LearnToPlayMusic.com presents Episode 8 of the Music Space webcast – the live Google+ Hangouts show. In today’s episode our special guest, Adelaide-based lead guitarist & music director, Rob Pippan, demonstrated some great lead guitar improvisation tips using guitar modes. From backing tracks, to scales, guitar modes and even creating your very own licks!

We’ll recap some of the important points on lead guitar improvisation techniques in this blog post now. But don’t forget to check out the video too! It’s a great one, and goes into advanced methods of playing lead guitar improv a little more than we usually do on the blog.

Practicing with Backing Tracks

Backing tracks are a great way for any guitarist to practice and improve their lead guitar scales and modes, and guitar improvisation skills. The starting point is always to find the key of the piece. Once you find the key it will tell you what to play. Until you get that it’s like playing with a blindfold on musically.

Once you have the key of the backing track and the chords, this starts telling you what possible lead guitar scales to use. For example, if the backing track is in the key of C major, then you know to use the C major scale. Very few guitarists can make the major scale work because it has a very strange fingering.

There’s a couple of notes, the 4th & the 7th that don’t work very well very often. However, from the C major scale, there are 7 guitar modes that use the same set of notes. Knowing how to play guitar scales and modes is an important step in getting better at improvising.

Guitar Modes

The following 7 guitar modes all use notes exclusively from the C major scale are. The white circles indicate where the root notes are. This makes it easy to transpose each scale to any key you want.

C Ionian Scale (also C Major)
Guitar Modes - C Major Ionian Scale Diagram
D Dorian Scale
Guitar Modes - D Dorian Scale Diagram
E Phrygian Scale
Guitar Modes - E Phrygian Scale Diagram
F Lydian Scale
Guitar Modes - F Lydian Scale Diagram
G Mixolydian Scale
Guitar Modes - G Mixolydian Scale Diagram
A Aeolian Scale (also A Natural Minor)
Guitar Modes - A Aeolian Scale Diagram
B Locrian Scale
Guitar Modes - A Aeolian Scale Diagram


For more on how to play guitar and learn guitar scales, see Progressive Scales and Modes for Guitar and Progressive Improvising Lead Guitar.

Learning guitar scales and modes and their usage can be a turning point in any guitar players journey. And helps you to understand the mechanics behind playing guitar. Technically when your backing track is in C major, you should play C major. But breaking the rules can get you some more unique and interesting sounds. For example, many blues players will play a minor scale over a backing track in the key of C major. Even though this is technically “incorrect.”

This is called modal mixing. Playing 2 scales against each other, for example, mixing both the minor scale and major scale together. It takes skill and practice to understand how these different sounds work together. And how to improvise against a backing track.

A good way to get started learning how to improvise is to keep it simple. For example, when jamming against a backing track, try playing in one box shape only. And just get really comfortable with it.

Creating a Lick

A lick, sometimes called a motif, is just a melodic passage. For example you could just take 3, 4 or 5 notes in a scale and rearrange them so that they’re more chromatic, creating tension.

In order to create an effective lick, sometimes you just have to keep it simple. Limiting yourself by playing less notes and trying to make something out of them will develop the essentials of your phrasing. By playing less, you’re not committing yourself to overplaying, and you’re less likely to play bad notes or get lost.

Repetition is at the core of playing music, and by repeating your licks, this will help you to create your own style. Try the rule of threes. Play the same lick 3 times and then move on to the next one. Repetition creates an idea that the ear can latch on to.

Adding Character to Your Music

You can improve the sound of your playing by adding character to it with what we call playing effects. Rather than just playing the notes straight, you could try bending them, making them a little sharper. Steve Lukather calls this “grease”, or “putting some grease onto your playing.”

Bending and slurring etc your notes, you can get some expression out of them and help them “talk.” In making your notes talk, especially with lead guitar playing, you need to get some definition in your notes. Make sure you have enough pressure in your left hand on the strings. Then try angling your right hand pick 45 degrees to the string rather than straight on. This will give you more of a rasp out of you note, along with more cut and precision.

Our Final Tips

  • keep it simple
  • dig in
  • create short licks with repetition
  • add character and expression with your amp’s sound, such as distortion, overdrive and delay

About Rob Pippan

Rob Pippan has 44 years experience as a lead guitarist and has worked in the Australian music industry since 1975 as a musical director, lead guitarist, songwriter and record producer. As a teacher / trainer Rob has worked for MUSIC SA since 1990, as senior lecturer at TAFE for 16 years and taught guitar privately for 29 years. Rob is also published by the Albert label. Rob was founder and guitarist of The Zep Boys and South Australian session guitarist for Swanee, Russell Morris and Phil Emmanuel.

Website: RobPippan.com   Facebook: Facebook.com/RobPippanGuitarLessons

About Music Space

At LearnToPlayMusic.com, we know there’s more to learning music than can be found in a book – it’s also about people. That’s why we bring you Music Space – the weekly live videocast with international music guests performing live and discussing the “hows” and “whys” of their experiences in music and life. Each episode spotlights a new music topic relevant to the show’s guest, covering anything from techniques, career advice, performing and songwriting tips, and essential music theory.

Viewers have the chance to interact with us during the live videocast by asking questions and posting comments. Episode are available on the Learn To Play Music Blog, which expands on each topic, invites further discussion, and features more great articles to help you learn to play the music you love.

Keep up to date with Music Space using FacebookGoogle+ and Twitter, and interact with us and other viewers by using the #LTPMusicSpace hashtag. Cheers All, – The LTPMusicSpace Team

Presented By: +Learn To Play Music Inc.   Host: Gary Isaacs   Produced By: +Sarah Petrusma+Pat McNamara   Technical Director: Ben Dring

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