How To Solo And Improvise Using Riffs On Your Guitar

The 7 Step Guitar Riff Workout Part 1

How To Easily And Effortlessly Improve Your Guitar Solo And Improvisation Skills

by Simon Candy

Have you ever learned riffs on your guitar of your favourite players and felt frustrated when you were unable to replicate these in your own guitar solos, even though you spent extensive time learning these riffs?

Have you ever seen someone improvising guitar solos on the spot and make it look completely effortless, wanting desperately to be able to do this yourself?

Have you tried improvising or writing your own solos on guitar and failed at it miserably?

At various points in my time of learning and playing guitar, the answers to these questions from me were a big and very frustrating YES!

Especially taking time to learn the riffs of my favourite guitar players, yet for some reason not being able to replicate and use these in my own solos and improvisations, at least in a musical and cohesive way.

Boy did this frustrate me to no end!

I just couldn’t seem to connect to the riffs I had learned, smoothly or musically, in real time. By real time I am referring to when you are actually soloing/improvising on your guitar in the moment with no time to think. At best my guitar solos would sound like I was just reciting the riffs I had learned. It certainly didn’t sound like the awesome music that was coming out of the guitars of my favourite players when they were using these riffs in their solos.

It took me a long time to realise that simply learning a riff on guitar and being able to play that riff in isolation, is just the first step. There are other steps required if the riff is to truly become part of your guitar playing and you are not only able to recall it whenever needed, but also create variations of it and improvise off of the riff on the spot, in real time when improvising and soloing.

The following are the first 3 steps of a 7 step guitar riff workout I have designed for you, that will get any riff you like into your guitar playing in a meaningful and musical way, for good. The remaining 4 steps of the workout will follow in part 2 of this article lesson.

Going through this guitar riff workout below will also develop and improve other (crucial) areas of your guitar playing including:

• Aural Skills (Ear)

• Fretboard Knowledge (visualising scales, arpeggios, chord shapes etc)

• Overall Improvisation And Soloing/Phrasing Skills

If you really want to play like your guitar heroes, and be able to effortlessly solo all over the fretboard using the riffs they use, and you love, then read on.

The 7 Step Guitar Riff Workout

The following is my 7 step guitar riff workout that will greatly improve your guitar soloing and improvisation skills. You see, if all you do is learn a riff in isolation and expect it to magically become part of your guitar playing, then all you end up being able to do is play that riff in isolation.

Imagine learning a phrase/sentence in another language, and then expecting to be able to go out and have a fluent conversation with someone in that language. This is the equivalent of learning a riff in isolation without putting it into a number of different contexts from which to gain the ability to create awesome music.

This guitar riff workout will enable you to use the riffs you learn whenever you like, easily, and effortlessly in your guitar playing. Not only this, but each time you take a riff through this workout you will massively improve your guitar solo and improvisation skills over all.

Riffs come and go in your guitar playing, however your solo and improvisational skills are something you will draw upon again and again, and each time you go through the workout, they will get better and better!

For the purpose of todays lesson, I am going to use a very simple riff. I want you to stay focused on the process, not so much the riff. This is why I’ve kept it simple.

Once familiar with the workout you can take more involved riffs through it.

1. Learn The Riff

The first step of our workout is kind of obvious, but nonetheless an important step.

Here is the riff we will be using today:

Guitar Riff Workout Example Riff

Spend time getting this riff onto your guitar and into your fingers, although it shouldn’t take you long as it is short and simple.

2. Apply Your Guitar Riffs To Various Musical Contexts

Once you have the riff in your fingers it’s time to apply it to a musical context. This helps you hear the potential of how the riff can sound and is great for training your ears too.

Here is our riff over a chord progression in A Minor:

The idea is to essentially dump the riff on top of the progression and observe how it sounds. You can then start to improvise with it a little if you like. As your improvisational skills get better, you will do this more and more.

Note that the examples here are not meant to sound like complete solos, but rather simple, short excerpts of the application of our riff.

Now here is a sentence that will at least instantly double the amount of riffs you can play on your guitar:

A single riff on your guitar will work and can be played in more than one musical context

Great players don’t focus on learning many riffs. Rather, great players focus on applying a few riffs in many different ways.

THIS is how to have your riffs multiply, instantly.

For example, listen to our riff played over a chord progression in C Major:

How about the same riff now played over a 12 Bar Blues in A:

On the surface you thought you only had one riff when in fact you have at least 3! There are more ways you could apply this riff, multiplying it again, however it’s beyond the scope of this article to go any further here. Just know for now that applying the riffs you learn musically is important to do, and that there is always more than one way to do this.

3. Connect The Riff To The Scale It Comes From

A great way to get a riff into your playing so you can connect to it easily, as well as create variations of it (more on this in part 2 of this lesson) is to:

1. Know the scale/key the riff comes from

2. Connect the riff to the specific scale shape it is coming from on the fretboard of your guitar

The first point above is to simply know the type of scale the riff comes from and the key.

Our riff above comes from a pentatonic scale.

They key is Am.

The second point is all about connecting the riff to the specific Am pentatonic scale it is coming from on the fretboard.

In this case our riff is derived from Pattern 1 Pentatonic Scale in Am starting from the 5th fret/6th string:

Pattern 1 Pentatonic Scale here

Knowing this is not enough though. We must be able to smoothly connect in and out of the riff from this scale effortlessly.

Here is an extremely effective drill doing just that:


Guitar Riff Workout Scale Connection 1

In the drill above I am simply ascending up the first pattern of the pentatonic scale. 

When I arrive at the first note of the riff, I divert from ascending the scale and play the riff.

Once I have completed playing the riff, I continue ascending the scale from the last note of the riff until I reach the top note of the scale.

It the same when descending the scale:


Guitar Riff Workout Scale Connection 2


Above I descend the scale until I reach the first note of the riff. When I do, I once again divert from descending the scale, and play the riff.

Once I have completed playing the riff, I continue descending the scale from the last note of the riff until I reach the bottom note of the scale.

This drill helps give you context to the riff in regard to how it fits in the current position on the fretboard. It makes it easy for you to create variations as you will be aware of notes around that can be used in the riff. This is something we will be doing in part 2 of this article.

A variation of this drill is to play the riff first and then continue ascending the scale from the last note of the riff like so:


Guitar Riff Workout Scale Connection 3


And then play the riff again, this time descending the scale from the last note of the riff:


Guitar Riff Workout Scale Connection 4

You are creating points of connection in regard to getting in and out of the riff. So when improvising within pentatonic scale pattern 1 you will be able to smoothly connect to the riff easily and effortlessly.

In part 2 of this article I will take you through the remaining 4 steps of our guitar riff workout including:

• Creating variations of the riffs you learn, so one riff can become many

• Using riffs to open up the entire fretboard to you, enabling you to solo all over the neck of your guitar without limitation

• Getting the riffs you learn into your ear so you can create your own riffs quickly and easily, on the spot

For now use the sample riff I have provided here, or a riff of your own, and take it through the first 3 steps of the guitar riff workout.

Learn how to create incredible and unique sounding solos on your guitar using open strings