An Introduction to Improvising for Rock and Metal Guitarists

By: Will Wallner

Improvisation is an interesting subject for many guitar players. From my experiences as a teacher and from playing with other guitarists I’ve noticed that the majority of Rock/Metal players prefer to avoid improvising when recording/performing.

For me personally I’ve found that improvising live and in the studio can add a certain element of magic/energy to a performance. I believe most guitar players are scared of making a mistakes or hitting a bad note, but for me thats part of the excitement of improvising.

The goal of this lesson is to give you some reliable shapes/licks as well as a few general tips that you can use when improvising guitars solos.

I’ve started by recording myself jamming over one my own songs. The song is meant to have vocals but I have recorded an instrumental version with several improvised solos where the vocals would normally be.

The song is in A Minor and has a basic song structure (verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus).

Heres it is:


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Virtually all of the lead licks were improvised except the main solo where I played the same as the studio version.

The first verse from 0:52 – 1:10 is the first real improvised lead of the song. I knew from writing the rhythms that the backing chords were A – G – A – G.

For simple chord progressions like this or virtually any other progression in a natural minor key then Natural Minor and Pentatonic scales are the best choices to go for an improvised solo.

You can hear I start off with a trill run through the A minor scale on the G string and then finish on the D (7th fret) which positions me nicely in the basic A Minor Pentatonic Box shape, which is usually the first thing most guitar players learn.

From there I just go to a descending pentatonic based lick with a legato feel to end the solo.

You’ll probably notice that for that lick I’m not playing straight 16th notes or triplets. I play mostly free time and just make sure I get out of the lick at the right moment to move onto the next section of the song.

Thats something I would suggest working on for players getting started with improvising: Plan ahead and make sure you can end any phrase or lick at the right moment no matter what scale or position you are in.

Another note I want to point out from that little solo is how I use different techniques to make repetitive patterns more interesting.

You can hear I do a lot of trill style licks focusing on a single position and repeating a phrase but each time I will change how I pick each repetition to bring out a different harmonic or feel.

Being able to to change your picking attack effortlessly for any given lick will allow to make even the simplest of licks sound interesting.

Remember its better to play something simple and well than play something complicated but to a poor standard.

I could go through the whole performance and analyze my playing but its not needed. The point is to hear how I have learned basic scales (minor, pentatonic, blues) and feel comfortable playing them in any position on the neck.

Check out the A minor arpeggio at 3:36. It was totally spontaneous and I made sure I ended at the A Minor scale position on the 17th fret. From there I could rely on my descending pentatonic licks again to see me through to the end of the section.

Other techniques I use throughout the performance include trill harmonics 1:35, pick scrapes 1:08, tapping 2:07 and whammy bar dives 2:05 all of which should be practiced to a point where you feel comfortable using them at the spur of the moment. I refer to these as my bag of tricks.

For further study I would suggest listening to some my favorite guitar players such as Ritchie Black Moore, Gary Moore and Al Di Meola, all of whom do a lot of improvised solos.

Begin by jamming to backing tracks found on the internet and then try improvising when performing with other musicians or over your own compositions.


Notes About the Video-Recording

The video is an Instrumental version of the song ‘Indestructible’ . It was recorded with a Fender Stratocaster through a JCM 800 2204.

This performance features drum and bass tracks recorded and performed by Carmine Appice and Tony Franklin. ‘Indestructible’ was written by WIll Wallner and is featured on ‘Will Wallner & Vivien Vain’ debut album ‘Rising’ out on Oct 8th 2012 via Metal Mind Productions.

Will Wallner is also the lead guitar player for the band White Wizzard who are currently working on their third album.