharps or flats in the key signature. On the other hand, the key of C minor has three flats in the key signature.

To convert the C major scale into a C minor scale, the third, sixth, and seventh notes must be flatted. The third, sixth, and seventh notes of the C major scale are E, A, and B respectively. Within the C minor scale, these notes become Eb, Ab, and Bb. Compare the spelling of the C major scale and the C minor scale below.

C Major Scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
C Minor Scale: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C

2 Octave C Minor Scale

Once you have learned how to convert a major scale into a minor scale, apply this theory knowledge to the fretboard. As you play through the C major scale pattern discussed earlier, remember to flatten the third, sixth, and seventh notes within each octave.

Practicing the Minor Scale

When practicing through the minor pattern, use the left hand fingerings that Dennis demonstrates in the lesson video. Practice in quarter notes with a metronome. Use alternate picking. Begin by playing quarter notes at a slow tempo such as 60 beats per minute. Then, gradually increase the tempo. Once you reach 120 beats per minute, move the metronome back to 60 bpm and play through the scale in eighth notes. Repeat this same process with sixteenth notes. Use strict alternate picking regardless of what rhythm or tempo you are playing with. Consistent daily practice is the key to building speed.

Note: Fretboard diagrams of the C major and C minor scales can be found under the "Supplemental Content" tab.

Play through the C major scale and the C minor scale back to back. How would you describe the differences in sound between these two scales?

Relative Minor and Major Keys

Note: The following information pertaining to relative keys is taken from lesson 10 of Matt Brown's Phase 2 Reading and Rhythm series.

For every major key, there is a relative minor key. Relative major and minor keys are written with the same key signature.

Note: Open "Circle of Fifths" listed under the "Supplemental Content" tab.

Around the outside of the circle, each major key is listed. The key center ascends by a fifth interval each time as you move around the circle in a clockwise direction. Moving inwards towards the center of the circle, the key signature for each key is listed. On the inside of the circle, the relative minor key to each major key is shown. For example, A minor is the relative minor to C major. E minor is the relative major to G major.

If you do not have a circle of fifths diagram handy, you can use a simple shortcut to determine the relative minor of any major key. Simply write out all of the notes within the major scale. To not neglect to add any sharps or flats that may occur in the key. Then, count up to the sixth note of the scale. This note is the root of the relative minor key. Let's use the key of Bb major as an example. This scale features two flats in the key signature. Consequently, this scale is spelled as follows: Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb. The sixth note of the scale is G. G is the relative minor to Bb.

In many musical compositions, the key center modulates from the relative major to the relative minor or vice versa. This happens very frequently in the classical, jazz, rock, and country genres. Switching from major to the relative minor creates a drastic change in emotional quality.

Whole / Half Step Pattern for Minor Scales

In the previous lesson, Dennis explained how a scale is defined by its distinct pattern of whole and half steps. For example, every major scale regardless of key follows this pattern: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. Within the minor scale, this pattern changes. The whole and half step pattern for any minor scale regardless of key is whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole.

Horizontal Minor Scales

A horizontal scale pattern can be played on a single string. Begin on any starting pitch. Then, follow the pattern of whole and half steps for the minor scale. Dennis provides an example of this concept by playing through the C minor scale on the second string.

Horizontal Minor Scale Quiz

In the previous lesson, Dennis explained an effective way to test your knowledge of horizontal scales. First, pick a string number at random. Then, pick a fret number. If you are playing an electric, choose between 1 and 7 for the fret number. Pick between 1 and 4 if you are playing an acoustic. Electric guitars allow you to play in a higher range. Once you have chosen a string / fret location at random, play a horizontal minor scale beginning with this note. Simply follow the pattern of whole and half steps for the minor scale until you reach the root note one octave higher. When descending the scale, follow the reverse order of the pattern.
Chapter 3: (07:11) E Minor - One Octave Improvisation One Octave Minor Pattern

Dennis demonstrates a vertical, one octave pattern for E minor scale. The pattern begins in 11th position. However, a position shift occurs on the second string. Shift into 12th position once you reach this string. Begin with the root note played at the 14th fret of the fourth string. Then, use the whole and half step pattern discussed in the last scene to determine the notes that comprise this scale. Practice the pattern along with Dennis to ensure that you aren't playing any incorrect notes.

Note: A fretboard diagram of this scale pattern can be found under the "Supplemental Content" tab.

