I certainly can’t emphasize enough just how important it really is to be able to see in “shapes” on the fingerboard of the guitar. Many students come to me often with an already too-well entrenched notion that they must always practice scale upon scale, with very little regard to actually making what they are playing sound like music, and chord changes, too. What happens is that the ability to see in “shapes” on the guitar gets a bit nullified by all this pre-determined single-note work, as opposed to learning about the notes you should be playing from the chordsand the shapes we should know!
When you are improvising, you are first and foremost, improvising over chord “changes.” The changes are what determine the harmonic and structural movement we will hear in our licks and solos, and of course, we all end up with a kind of “unique” approach that’s really all our own when it comes to this idea. If we think too scale-like, we always end up with something that sounds a bit too 2-dimensional and “flat”, while if we think in “shapes” we end up sounding more 3-dimensional and full. You must remember that the guitar not only moves up and down, but also across, and this ability to move across all 6 strings gives us better tonal choices as well as more string choices when it comes to building our chops and our phrasing.
This string choice ability really makes the guitar a unique thing among most other instruments. Most, like the piano, always force the player to constantly go back to the note in question, since it can only exist in one place. The guitar for example, has the open high E, then the 5th fret on the B string, then the 9th fret on the G-string, the 14th fret on the D string, and also the 19th fret on the A. If you had a 24th on the low E, you’d be able to play that same in yet again! Well, that’s no less than SIX places on the guitar, each with their own coloration, but 6 “Es” all in the same octave! Not too many instruments other than violin, mandolin and the other string boxes can boast that ability!
And when you learn your various shapes on the guitar, start with the major triads, then go to minors, then 7ths, and then other extensions, such as the 6ths, 9ths, 2nds, flatted 5ths, Major 7ths, and on and on. Once you really feel comfortable with all of these and the various places they all exist in, you will truly feel the neck absolutely “open up” for you, and your improvisational possibilities should be endless!! Best of luck with it all!
Gibson.com’s Arlen Roth, affectionately known The King of All Guitar Teachers, is music lesson pioneer and the quintessential guitarist. An accomplished and brilliant musician — and one of the very few who can honestly say he’s done it all — Roth has, over the course of his celebrated 35-year career, played on the world’s grandest stages, accompanied many of the greatest figures in modern music and revolutionized the concept of teaching guitar.