Scales are easy to learn and harder to use! They can only tell you what’s

possible to play, not what to play. The 2 main components of a solo are riffs

and patterns. Since scale patterns are fairly easy to find, I will talk

about riffs. A riff (melodic motif), is a short 3-8ish long note combination

from the scale that sounds good. There are all styles of riffs; rock,blues,

jazz, country,etc. and what sounds good depends on your tastes. None of this

is news to most musicians, but a concept I teach called permutations will let

you focus your efforts on a few areas and maximize your efforts.

In mathematics permutations are just different arrangements of elements in a

set. In its most basic form a solo is just a set of riffs, so it follows that

a different arrangement of riffs will produce a different solo. The way to

find out the number of possible arrangements in a set/solo is to factor it

out. A set of 6 riffs will yield 720 combinations(6x5x4x3x2x1). This is just

playing 1 riff after another, it doesn’t include rhythmic variations, playing

a riff more than once, patterns, etc. 720 combinations is a lot of solos! Even

if most of these combinations suck, 10% is still 72 potential solos.

This information means you don’t have to know 1000 riffs, just 6 really good

ones. I always ask my students who their top 3 players are, and we pick a solo

from each. Next we learn the solo; the positions used, the key,etc. Then we

pick the 2 best riffs from the solo and practice them in all 12 keys. At the

end of this process they have a collection of 6 riffs nobody else has! (Even

if somebody likes the same 3 players they wouldn’t pick the same 3 solos or

riffs). These riffs will form the core of their unique style. The way you turn

6 riffs and a pattern or two into a fluid style is by jamming. You learn to

adjust the riffs to work with different styles and tempos and things begin to

smooth out. You don’t have to use only guitar players either, you could grab

riffs from harmonica, sax, horn players too. We’re all playing the same scale!

Obviously what I’m describing is not true improvisation, which happens when

you can play what you hear in your mind. This will begin to happen as you

internalize your scales (play a lot!). Still, there are worse things than

being a little mechanical when you play. A lot of players never get past the

riff stage of playing and do just fine.

(excerpted from “Take Control; for guitar”, available on Amazon).