Spelling Minor Chords

A minor triad is formed by taking the first, third, and fifth note from the minor scale. To find the notes that comprise an Em chord, first spell the E minor scale.

E Minor Scale: E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, E

Then, take the first, third, and fifth notes from this scale.

E Minor Chord: E, G, B

Playing the notes from an Em chord individually creates an Em "arpeggio." When improvising over an Em chord, these three notes will always sound consonant.

Practicing Improvisation

In the previous lesson, Dennis explained a step-by-step process designed to improve improvisational skills within a one octave scale pattern. Now, he applies the same process to the E minor scale.

Note: Some of the following information is taken from lesson 1 of this series.

Step 1

As you begin to improvise with this pattern, limit yourself to the three notes that comprise the tonic triad. Refer to the lesson video if you need a review of where these notes are located within the vertical E minor pattern. These three notes will always sound consonant with the backing track, because they are part of the tonic chord. Limiting the number of notes you can use will force you to create interest by applying various rhythms.

Remember the rules of phrasing when improvising with the minor scale. A musical phrase is often compared to a spoken or written sentence. Each lick must express a logical, complete thought. In addition, punctuation or silence must separate a phrase from the next. This can be accomplished by sustaining the last note of the phrase or by not playing at all. In time, you will learn how to use silence musically. This shows maturity, taste, and refinement in a solo. Create musical interest by varying the lengths of phrases.

Feel free to get creative with the rhythm. However, you must have an awareness of what rhythms you are playing. Are you playing quarter notes, eighth notes, or a combination of different rhythmic values? Make a note of the rhythm choices that Dennis uses as he improvises with these three notes. Also, notice how he repeats rhythms that he likes. Repeating these rhythms give his improvised solo a sense of unity.

When playing with the backing track, do not try to blaze a solo. Strive to create simple, catchy ideas. Often, simple, catchy ideas are the most enjoyable to listen to. Remember to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. Speed will come with time and experience. If you can make a solo sound interesting with one note, just think of the possibilities with three notes! The possibilities are multiplied exponentially when all seven notes of the major scale are thrown into the mix.

Step 2

Next, limit your options to notes one, two, and three from the scale pattern. Now, you have two tones from the tonic chord and one chord that is outside of this chord. Dennis improvises with these three notes at 05:00 in the lesson video. He plays along with a metronome set to 112 beats per minute.

Don't be afraid to add articulation techniques such as bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides to make your solo sound more expressive. For example, try bending the F# note at the 11th fret up a half step. Also, work on bending the note G at the 14th fret of the third string. Bend this note one whole step.
Chapter 4: (06:22) E Minor Improv Cont. Step 3

Repeat this process with the third, fourth, and fifth notes of the scale (G, A, and B). Once again, you have two chord tones and one non-chord tone to work with. Compare how the color of each individual note works along with the backing track.

When working through this step, feel free to bend the notes on the third string up a whole step each. The B note on the second string can be bent up a half step to the note C. C is the next note within the natural minor scale.

Step 4

Now, use the first five notes of the scale when jamming along with the backing track. Dennis provides an example at 02:35. Notice how he uses a few position shifts to accommodate the licks that he plays. Always use the most practical fingering option available when improvising a solo.
Chapter 5: (03:03) Solo Example and Wrap Up Dennis has written out a sample solo that can be played over the backing track provided in this lesson. This solo utilizes the one octave E minor scale shape demonstrated in previous scenes. Two extra notes are added in the solo. These notes are F# and G, played on the first string. Dennis plays the written solo along with the backing track. Then, he begins to improvise.

The written solo is played at 150 beats per minute. Do not start with this speed! Begin at around 60 beats per minute or slower. Then, gradually increase the speed of the metronome. Feel free to steal these licks and incorporate them into other solos. Also, transpose them to a variety of keys.

Preview of Next Lesson

Ever wonder how bands like Metallica, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, and Thin Lizzy create harmonized guitar lines? Dennis will explain the music theory behind this compositional technique in the next lesson. You will learn how to play harmonies by yourself as well as with another guitarist . Until then, continue to practice and review the materials presented in this lesson and the previous lesson.

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.

dunkjamdunkjam replied

After learning the major scale pattern in Steve Eulberg's begginer series 24,124,134,134,24,12 on the sixth string this has got me baffled? I understand how the wwh,wwwh pattern works ,and the minor pattern, on each string but i cant understand how this works from the route note down through the strings. Please help cos me brain hurts.

