How To Get Started With Pentatonic Improvisation
Never Worry About Not Knowing What To Play Again!
by Diana de Cabaruss

When you are getting started with playing lead and improvising, it can be intimidating bridging the gap between knowing what scale fits what playing situation, and actually using that scale in a musical way.  Just as you need to be able to recall the notes of a scale at the time you need it, you also need to have some ideas as to how to use those notes, otherwise at best you'll be casting around for a phrase or two of vocabulary you've already memorised, or you may end up using some random notes from the scale in a slightly unplanned way, and the result may end up being a bit haphazard: some notes will sound ok, some might sound a bit tense, and the overall effect might be a little lacking in musicality.

An easy way to instantly sound a lot more professional is to focus not on more notes and scales or technique, but starting to plan ahead with your playing in terms of what you will do in the number of bars available to you in a given jam, song etc for your improvisation. You don't need extra skills to do this – all you need to do is apply some new ideas to notes you already know.

An excellent way to learn how to do this is to take one simple phrase and create a number of variations using simple ideas that sound great. When take one phrase and create some variations, it doesn't mean it sounds repetitive – but the listener can hear that there is a relationship between the first and subsequent ideas that you play. This really makes it sound like you know what you're doing.

Play through these examples of a simple phrase in A minor pentatonic (bar 1) and a series of phrases related to it.

The first bar has a short motif, and the bars after it create a number of variations on it.
Bar 2 - same idea, but using slides and a hammer-on.
Bar 3 - same idea, using slides and a hammer-on in different places.
Bar 4 - same idea, using a trill.
Bar 5 - based on same idea, uses same rhythm, but notes go down instead of up.
Bar 6 - based on same idea, notes go down first and then up, using same rhythm.
Bar 7 - uses the same notes as bar 1, but changes the rhythm. Be sure you’re playing this in a way that’s rhythmically accurate to get the effect. Play the first version and this version right next to each other and you'll see that it's effective.
Bar 8 - changes the rhythm, and alters the notes, but if you play this after bar 7 it'll still sound connected.

Play each of these in turn and make sure you understand how the variations are related and what has been altered in each case. Pick your favourite two or three, and memorise them so you can play them fluently.

Create variations on another pentatonic motif that you either invent, have created already, or have from a different source. To get the most out of doing this, don't create alternatives on your guitar. Get some tab and write down the variations first. Then play them. The reason for this is that you want to develop your ability to take decisions in advance about how and what to play, rather than experiment with your fingers until you find something. Creating variations like this develops your ability to think ahead and to know what it's likely to sound like if you alter the direction of the notes, if you alter the pattern you're using to play the notes, if you change the rhythm, etc.

    Once you have two or three variations on one phrase, and two or three variations on another, try playing phrase 1, then phrase 1a, then phrase 2 and phrase 2a. Then phrase 1b and phrase 2b. If you were playing round a twelve bar blues, by now you'd be most of the way around.

You set things up with phrase 1, phrase 1a, phrase 2, phrase 2a and then do something different, like a diagonal pentatonic scale run, before returning with phrase 1b and 2b.

If you have things roughly worked out in your mind like this ahead of time, the result will sound totally different to what you would do with when you don't. That's not to say you shouldn't ever just play, but the more often you go through this process, the more well stocked you'll be with great ideas and phrases that you can go to when you need them.

​​About the author: Diana de Cabarrus is an educator in guitar, songwriting and singing in Edinburgh. She also releases albums under the name Candythief. Find her on and