By far the quickest way to get stuck in a rut with your guitar playing is the memorization trap. What do I mean by this?

If you peruse any of the well-know guitar forums, you’ll no doubt have seen people asking questions like, ‘I’ve memorized all 5 patterns of the pentatonic scale, what do I do next?’ Memorizing where the notes of a particular scale fall is about the most unmusical thing you can do on guitar, but it is necessary to a certain extent.

Learning to play guitar, or in this case improvise, well doesn’t really revolve around accumulating check-marks on some kind of list. Okay, so you’ve learned memorized all five positions of the minor pentatonic, now it’s time to take those five notes and go as deep as possible. Here’s what and what not to do:

Learning Licks. I’ve always been a little skeptical about learning licks. My (somewhat unpopular) view is that there are two kinds of licks: 1) the ones you hear on live improvisations, and 2) the ones that are created as examples of scales.

The first type of lick is well-worth analyzing and even learning if you find it fun and know which chord it fits over; however, a lick taken from a live improvisation won’t usually fit within one particular scale (unless you like shred guitar) because most great improvisers are way beyond thinking in terms of scales and while they may be basing their solos off a particular scale, they won’t always stick to the confines of it.

The second kind of lick is worth playing through because you’re not playing the notes of the scale in order, but not worth learning because it has little or no practical use when playing live. Forcing a lick into an improvisation creates a mental block because it (ironically) diverts your attention away from actually improvising, which is reacting to what the other musicians are doing in the moment.

Learning Solos. Learning other people’s solos as party-pieces is all well and good but it’s only when you begin to analyze their construction, the underlying chord progression and the player’s note choice that you’ll start to see things on a deeper level. Learning solos note-for-note from tablature is simply more memorization.

So, the key thing here is to distinguish between (more) memorization and real learning.

Exploring a Scale
The notes or intervals in any scale were not created equally. If we take the minor pentatonic, it contains the intervals 1, b3, 4, 5, and b7. If you’ve memorized your minor pentatonic boxes, now’s the time to locate the notes with the strongest pull: the minor triad (1, b3, 5). You’ll want to gravitate toward these notes, finish phrases on them and generally have a very good idea of where they are. The 4 is not a good note to land on; it’s a passing note or a stepping-stone to the others and the b7 will want to go to the root. Use the Am Pentatonic diagram below to explore this intervallic interplay.

am pentatonic clapton box
Am Pentatonic ‘Clapton Box’

If you like this idea, we take it further in How to Create Melodic Guitar Solos.