ScaggskrScaggskr replied

Years ago Ilearned the same pattern, and as part of it, each finger gets a fret. With this pattern, this is not true. Also, it would be useful to put the finger numbering down rather than the name of the notes

wayne metcalfwayne metcalf replied

How do you get the long drawn out notes ? Sustain pedal ? Digital or Analog delay ?

dennis.hodgesdennis.hodges replied

None of those effects were used in this lesson, and have no pedals that do that. If anything, it's just a loud amp and subtle vibrato. With a little work and a distorted amp, you can make a note last as long as you want.

darchcruisedarchcruise replied

Dennis, which of the 3 minor scales (natural, harmonic, melodic) is the one that is most commonly used for solos and fills? And why?

dennis.hodgesdennis.hodges replied

natural minor (W H W W H W W, for example E F# G A B C D E) is most common, with Dorian actually being second (W H W W W H W, for example E F# G A B C# D E), then harmonic minor (W H W W H +2 H, or E F# G A B C D# E) and melodic minor (W H W W W W H, E F# G A B C# D# E) being a distant last.

jusromnjusromn replied

Dennis - Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have been wrestling with "what is the difference between Maj n Min keys/ chords etc. You expertly explained the difference and I am almost ashamed that I never figured it out. I now feel I can move on with confidence and ambition. Magnificent class, sir.

f14birdyf14birdy replied

Everything explained great. My only question at the end off this is about bending. When you were talking about bending when limiting yourself to the I III and V doesn't bending bring other notes into play? Can you bend to notes that are not in the scale, or do you have to figure which notes are bendable and to what extent? (half, whole).

alecalec replied

your in standerd right?

fretweaselfretweasel replied

Really appreciate the way you explain things, it's very easy to understand. I think in definition of arpeggio, you meant to say "A cord who pitches are played successively, instead of simultaneously", that than "successfully, instead of, etc.".. though we do hope our arpeggios are played successfully. =D

analogkidanalogkid replied

I think i'm a bit confused. The tones that make up a major scale chord are I,III,IV and the tones that make up a minor are I,IIIb,IV. Correct?? But in the lesson for minor scale improvising it appears that Dennis is using the E at the 14th fret/D string and the G and B notes at the 12th fret/G and B strings respectively. Shouldn't it be the Gb tone at the 11th fret/G string since this is the flat 3rd?? I must be missing something??? Any help would be appreciated. Thanks.

rhall84900rhall84900 replied

Major chords are I III V. See if that helps.

daniel stalteridaniel stalteri replied

Dennis, great lessons on major and minor scales. They truly starting to make sence in my feabile brain. Please clarify that the whole and half step pattern used vertically? It makes sence horizontally, but I'm a little confused on the pattern applied vertically???

darchcruisedarchcruise replied

Dennis, which of the 3 minor scales (natural, harmonic, melodic) is the one that is most commonly used for solos and fills? And why?

rarsenrarsen replied

Hi Dennis, Excellent intro/insight into the mistery of soloing. I have a few questions; your minor scales are different than the minor penatonic scales in the chord library. Are these just in the C Major / Minor "patterns"? What's the difference and when do use minor verses minor penatonic scales or can I just use this pattern? Am I confusing scales and scale patterns? Thanks, Ron

dash rendardash rendar replied

In case anyone is interested, I volunteered a reply to this question in the forum.

rockstar_lisarockstar_lisa replied

really awsome lesson and made me realise i can only make good sounding solo's when im improvising like that ,great lesson cant wait for the rest !!

Jason.MounceJason.Mounce replied

Solid lesson. Digging it.

vanslash1010vanslash1010 replied

You make it look so easy...:)

mixaelmixael replied

Lesson 2! YES! And wonderful intro!

Lead Concepts & Techniques

Found in our Beginner Lesson Sets

Dennis Hodges blends conceptual lead instruction for developing solos, improvising, and harmonizing along with lead techniques such as legato, sweeping, and alternate picking.

Major Scale ImprovisingLesson 1

Major Scale Improvising

Dennis covers the basics of the major scale. Then, he introduces you to improvisation within a one octave scale pattern.

Length: 25:45 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Minor Scale ImprovisingLesson 2

Minor Scale Improvising

Dennis introduces the minor scale. You will improvise within this scale and work on a written solo as well.

Length: 26:20 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
HarmonizingLesson 3


Dennis teaches harmonization in 3rds, diatonic and non-diatonic 4ths, 5ths, diatonic 6ths, and atonal harmonization.

