Guitar Improvisation Techniques


Authored by Robin Stone


Course Code: OGUIT-420

Next semester starts September 23

12 Weeks

Level 4

Level 4

3-Credit Tuition


Non-Credit Tuition


Many guitarists learn to solo by co-opting the technical licks and riffs from their favorite players into their own playing, while adding in their own personal feel and emotion. The result of this approach is that guitarists end up knowing how to improvise on guitar in a particular style, but lack the technical understanding of why these solos work. Guitar Improvisation Techniques is designed to help guitarists who may have learned the technical aspects of playing, but lack the theoretical application of the musical elements that make up a strong solo. Through video, audio, diagrams, and discussions, the course explores how to improvise on guitar, and what makes a successful solo—from scales and arpeggios and new ways to practice them, to applying them to an improvisational context.

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You will learn how to identify various modal progressions and their characteristics, and how to play and think within a diatonic framework as a means of organizing your musical vocabulary. You will listen to solos from artists such as David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Pete Townsend (The Who), Joe Walsh (The Eagles), Robby Krieger (The Doors), Duane Allman (The Allman Brothers), Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones), Steve Clark (Def Leppard), Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, and John Mayer, identify the techniques in the solos that make them effective, and learn how to improvise on guitar by applying those concepts to your own playing. The course also explores tone, phrasing, theme, variation, and other improvisational techniques. The goal of the course is to better equip you with a harmonic understanding of the elements of a solo that you can then implement into your own playing regardless of style.

By the end of the course, you will be able to:

  • Improvise using pentatonic scales, arpeggios, and modes over various types of chords and chord progressions
  • Construct solos more logically and methodically
  • Develop your own unique style of improvisation
  • Have a better understanding of chord scale relationships
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Overview Syllabus Requirements Instructors
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Lesson 1: The Pentatonic Scale

  • The Five Basic Fingerings of the Pentatonic Scale Forms
  • A Brief Explanation of the Pentatonic Scale
  • Organizing the Five Scales for Improvising
  • Playing Pentatonic Scales in Multiple Keys
  • Tonal and Rhythmic Considerations

Lesson 2: Basic Concepts for Improvising with Pentatonic Scales

  • Moving between Different Positions of the Pentatonic Scale
  • Learning the Same Melodies and Riffs in Each of the Five Fingerings
  • Using Riffs and Licks to Make a Statement
  • The Concepts of Theme and Variation in Improvisation

Lesson 3: Pentatonic Scales of a Different Color

  • Similarities and Differences: Major-Ionian Scale and the Major Pentatonic Scale
  • Major Pentatonic Scale Variations
  • The Melodic Minor Scale and Kumoi Pentatonic Scale
  • The Harmonic Minor Scale and Hirajoshi Pentatonic Scale

Lesson 4: How to Improvise over Blues Progressions

  • Basic Overview of a 12-Bar Blues Progression
  • Using Pentatonic Scales and Modes over a Blues Progression
  • How to Use Modes over a Blues Progression
  • The Importance of the Tritone in Improvisation

Lesson 5: Major Scales and Their Modes

  • The Major Scale Formula
  • Constructing the Major Scale on the Fretboard
  • Positional and Three-Note-Per-String Fingerings
  • The Modes Defined
  • The Three Major Modes
  • The Three Minor Modes

Lesson 6: The Major Modes: Ionian and Aeolian

  • The Ionian Mode
  • The Characteristic Notes of the Ionian Scale
  • The C Major Pentatonic and Modal Scales
  • Tone Production and Techniques
  • The Aeolian Mode
  • The A Aeolian Scale Fingerings

Lesson 7: The Lydian and Dorian Modes

  • The Lydian Mode
  • Characteristic Notes for the Lydian Scale
  • The Dorian Mode
  • Characteristic Notes for the Dorian Scale

Lesson 8: The Mixolydian and Phrygian Modes

  • The Mixolydian Mode
  • Characteristic Notes of the Mixolydian Scale
  • The Phrygian Mode
  • Characteristic Notes for the Phrygian Scale

Lesson 9: Triads and Triad Arpeggios

  • Constructing Triads on the Guitar
  • Playing Triads Vertically on the Fingerboard
  • Triad Arpeggios
  • The Three Basic Triad Arpeggio Fingerings in Two Octaves
  • Diatonic Triads and Arpeggios
  • Using Diatonic Triad Arpeggio Ideas for Improvisation

