How To Improvise Guitar Solos Using Cool Pentatonic Guitar Licks And Tricks

by Tom Hess
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Want to quickly learn to improvise guitar solos like a pro?

You’ve come to the right place.

In this lead guitar improvising article, I’ll show you non-standard “twists” on your standard pentatonic guitar licks that make you sound pro and help you play cooler lead guitar solos.

Plus: I’ll show you new ways to use the pentatonic scale most guitarists haven't tried.

You see...

Most guitar players give up on the pentatonic scale FAR too early.

After learning the pentatonic scale (and the obligatory ‘stock’ licks everyone plays using it)... 

... most guitarists get bored and start searching for new scales to use in their lead guitar solos.

Which is unfortunate.

Because by doing that, they leave countless lead guitar improvising ideas unexplored and unused.

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I want to help you not end up as one of those guitar players. And instead – become one of those few who can use this scale like a pro and play guitar solos that inspire other players to practice more.

To begin...

Watch this lead guitar solo video where I show you non-standard (but cool and fun) pentatonic guitar licks you probably haven't heard (or played) before:

Here are 5 more lead guitar improvising tips to help you improvise guitar solos like a pro using the pentatonic scale:

Lead Guitar Improvising Tip #1: Learn ‘All’ The Boxes Of Pentatonic Scale

Tell your average guitarist to play some pentatonic guitar licks in the key of A minor and where do you think their hand goes?

That’s right – to the 5th fret.

The reason?

Most guitarists haven’t learned all 5 positions of this scale. They only know the first box.

That’s why they often struggle with using the pentatonic scale creatively playing awesome lead guitar solos.

Here are a few tips that will help you memorize the scale patterns (not only the ones from the pentatonic scale, but from all scales you ever practice) :

 - Practice pentatonic scale shapes away from guitar. Simply take your fretting hand and put it on your fretting hand forearm. Then, mime the scale shapes. (Just play them straight – don’t play any pentatonic guitar licks or pretend you are playing a lead guitar solo.)

Go through the notes of each shape, while visualizing the frets in your mind’s eye.

The benefit of this?

You can practice your scale memorization many times throughout the day (while stopped at a traffic light, while standing in line at the grocery store, while waiting for your order at a restaurant, etc.) These repetitions will stack up quickly and you’ll memorize the scale shapes much sooner than you realize. 

- Play lead guitar solos using the pentatonic scale, BUT don’t use boxes 1 or 2.

Only use boxes 3, 4 and 5.

Why do this?

For one thing: it forces you to learn those patterns better (instead of falling back on shapes 1 and 2 that you have – no doubt – already played a billion times).

But as a side benefit...

It forces your brain and your ear to do more of the creating (instead of falling back on muscle memory and traditional guitar licks you always play).

You’ll almost certainly create guitar licks you wouldn’t have come up with any other way, become a more creative musician and have a lot of fun.

Try it!

I cover more advanced ways to memorize scales (so you can use them creatively in your lead guitar improvising) in this video:

Lead Guitar Improvising Tip #2: Refine Guitar Licks With Better Lead Guitar Solo Phrasing

The number 1 reason many guitarists get bored of playing pentatonic guitar licks (and using them to improvise guitar solos) is...

... they think their lead guitar improvising will sound more creative if they use scales that contain more than 5 notes.

In reality?

How you sound when you improvise guitar solos has a lot more to do with ‘how’ you play notes in your lead guitar improvising than it does with the notes themselves.

Enter: ‘refinement’ of your pentatonic guitar licks via guitar phrasing.

Phrasing is the key that helps you become more creative using the pentatonic scale (and every other scale) in your lead guitar solos.

Here is an illustration of this refinement process at work, using the pentatonic scale and pentatonic guitar licks:

And here is how to use this approach to phrasing when you practice your lead guitar improvising:

Step 1: Play any guitar lick (ideally using the pentatonic scale). Don’t use a backing track here (you’re not playing a lead guitar solo in this assignment).

Step 2: Ask yourself how good your guitar lick sounded on a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being: your pentatonic guitar licks are the greatest thing since sliced bread. And with 1 being: you might as well be playing your pentatonic guitar licks with boxing gloves on).

Step 3: Choose a specific lead guitar solo phrasing refinement (any of the ones you saw in the earlier demonstration) that you think might take your lead guitar solo phrasing closer to a “10”.

Step 4: Repeat your pentatonic guitar lick with your new lead guitar solo phrasing adjustment. (Important: play the SAME guitar lick as in step 1. Do NOT improvise another pentatonic guitar lick or carry on as if playing a ‘lead guitar solo’).

Step 5: Repeat step 2 (to give yourself another chance to refine your pentatonic guitar lick).

Step 6: Repeat steps 3-5 until you can play your pentatonic guitar lick at level 10 of lead guitar solo phrasing. 

This process of refining your pentatonic guitar licks is the simplest way to improve your lead guitar soloing and help you with using the pentatonic scale in classic rock and blues styles.