Length: 27:16 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lead Guitar ImprovisingLesson 4

Lead Guitar Improvising

Dennis teaches key improvisational concepts such as blending scales, phrasing, and staying within a scale.

Length: 29:16 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Sweep PickingLesson 5

Sweep Picking

Dennis Hodges teaches sweeping technique, 3 string triads, and 2 octave arpeggios. Also included is an etude written specifically for JamPlay!

Length: 39:18 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Tapping: Basic and Advanced TechniquesLesson 6

Tapping: Basic and Advanced Techniques

Dennis covers many tapping techniques in this lesson. From basic to advanced, get ready to learn something new!

Length: 39:47 Difficulty: 3.5 Members Only
Lead Concepts and Techniques: TricksLesson 7

Lead Concepts and Techniques: Tricks

Dennis teaches a bunch of cool metal and rock tricks in this lesson!

Length: 34:27 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Writing A Rock Guitar SoloLesson 8

Writing A Rock Guitar Solo

Dennis Hodges teaches you some of the basics to writing your own solos!

Length: 47:13 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lead Guitar ImprovisationLesson 9

Lead Guitar Improvisation

Dennis Hodges teaches the basics of improvising a solo over a backing track.

Length: 28:44 Difficulty: 3.5 Members Only
InterpretationLesson 10


Dennis teaches some basics on how to interpret a piece of music and make it your own.

Length: 20:03 Difficulty: 2.5 FREE
Soloing In E MinorLesson 11

Soloing In E Minor

Dennis dissects a solo he wrote that stays in the 12th position box of E minor.

Length: 15:10 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Soloing In A MinorLesson 12

Soloing In A Minor

Dennis Hodges dissects an advanced, extended solo he wrote in A Minor for this lesson.

Length: 33:28 Difficulty: 4.0 Members Only
Metal Solo IntroductionLesson 13

Metal Solo Introduction

JamPlay instructor Dennis Hodges is back with a two sided metal solo! This pack of lessons contains an intermediate and advanced level metal solo. You'll be utilizing bends, sweeping, arpeggios and talking...

Length: 2:11 Difficulty: 0.0 Members Only
Easy Metal Solo Phrase #1Lesson 14

Easy Metal Solo Phrase #1

To get things started, Dennis offers up the first four measure phrase of this easy metal solo. He also discusses the E Phrygian Dominant mode, which will be used throughout most of this solo.

Length: 3:06 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Advanced Metal Solo Phrase #1Lesson 15

Advanced Metal Solo Phrase #1

Now that you have the first phrases of the easy solo under your fingers, let's put a little heat into the lick. You're working out of the same E Phrygian Dominant scale here, but you're adding some embellishments...

Length: 4:00 Difficulty: 3.5 Members Only
Easy Metal Solo Phrase #2Lesson 16

Easy Metal Solo Phrase #2

Here's another four bar phrase of the easy metal solo. This phrase is predominantly arpeggio-based. It ends with a big bend and slide out.

Length: 4:03 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Advanced Metal Solo Phrase #2Lesson 17

Advanced Metal Solo Phrase #2

Like the second phrase of the easy solo, this advanced phrase is also predominantly arpeggio-based. However, it adds speed and flash for a more speed metal vibe.

Length: 4:50 Difficulty: 3.5 Members Only
Easy Metal Solo Phrase #3Lesson 18

Easy Metal Solo Phrase #3

Dennis is back with the next phrase of the easy metal solo. Phrase three incorporates a step sequence where you play a note, go up a step, then leap down in a repeated fashion.

Length: 3:49 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Advanced Metal Solo Phrase #3Lesson 19

Advanced Metal Solo Phrase #3

Just like the other advanced phrases, this one is an embellishment of the easy lick. To amp up the step sequence of the easy lick, this advanced phrase adds triplets.

Length: 6:16 Difficulty: 3.5 Members Only
Easy Metal Solo Phrase #4Lesson 20

Easy Metal Solo Phrase #4

Dennis Hodges is back with another lick from the easy metal solo. Phrase four is the final phrase of the easy metal solo. This lick isn't incredibly fast, but it combines a pull-off to open strings, which...

Length: 3:28 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Advanced Metal Solo Phrase #4Lesson 21

Advanced Metal Solo Phrase #4

Phrase four of the advanced solo is another embellishment of the easy solo. To amp up the speed and give it a more metal edge, Dennis introduces trills that bounce off the open strings.

