There are many approaches that can add flavour to your improvising. One modern sounding idea is the use of intervals or ‘intervallic’ playing. Of course, all music is made of intervals but this thinking is playing intervals and wider jumps rather than linear patterns and scales with all of the notes in a row.
Let’s take A Minor pentatonic as a starting point (Figure A). With A, C, D, E, G the Minor Pentatonic has a slight intervallic sound to it already, as it’s not just notes all in a row but it’s sequential, and a sound that our ear is used to, so also a familiar sound.
A simple way to sound more ‘intervallic’ with this scale is to then stretch these intervals even further. Figure B highlights this idea, and due to the fingering and layout of the fretboard it’s quite an easy pattern to get used to.
Think how many variations are then possible using this simple idea as a starting point. Figure C uses a predominantly ascending movement whilst Figure D is more of a descending idea. Of course, any of these can be picked with alternate picking or even hybrid picking and hammer-ons and pull offs will help generate some speed and keep things nice and smooth sounding.
So we’ve seen some introductory ideas using A Minor Pentatonic. Let’s move onto another favourite scale for improvising – the Mixolydian mode. Figure E shows a common guitar fingering based around the 5th fret. Made from a combination of tones and semitones it obviously sounds ‘scalar’, so let’s take some of the concepts from earlier and jump around the notes a little more.
Figure F takes the A Mixolydian mode and uses a number of jumps and intervallic ideas to break up the scale. A jump from the root note A to the 9th (B) opens the phrase whilst another wide leap - this time an octave from A to A - on the first two beats of bar two set up the sound of the lick.
Some of these fingerings may feel a little strange at first, but that’s going to be a part of these ideas, as they aren’t just your typical ‘scalar’ ascending and descending, one finger after another ideas that a lot of us are used to. Start slow and build them up focusing on areas where you might have to use your 3rd finger across a couple of strings, for example. It might take a while for your ear to get comfortable with these types of sounds too. Check out players such as Wayne Krantz, Allan Holdsworth, Joe Diorio, Andre Nieri, Eric Johnson and Ben Eunson, amongst others and create some ideas of your own.