Lead Guitar Improvising (Guitar Lesson)

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Dennis Hodges

Lead Guitar Improvising

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

Taught by Dennis Hodges in Lead Concepts & Techniques seriesLength: 29:16Difficulty: 2.0 of 5
Chapter 1: (01:32) Intro Welcome back to the Lead Concepts and Techniques series! Dennis begins lesson 4 with an improvised solo that illustrates the topic of this lesson. The E Phrygian, E natural minor, E minor pentatonic, and G major pentatonic scales are combined throughout the course of the solo. In this lesson, Dennis will explain how and why certain scales can be used together in a single guitar solo.

Before you attempt to mix several scales in a solo, you must first become comfortable with improvising lines within a single scale. In the scenes that follow, Dennis will provide some tips that will help you improve your improvisational skills.
Chapter 2: (09:20) Playing within a Scale In a past lesson, Dennis taught you a two octave horizontal pattern for the major scale. This pattern can be transposed to all 12 keys by sliding it up and down the fretboard. At this point, you should have this pattern memorized. You should also be comfortable with playing it in a variety of different fretboard positions. In this scene, this pattern will be utilized when improvising a solo in the key of B major.

Improv Exercise 1

Using the horizontal pattern of the B major scale, improvise a brief unaccompanied solo. At this point, limit yourself to playing quarter notes. To ensure that you are playing with steady time, practice this exercise along with a metronome set to a slow tempo. Dennis recommends that you begin at around 60 beats per minute.

While improvising, recall some of the basic melodic guidelines that Dennis has discussed in previous lessons. Remember that a phrase is the musical equivalent to the spoken or written sentence. Always play logical, complete phrases. Also, punctuation or space must be left between phrases. This can be accomplished by sustaining the final note of the phrase or by remaining silent until the next phrase.

Improv Exercise 2

Repeat the process listed above with the seventh position pattern of the B natural minor scale. A fretboard pattern of this scale is listed under the "Supplemental Content" tab if you need to review.

Left Hand Fingering

When improvising a solo, the left hand fingering of a pattern is often altered to accommodate a specific lick. Always use the fingering that is most practical when improvising a phrase.

Improv Exercise 3

Once you fell comfortable with improvising in quarter notes, limit your rhythmic options to eighth notes. Dennis improvises a brief solo comprised solely of eighth notes at 06:36 in the lesson video.

As you experiment within a particular fretboard pattern, make a note of specific resolutions or licks that sound good to you. Store these ideas in your memory so they can be used in future guitar solos. If you repeat this process each day, you will develop a wide vocabulary of licks to choose from in a relatively short amount of time.

Improv Exercise 4

While still using a single pattern of the B major scale, improvise a solo that utilizes whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes.

Once you have completed the four exercises presented in this scene at 60 beats per minute, begin to practice these exercises at a wide variety of tempos. Start with a slow tempo such as 65 beats per minute and gradually work your way into higher tempo ranges.
Chapter 3: (06:00) All About Phrasing Phrasing is one of the most important aspects of improvisation. Dennis provides some basic exercises that will help you improve your phrasing.

Phrasing Exercise 1

While improvising a solo within any scale pattern, limit the length of your phrases to two measures. This exercise will force you to heighten your awareness of rhythm and time. It will also prevent you from playing the musical equivalent of a run-on sentence. Practicing this exercise along with a metronome will help you keep track of how many beats have elapsed within a phrase.

If at all possible, practice this exercise with another guitarist as often as you can. For example, improvise within the B minor scale for two measures while the other guitarist plays a Bm chord. Over the next two measures, reverse your roles. Play rhythm for two measures while your friend improvises. Playing with another guitarist is much more beneficial to your overall musicianship skills than playing along with a metronome or backing track.

If no other guitarist is present, strum the tonic Bm for two measures in between improvised phrases. Or, practice this process along with a backing track. Improvise for two measures. Then, either rest for the next two measures or double what the rhythm guitar track is playing. Transcriptions of most of the backing tracks can be found within JamPlay's backing track player. This section can be accessed through the "Teaching Tools" button on the left-hand side of the homepage.


