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Sam Bell - Rock Improvisation Part 1: Pentatonic Soloing

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 35 **

Hello! Sam Bell here. Welcome to my brand new guitar lesson series ‘Rock Improvisation’. In this series of rock guitar improvisation lessons I want to really go back to basics and strip our understanding of the guitar back to its prehistoric roots! Well not quite. But I do want to help inspire some less experienced guitar players who maybe want to get into the world of improvising guitar solos, but don’t know where to start in terms of guitar fret board knowledge and techniques for creating melodies on the guitar.

In this series I want to look at the foundation blocks that often get taken for granted in guitar playing, things that don’t get talked about all that often, which are actually very important for us to learn and if you are a more experienced player, maybe have a re-cap and new thought processes to kick start some inspiration. These columns are going to be based around the building block scale for most guitarists, the pentatonic scale, this scale is used in all forms of music, and in a short simplistic sense, it has ‘all the good sounding notes’ so we can’t really go too wrong!

In this first column we are going to introduce ourselves to the pentatonic scale and some techniques in order to help those notes sound like music rather than just going up and down a pattern on the guitar neck. I am then going to demonstrate an improvised solo using only the things we have learnt in this column and then you can try out the same thing with the backing track. I do not want to delve too much into the world of music theory in these columns, just enough so you have a few names for some sounds so you can recall them for your own needs, or when learning from other lessons, or when communicating with other musicians. (Who knows? It may kick start a desire to really delve deep into the mechanics of how music works and the theory behind creating different sounds!) Let’s get stuck in!

The Em Pentatonic Scale:

In the video section of this column, I demonstrate a very popular ‘pattern’ that you can play on the guitar neck, this pattern highlights all the notes in a Pentatonic scale in the key of Em (more about that later!) think of it as a road map on the neck, showing you all the places you can go to create that pentatonic sound. Once you learn this pattern by playing it slowly up and down so your fingers and ears get used to how it feels and sounds to play. Take a step back and jump around the notes a little, you don’t have to play this pattern up and down, once you know it, you can jumble the notes up, who knows you might find some cool melodies! Once you have had a good play around with this, let’s take a look at some techniques to get that scale sounding vocal and human.

Vibrato and Bends

Vibrato, what is vibrato!? Well, it’s basically taking a note and then ‘shaking it around’, it’s the kind of thing you hear vocalists do a lot, and it is particularly prevalent in the technique of R&B and '80s Rock/Metal singers. (Check out Iron Maiden’s vocalist for an example where he holds a note and ‘wobbles’ it)…Reading back through those sentences, it sounds quite clinical, however it is one of the most important techniques on guitar, there are so many different types and style of vibrato, and it is so personal to every guitarist, it’s almost like eye colour. Vibrato is something that like most things on guitar, will constantly keep developing as your playing develops. A player with ‘nice’ vibrato (whilst subjective) sounds a lot more professional. I am going to give you some tips on how to do vibrato and then some ideas on how to manipulate and ‘learn’ from other players’ vibrato so you can create your own unique voice.

First of all, the mechanics of vibrato. Let's start with using our 3rd finger on the fretting hand, and placing it on the 14th fret of the G string (this is a note in the E minor pentatonic scale as you may know by now!), using your other fingers as support behind it (see video) and your thumb behind the neck, pluck the note and move the fretting hand wrist in a twisting back and forth motion using the thumb as a pivot point. One of my guitar heroes Paul Gilbert once explained this motion as ‘turning a key in a lock’, try it and see for yourself.

There are several things to point out about vibrato. At first it may be quite difficult if you are just starting out on guitar. It takes a bit of strength, but practice does make perfect in this case, and much like weightlifting, doing lots of vibrato will improve your calluses and your finger/wrist muscles, not to forget to mention your playing and how you sound!. Be sure to keep it even in timing (how many times you are turning the key) try not to rush. Listen to your favorite guitarists and listen out for their vibrato, see if you can emulate it yourself.

Another variation of vibrato is bending. Bending is taking a fretted note, picking, and pushing that string up (or down) in order to tighten the string, which in turn makes the pitch rise up. If you have been experimenting with vibrato you may have already performed some bends already, it’s the same ‘technique’ however this time we are bending up to a specific note. To see this in action and explained with visual reference check out the video for this lesson!


The last technique I want to talk about in this column is slides, otherwise technically known as glissandos (you may see this in TAB explanations in lots of guitar books). It is as simple as it sounds, but often over looked as a ‘technique’ Slides are where we simply take a note with any chosen finger and slide it up to a desired note. It's important to keep the slide even and accurate (not overshooting your target note) slides are fantastic ways to get to other notes without bending or picking the next note. Try sliding into some vibrato and once you are feeling confident, try sliding up to a bend! Lots of great sounds to be found!


Thank you for staying with me all the way through this column. If you are an intermediate or advanced player you may feel this is all a bit ‘basic’ or you might be thinking “where are the insane over the fret board 8 finger tapping licks of doom!?” however I really encourage you to go back to these techniques and really look deep inside of them. There is so much there to be learnt and discovered in terms of melodies and phrasing. The guitar really is a unique instrument in the way that we can bend and manipulate notes in all kinds of ways. Sometimes going back to the basics can revitalise your playing and motivate you to become inspired in new and wonderful ways. We will be moving onto some advanced things you can do with pentatonic scales later on, so stick around! If you are a less experienced player, then please keep experimenting with everything we have talked about in this column and stick with this series and I guarantee you will be creating spontaneous great sounding guitar solos in no time! Until next time, good luck and shred on!

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