Length: 5:56 Difficulty: 3.5 Members Only
Easy Metal Solo ConnectionsLesson 22

Easy Metal Solo Connections

At this point, you should have all four phrases of the easy solo under your fingers. In this lick entry, Dennis discusses how to connect the phrases together in order to play the entire solo seamlessly.

Length: 4:40 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Advanced Metal Solo ConnectionsLesson 23

Advanced Metal Solo Connections

Congratulations! You've learned all four phrases of the advanced metal solo. Now, let's take a look at how to connect those phrases for a seamless solo!

Length: 6:07 Difficulty: 3.5 Members Only
Dennis Hodges

About Dennis Hodges View Full Biography For better or worse, Dennis Hodges cannot stop playing music, and (he hopes) will never stop playing music.

Growing up in Flint, Michigan, Dennis had a tremendous passion for drawing. He couldn't stop copying moves from bands he saw on MTV, though, and it didn't help that his parents filled the house with Santana, Stevie Ray, and Allman Bros. (on real records, no less!) so it wasn't long till he got his first guitar. It was junk. Within a few weeks his parents traded in a poor acoustic for a less junky 3/4-size electric.

Dennis started lessons right away at the age of 8. He still remembers hating it for awhile, and not taking it seriously until he was 12. He is thankful his parents forced him to practice early on and kept paying for lessons, even though rational thinking should have stopped them after a year.

Around this time drawing became less important, and guitar consumed all his attention. After 6 years of lessons he parted ways with his teacher and, after trying out two others with no results, decided to continue alone. His nerdistic tendencies paid off, as he put in hours working on picking and left hand exercises and learned as many Randy Rhoads and Kirk Hammett solos as he could.

Luckily, there were playing opportunities at school talent shows and church. Dennis was playing bass at his church when he was 13, helping to hone his performance skills in a group setting.

In high school, Dennis joined the marching band on sousaphone for all 4 years. It was as awesome as you could expect. He was also fortunate enough to be in several different metal bands, still play at church, and get the incredible opportunity to play guitar for many local community theaters. This kept his sight-reading in shape and gave him an appreciation for different styles of music (and paid pretty well, from a high schooler's perspective).

In 2001, Dennis came to Bexley, Ohio to study guitar at Capital University with Stan Smith. His studies emphasized jazz and classical guitar. Here his metal past merged with a deeper understanding of the instrument and music in general, and the basis for most of his teaching style was set in motion.

Dennis now plays guitar for Upper Arlington Lutheran Church every Sunday, for St. Christopher in Grandview, Ohio, with the youth group, and also plays for touring Broadway shows that stop in Columbus. Occasionally, he plays weddings and private parties, and he is starting a new cover band with some friends, called Dr. Awkward. He is blessed to have his understanding and supportive wife Kate, and is glad to be at JamPlay!

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Mike H.

"I feel like a 12 year old kid with a new guitar!"

I am 66 years young and I still got it! I would have never known this if it had not been for Jamplay! I feel like a 12 year old kid with a new guitar! Ha! I cannot express enough how great you're website is! It is for beginners and advanced pickers! I am an advanced picker and thought I had lost it but thanks to you all, I found it again! Even though I only play by ear, I have been a member a whopping whole two weeks now and have already got Brent's country shuffle and country blues down and of course with embellishments. Thank you all for your wonderful program!

Greg J.

"With Jamplay I can fit in a random session when I have time and I can go at my own pace"

I'm a fifty eight year old newbie who owns a guitar which has been sitting untouched in a corner for about seven years now. Last weekend I got inspired to pick it up and finally learn how to play after watching an amazing Spanish guitarist on TV. So, here I am. I'm starting at the beginning with Steve Eulberg and I couldn't be happier (except for the sore fingers :) Some day I'm going to play like Steve! I'm self employed with a hectic schedule. With Jamplay I can fit in a random session when I have time and I can go at my own pace, rewinding and replaying the videos until I get it. This is a very enjoyable diversion from my work yet I still feel like I'm accomplishing something worthwhile. Thanks a lot, Greg


"I believe this is the absolute best site for guitar students."

I am commenting here to tell you and everyone at JamPlay that I believe this is the absolute best site for guitar students. I truly enjoy learning to play the guitar on Yes, I said the words, ""enjoy learning."" It is by far the best deal for the money.

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