Bent Out of Shape: An Introduction to Improvisation for Rock and Metal Guitarists

by Will Wallner
Posted Nov 28, 2012 at 6:58am

When I first began playing guitar, my goal was to be able to play my favorite songs.

Within two years, I had developed an effective method for learning any song I wanted, no matter how technical or difficult. At this stage I began to concentrate on song writing and the creative side of music.

After another couple of years, I felt confident as a song writer. I began to play with bands and record professionally.

Another two years years passed (six in total if you're keeping track). I had recorded with many bands and performed many shows, and for my full six years as a guitarist I had never once improvised a single note! Whenever I needed to record or perform live, my guitar solos would always be committed to memory and then executed to the best of my ability.

I've encountered many rock and metal guitarists, and I've noticed that this is a common story. If you analyze modern rock and heavy metal, there are virtually no improvised solos anymore, which is a real shame. I guess it's a sign of the times and a consequence of modern music production.

Heavy metal albums today are constructed meticulously in Pro Tools, and while the results may sound very modern and aggressive, I feel there is a lack of human soul, especially from guitar players and drummers.

I began to develop my improvising after I noticed that all of my favorite guitar players, such as Ritchie Blackmore, Gary Moore, John Sykes and Al Di Meola, improvise the majority of their solos.

After developing my skills, I can definitely see the value of being able to improvise effectively. It can add an element of excitement and energy to a live or studio performance. For some it may actually be more creatively rewarding and more interesting musically to be able to create something new every night on stage, as opposed to playing the same rehearsed parts. After improvising my solos for a few years, I have noticed I have a better sense of melody and my solos sound more musical.

It would be impossible to give a comprehensive introduction to improvisation in a blog post, but here are some tips to get you started.

Begin by testing your knowledge and improvisation skills over a basic 12-bar blues chord progression. If you are a blues player, this is extremely easy. But you'd be surprised at how many metal guitarists struggle to improvise simple pentatonic ideas.

Record yourself and listen to what you've played. Your goal should be to play a solo that screams and is full of well-chosen notes and licks. If you play lots of sequenced pentatonic runs, you are missing the point. You can use those sparingly, but a solo that sounds like guitar practice is pointless. Make sure every time you record a new solo it's totally different and original from the previous.

If you hate the idea of a 12-bar blues, which is OK to admit if you're a heavy metal player, I would use one of your original songs. Jam through the song like normal but for each verse and chorus improvise a solo and try to make it fit with the music.

I have recorded a video of myself doing this to one of my songs. Each solo is improvised (except for the main solo in the middle), and while they not be perfect they express genuine emotion.

I should point our that I'm a hard rock and metal guitarist, and this lesson is directed at similar-style players. For jazz and blues guitarists, improvising is second nature. This lesson is for shredders who spend hours a day with a metronome. I want to show you how you can develop your solos to sound more musical rather than a string of exercises.

I would like to end my blog post with a statement that should help any rock, metal or shredder guitarist: A guitar solo is not an opportunity to show people what you can do as a guitarist. It's an opportunity to show people what you can say as a musician. Big difference. Cheers!

Will Wallner is a guitarist from England now living in Los Angeles. He is the lead guitarist for White Wizzard (Earache Records) and in 2012 toured Japan, America and Canada. He recently signed a solo deal with Polish record label Metal Mind Productions for the release of his debut album, which features some of the most influential musicians from hard rock/heavy metal. Follow Will on Facebook and Twitter.