Become A Classic Rock Guitar Player

Lead Guitar Improvising Tip #3: ‘Practice’ Improvising Vs. ‘Doing’ Improvising.

When most guitarists think about practicing lead guitar improvising, they imagine putting on a backing track and jamming over it for half an hour.

That... is the lead guitar improvising equivalent of “playing a song over and over again” vs. ‘practicing’ the song to get better at playing the song.

This is NOT what you should do if you want to improve your ability to improvise guitar solos (or play cool pentatonic guitar licks using the pentatonic scale).

How do you practice to improve your ability to improvise guitar solos?


Make a list of specific elements that go ‘into’ lead guitar improvising.

And then – focus your practice time (dedicated to improving your ability to improvise guitar solos) to refine each of those ‘one’ skills – one at a time.

Some examples of those lead guitar soloing skills might include:

  • Your vibrato (more on this later).

  • Your phrase construction (for example: you may work on using the pentatonic scale and creating cool pentatonic licks).

  • How you use rhythm when you improvise guitar solos. (I mean the rhythm of your pentatonic guitar licks – not the rhythm of the backing track you are trying to improvise guitar solos over.)

  • How you use pitch range when you improvise guitar solos.

  • How you combine  a variety of lead guitar soloing techniques (phrasing ornaments, faster playing and articulation) when you improvise guitar solos. 

Here is an example of the last point:

After you choose just one element of the pig picture of lead playing (that develops your ability to improvise guitar solos), improvise a guitar solo where you use that element in every lick you play.

This forces you to focus on that lead guitar improvising element and make it better.

You can rotate between the different lead guitar soloing elements each time you practice to improvise guitar solos. That’s how you’ll gradually master this skill.

Lead Guitar Improvising Tip #4: Learn Other Pentatonic Scales

One of the best tips I can give you for using the pentatonic scale in new ways...

... and creating pentatonic guitar licks that let you improvise guitar solos differently than most guitar players...

... is to use other types of the pentatonic scale. 

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By that, I mean:

Using the pentatonic scale that has other notes than the ones you find in typical rock/blues playing.
My favorite example is the Hirajoshi scale.

The Hirajoshi scale is also a 5-note (i.e. pentatonic) scale. It comes from Japan.

And just like the standard pentatonic (blues) scale everyone knows, it also has 5 box shapes.
(Shapes anyone can easily learn.)

But unlike guitar licks made from the standard pentatonic scale... gives your guitar licks a unique, exotic sound due to the intervals between the notes.

And that means...

...when you start using it to improvise guitar solos – you’ll get an avalanche of new ideas to spice up your pentatonic guitar licks using the pentatonic scale. 

(These ideas help you build your own unique lead guitar soloing style.)

To begin, check out the video below to see & hear the Hirajoshi scale shapes in action:

All the principles of using the pentatonic scale (and creating pentatonic guitar licks) apply the same way to the Hirajoshi scale.

As do the principles of memorizing the new pentatonic scale patterns. Practice away from the guitar to memorize the Hirajoshi scale shapes (using your fretting hand on your picking hand’s forearm).

And practice playing pentatonic guitar licks (and improvising lead guitar solos) using the pentatonic (Hirajoshi) boxes while skipping the first box.

Lead Guitar Improvising Tip #5: Work On Vibrato And String Bends.

When it comes to using pentatonic guitar licks to improvise guitar solos, few techniques improve your lead guitar soloing as much as vibrato and string bends.

And the cool thing about vibrato and string bends is...

Improving one makes you better at the other. 

Here is how to best practice string bends in your pentatonic guitar licks:

Step 1: Play a note you want to bend up to (as a regular, unbent note).

Step 2: Listen to its sound and remember it.

Step 3: Bend the string up to the target pitch (slowly) until the bend is in tune.

Here is what your fretting hand ought to look like when you are bending strings:

Guitar vibrato hand position

If you have a hard time bending strings in tune (when playing pentatonic guitar licks using the pentatonic scale), do this:

1. Tune your guitar down a whole step. That will make it easier to apply force to the strings and learn the motions of proper string bending. As your technique improves, work up to playing in standard tuning.

2. Practice half-step bends at first and work your way up to playing whole-step bends.

3. Use a lighter string gauge, as explained in this video:

And as far as improving your vibrato in your pentatonic guitar licks?

Follow the steps in this vibrato guide that will help you do vibrato cleanly, in time and in sync with the tempo of the backing track you improvise guitar solos over. 

Now you know how to play cool new pentatonic guitar licks. The next step to improving your lead guitar playing is to refine your fretting hand technique finger independence (so you have an easier time playing the lead guitar solos you are finding hard to play right now).

I show you how in my free eGuide: Mastering Fretting Hand Finger Independence For Guitar Players. Download it today and discover guitar technique mastery secrets most guitarists will never know.

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Tom Hess
About Tom Hess: Tom Hess is a guitar teacher, music career mentor and guitar teacher trainer. He teaches rock guitar lessons online to students from all over the world and conducts instructional live guitar training events attended by musicians from over 50 countries.

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