Limit your rhythmic options to quarter notes the first several times that you practice this exercise. Once you begin to internalize the two measure phrase structure, feel free to incorporate other rhythms into your playing. You must be aware of what rhythms you are playing at all times. Do not blur the line between rhythms such as triplets and sixteenth notes. To ensure that you are playing in time, practice this exercise along with a metronome. Dennis demonstrates this exercise in the key of B minor with the metronome set to 88 beats per minute.

Vary the beat on which each phrase begins and ends. If all of your phrases begin on the first beat of the measure, your solo will begin to sound very monotonous. By the same principle, your solo will become tedious if you end each phrase on the same beat.

Phrasing Exercise 2

Repeat the same process listed under Phrasing Exercise 1 with four measure phrases. Improvise for a total of four measures. Then, rest or play rhythm for four measures.

Repeat Phrasing Exercise 2 while improvising over a 12 bar blues progression in any key. This will heighten your awareness of the chord changes within the solo.

Exercise Goals

These exercises will drastically improve your sense of time as well of your overall awareness of the guitarist's role within an ensemble setting. They force you to maintain an awareness of where you are in the form of the song at all times.
Chapter 4: (11:37) Blending Scales In most guitar solos, more than one scale is typically utilized. Several scales are often blended within a single lick. For example, the minor pentatonic, minor blues scale, and the Dorian mode are often combined to form a hybrid scale containing eight notes. Combining scales provides a soloist with a wider pallet of musical colors to choose from.

"Fade to Black" Solo

Metallica's "Fade to Black" from the album Ride the Lightning features a guitar solo that utilizes several different scales.

Note: Tablature and notation to the first 23 measures of this solo can be found under the "Supplemental Content" tab.

Within the "Fade to Black" outro solo, guitarist Kirk Hammett employs the B minor pentatonic scale, the B natural minor scale, and the B Phrygian mode over a diatonic riff in the B natural minor tonality. This tonality / scale contains the following notes: B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B. Since the the rhythm part played under the solo only contains notes from this scale, one might expect the solo to be comprised solely of the B natural minor scale. However, this is not the case. The first seven measures feature licks derived from the B natural minor scale. The next six measures feature stock licks from the B minor pentatonic scale. Then, in measures 14-19, Kirk Hammett throws a curve ball. The licks in these measures are derived from the B Phrygian mode. Compare the spelling of the B Phrygian mode and the B natural minor scale listed below.

B Natural Minor: B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B.
B Phrygian: B, C, D, E, F#, G, A, B.

The second scale degree in the B natural minor scale is flattened to form the B Phrygian mode. From a purely theoretical standpoint, the B Phrygian mode should not work over a rhythm figure in the B natural minor tonality due to the clashing of the second scale degrees. However, the Phrygian mode is quite effective in this context. This mode can be used over the rhythm progression as long as the flatted second scale degree is not held for a long duration.

As an exercise, play through the "Fade to Black" solo. In measures 14-20, change all of the C notes to C#. How does this adjustment affect the sound of these measures? Even though the B natural minor scale is the obvious choice from a theoretical standpoint, it sounds ridiculous when used in these measures.

Often, various types of minor scales such as the minor pentatonic, natural minor, Phrygian mode, Dorian mode minor blues scale, and harmonic minor scales are combined in a single solo. This technique is especially common in the rock and metal genres.

Over a tonic minor chord in the key of E minor, (Em), the following scales can be used: E minor pentatonic, E natural minor, E minor blues, E Phrygian, E Dorian, and E harmonic minor. These scales can be used separately, or they can be combined within a single lick.

Dennis provides an example of this idea at 02:45 in the lesson video. He begins by improvising some lines within the E minor pentatonic box pattern. Then he plays a lick that features a mixture of notes from the E minor blues scale and the E Dorian mode. As he continues to improvise at 04:24 he begins with the E natural minor scale. Then, he switches gears to the E harmonic minor scale.

