Solos and improvisation are at the core of a guitar player’s style. They allow us to express our technical ability, creativity, and emotions through the instrument.
Whether you're a beginner or an experienced guitarist, understanding the different levels of soloing can help you get an idea of where you are currently, and where you’d like to be in the future.
In this post, we’ll take you through five different levels of soloing, and learn why some are more suited for certain situations than others.
Level #1 – Copying solos and licks
We’re often drawn to the guitar because a certain artist has inspired us, so it’s only natural to start our journey by trying to emulate them.
There are two main ways we do this:
1. Figuring out our favorite guitar parts by ear.
- Playing along with records teaches you to work within a musical context.
- Active listening is a crucial skill that’s worth developing as early as possible.
- Transcribing iconic licks is a great way to combine your listening skills with tablature.
2. Using TAB to dissect certain a guitarist's style.
- Seeing musical ideas laid out on paper can make them much easier to understand.
- TAB is best for complex licks or solos – it allows you to slow down and go note by note.
“Isn’t copying other guitarists just plagiarism? I want to be unique!”
No, the aim is to absorb their ideas, not just copy them. Learning to write solos is like learning to talk – you have to listen first.
- When we’re young we learn simple sounds and words to first communicate.
- As we get older we start reading and learning more complex ideas from people we respect.
- Finally, we take those different ideas we’ve gathered and form them into our own unique perspectives and opinions.
Level #2 – Noodling in the box
Every guitarist's first shaky steps into the world of improvisation start with the minor pentatonic scale.
Why is this go-to scale for beginners?
- Reduces options: Early on the fretboard can be pretty daunting, narrowing it down to a few simple box shapes makes improvising less complicated.
- Versatility: It’s amazing how many styles you can play with nothing but three chords and a pentatonic scale.
- Developing technique: You can focus on elements like feel, bending, and tone without delving into theory.
How to move break out of the box
Adding notes to the classic pentatonic box is a great way to spread your wings a little.
Below is a diagram of the C minor pentatonic scale (starting on the 8th fret).
The higher notes on the G, B, and E strings are often referred to as the “BB Box” as this was BB King’s favored note grouping.
Connecting notes outside of the typical box shape is also a big step toward expanding your fretboard knowledge.
Foundation for the CAGED system: The pentatonic boxes are a great way to map out the entire fretboard. If you know one pentatonic box, you’re a fifth of the way there!
The CAGED Learning Pathway is our most popular course – and for good reason. Use our 14-day free trial to find out for yourself.
Level #3 – The blanket approach
Ahh… The safety of a warm blanket!
Once you start learning other scales like the major or minor, it can be very tempting to just apply them to any chord progression.
For example, if there’s a diatonic progression in the key of C major, then why not just play the C major scale? All the notes will sound good, each scale degree will match perfectly to the corresponding chord – you can do no wrong!
- This method works for a lot of musical situations, and can often be exactly what’s needed.
- It’s also important to differentiate between serving the music and just taking the easy option.
- Sometimes playing what’s expected can be a little boring, not just for the listener, but also for the musician.
How do we take everything we’ve covered so far and refine it into something a little more musical and intentional?
Level #4 – Playing the changes
AKA ‘The blanket approach 2.0’.
How do we solo over songs that aren’t in a major or minor key? Like in blues music when the tonal center is a dominant chord.
- You can still play a pentatonic over it, but there are much better options.
- Playing a mixolydian scale over a dominant will really emphasize the unique qualities of the chord.
When you learn to play the changes you’re developing a ton of useful skills.
- Understanding the importance of harmony when improvising over chords.
- Balancing musical instinct with theory for interesting and fluid soloing.
- Building the framework to navigate any chord progression.
Things like chord tones, guide tones, and arpeggios are an essential part of playing the changes.
- Arpeggios are a straightforward way to make your playing sound harmonically aware.
- By playing the individual tones within each chord you can highlight the important notes to the listener.
We’ve recently put together an CAGED Arpeggios Master Class that will open your ears to a world of new soloing ideas.
Level #5 – Playing outside the chords
The final boss!
All our levels so far have been ideas that work within a fixed key. What happens when an intruder arises? A chord from… OUTSIDE THE KEY 😱
You could hide under the blanket and hope it will just go away, or you can level up and challenge it head-on!
Here are some of the tools you’ll need:
- The ability to recognize when a chord is not from within the key.
- Being able to quickly adapt to unexpected chords in a progression.
- Knowing how to superimpose sounds and chords over the existing ones.
- A growth mindset – always finding new ways to expand your improvisational skills.
There’s a lot that goes into mastering the art of improvisation.
It takes dedication and guidance. Having an experienced teacher who gives quality feedback on your playing is so important – which is why we offer it to all our members
Our Soloing Learning Pathway will teach you how to craft intelligent and musical guitar solos that you can apply to any style – we can’t wait to hear them!
With each level, you'll gain new skills and insights, eventually creating a unique sound and style of your own – and remember:
- Don't shy away from copying your guitar idols – it's the first step toward finding your voice.
- The pentatonic is your best friend in the early stages – everything else will grow from it.
- Don’t spend too long in the ‘blanket approach’ – always try to build your solos around the changes.
If you’d like to listen to some demonstrations and further discussion about the five levels of guitar soloing check out this episode of the Pickup Music Podcast.
Soloing Learning Pathway
Learn to play guitar solos that sing.Learn more
Featured Pickup Music Instructor
Sam Blakelock is a guitarist, educator, and the founder of Pickup Music. He's an expert at helping guitarists of all levels tackle fundamental techniques and complex topics in a straightforward & practical way.Explore Lessons