Lesson 10: Seventh Chord Arpeggios

  • What Are Seventh Chords?
  • Diatonic Seventh Chords and Their Inversions
  • Improvising with Seventh Arpeggios
  • Playing over Blues with 7th Arpeggios
  • Understanding Guide Tones
  • The Importance of Learning the Location of the Guide Tones within Seventh Chord Forms

Lesson 11: Tensions and Upper Structure Arpeggios

  • What Are Tensions?
  • Identifying Tensions with the Characteristic Notes of the Modes
  • Upper Structure Arpeggios
  • Upper Structure Seventh Chord Arpeggios for Major 7th Chords
  • Upper Structure Seventh Chord Arpeggios for Minor 7th Chords
  • Upper Structure Seventh Chord Arpeggios for Dominant 7th Chords

Lesson 12: Putting It All Together

  • Stevie Ray Vaughn's "Riviera Paradise"
  • The Intro
  • Chord Scale Analysis of the ProgressionUsing Pentatonic Scales on the Progression
  • Using Arpeggios on the Progression
  • Analysis of Stevie Ray Vaughn's Solo


Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements 

Prerequisite Courses, Knowledge, and/or Skills
Completion of Guitar Chords 201: Chord Melody and Inversions or equivalent knowledge and experience is required. Students should have:

  • Basic playing experience and an understanding of pentatonic scales, major scales/modes, triads, and seventh chords
  • Basic music theory knowledge, which is also helpful but not essential


  • No textbooks required


  • Students are required to record video while performing with a backing track for their assignments. Options for recording video include:
    • Smartphone
    • Digital camera
    • Webcam (using either video recording software, or the video recording tool that is built into the learning environment)


  • Electric or acoustic guitar


  • Students are required to capture their instrumental performance, as well as monitor audio output. Options include:
    • Input (one required):
      • Instrument connected directly to audio interface (recommended electric option; alternatively, the microphone options below can be used with amplified instruments)
      • XLR microphone and audio interface (recommended acoustic option)
      • USB microphone
      • Built-in computer/mobile device microphone
    • Output (one required):
      • Headphones (recommended option; required if multitracking and/or input monitoring a microphone)
      • Studio monitors and audio interface
      • Built-in or external speakers
  • Note: Depending on your setup, you may also need XLR/instrument cables and a microphone stand.
  • Recommended: Printer, if you would like to print out examples used in the course.

Student Deals
After enrolling, be sure to check out our Student Deals page for various offers on software, hardware, and more. Please contact with any questions.

General Course Requirements

Below are the minimum requirements to access the course environment and participate in Live Classes. Please make sure to also check the Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements section above, and ensure your computer meets or exceeds the minimum system requirements for all software needed for your course. 

Mac Users

PC Users

All Users

  • Latest version of Google Chrome
  • Zoom meeting software
  • Webcam
  • Speakers or headphones
  • External or internal microphone
  • Broadband Internet connection


Robin Stone

Author & Instructor

Robin Stone is a professor in the Guitar department at Berklee College of Music. While she teaches many styles of music, she concentrates on the history and playing styles of classic rock guitarists, including Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and the Allman Brothers. She has taught at Berklee since 1990, when she became the second woman ever hired in the Guitar department.

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Stone is the managing editor and web designer of the Guitar department's online newsletter, "Open Position," which showcases the many talents of the faculty and provides an insider's look into the work being done in the school's largest department. She contributes articles under the title "String Theory," exploring harmonic concepts for guitarists. In 1993, she composed a piece entitled "Adagio for Oboe and String Orchestra," which was released on the MMC label. In 1996, she was awarded the Japan Foundation's Uchida Fellowship, allowing her to live in Roppongi, Tokyo, to study the traditional Japanese instrument, the Koto.

Stone received her bachelor's degree in professional music from Berklee in 1983. In 1988, she received her master’s degree in jazz studies from New England Conservatory, where she studied composition with William Thomas McKinley and George Russell.

Stone graduated from NEC with academic honors and became a member of Phi Kappa Lambda musical honors society. Read Less

What's Next?

When taken for credit, Guitar Improvisation Techniques can be applied towards the completion of these related programs:

Related Degree Major


Contact our Academic Advisors by phone at 1-866-BERKLEE (U.S.), 1-617-747-2146 (INT'L), or by email at

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