Blending Scales That Are Major in Quality

Scales that are major in quality are also frequently blended within a solo. For example, the major scale, the major pentatonic, and the major blues scale can all be used over a diatonic progression in a major key.

Using multiple modes that are major in quality over a progression is usually pretty risky. For example, blending the Mixolydian mode and the major scale will often sound inappropriate. This is because the Mixolydian mode strongly implies the sound of a dominant seventh chord where as the major scale strongly implies a major chord that is not dominant in quality.

However, mixing the major scale and Lydian mode is quite common, especially in the jazz genre. In a jazz context, these scales are used together when playing over a single major chord. Many jazz players play the Lydian scale when performing ascending lines. The major scale is used when descending to create a stronger resolution from the fourth down to the major third of the scale.

Blending Minor and Major Scales

Scales that are minor in quality are frequently combined with scales that are major in quality within a single lick. This occurs in almost every musical genre. For example, the minor and major pentatonic scales as well as their blues scale counterparts are often used together. Blending these scales creates a very blues-y sound. The solo section to Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" exhibits this technique.

Note: Refer to Matt Brown's Phase 3 lesson on this song for a full transcription of this solo.

Watch and listen closely at 09:46 as Dennis demonstrates some improvised lines that work over an E major chord. He blends E minor pentatonic, the E major scale, E major pentatonic, and E Dorian within his solo.

When a scale such as the minor pentatonic is used over a major chord, the b3 scale degree functions as a "blue note." Although this note is not part of the chord, it still sounds consonant in many situations.

Atonal Licks

Certain musical lines might not always make sense from a theoretical standpoint. However, if it sounds good, then it is good. The ending lick to "Jump" by Van Halen features a simple fretboard shape that is moved across each string. A similar type of sequence occurs towards the beginning of the solo to "Cowboys From Hell" by Pantera. These licks are note derived from scales. Rather, they are simply based on a short fretboard pattern that is moved across several different strings. Another example of this idea occurs towards the end of Randy Rhoads' solo in "I Don't Know." Visit Matt Brown's 9th rock lesson for tablature and a full explanation of this lick. Jim Deeming taught such a lick in the Lick / Riff Library called "Versatile Bluegrass Lick."

Marty Friedman Approach to Improvisation

Guitarist Marty Friedman often compares the use of atonal and "outside" licks to walking through a dangerous neighborhood. As long as you do not linger in a dangerous neighborhood for long, it can provide an exhilarating experience. However, the chances of something bad happening increase as you continue to stay in the area. Use outside licks to grab the listener's attention. Then, quickly return to safe territory.
Chapter 5: (00:38) Wrap-up In this lesson, Dennis taught you some exercises designed to improve your improvisation and phrasing. He also explained how various scales can be combined together within a solo. These exercises and techniques will help your playing sound more mature and confident. In the next lesson, Dennis returns with a lesson detailing sweep picking technique.

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.

potalespotales replied

videos part 3 & 4 ARE DOWN

dennis.hodgesdennis.hodges replied

sorry to hear that, both scenes worked for me today on medium quality. Did you try different quality settings?

wscovelwscovel replied

Where do I go to get to the backing tracks? Thanks.

kurtzs59kurtzs59 replied

Scales are an illusion. The brain looks for structure, so any note can sound good if you put it in context. Marty Friedman said once that you can play anything as long as you end up on the right note.

chase_1995chase_1995 replied

i really understood until you got to scale blending then you started going all around the neck. i don't know if you were playing the same scales as before just up and down the neck or what. Any additional help would be appreciated thanks!

wayne66wayne66 replied

He's moving around in different scales, but different scales of the same "family." An example he gave was something like starting out in E minor pentatonic into E natural minor then into E harmonic minor. So different E minor scales

wayne66wayne66 replied

Music came before music theory. If it sounds good... it IS good

jesperlindejesperlinde replied

Thumbs up to all your lessons Dennis..

takikamtakikam replied

Very, very useful lesson! Thanks Dennis!

aseeeaseee replied

kool lesson man helped allot on improvising!

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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