Solo Fingerstyle Guitar Improvisation

by Gilbert Isbin
© 2001 Gilbert Isbin. All rights reserved.
May. 20, 2001

About the Author

Part One: Introduction

Improvising solo fingerstyle means you will have to be able to play 3 voices simultaneously at certain moments.

The 3 voices are the melody (upper voice), the accompaniment (middle voice) and the bass (lower voice).

Here are some steps I use to get a grip on this rather complex material.

When you want to improvise over a tune:

  1. Play the chords in as much possible positions.  Play them as closed or open voicings, try to combine open strings and fretted ones. Keep the ground note in the bass, unless a slash chord is given.
  2. Play the melody (single notes) in or around the chord sustained by the bass note of the chord.  Keep it simple at first, using one bass note at the beginning of the measure. Playing the melody is often overlooked.  That’s why a lot of players don’t sound melodical, musical.  Too much emphasis is taken to play ‘great chops’
  3. Add or leave notes to/out from the melody.  Play this new melodies with a one note bass at the beginning of the measure.
  4. Add here and there, whenever you think it’s needed, in the middle voice a short arpeggiation, a chord part (double stops, triads) , or just one note.
  5. When you feel comfortable, (it will take some time to feel at ease, don’t over haste!) try to get some movement in the bass.  For instance play 2 bass notes with half note duration with a melody only.  Or play these bass notes together with a middle voice.  You can also incorporate a fixed rhythmic bass figure (start with 2 note figures, then try out 3,4,5 … note bass combinations) throughout or during a part of the piece.

Keep in mind that when you are improvising you should not feel obliged to play all the voices together!!!!!

You might want to play a melody, an arpeggiation, a chordal part(s), a bass figure during a certain amount of time only and then continue with a melody + bass figure, or an arpeggiation that leads to a small melodic fragment, followed by the melody + accompaniment + bass part simultaneously.

Now what about spicing your 3 parts or one of them, with slurs, slides, vibratos, bends, here and there a little percussive attack, a pizzicato, etc.

As you’ll notice there’s a wealth of beauty to discover!

Page 2, Chords
Part Two: Chords

About the Author

Renowned Belgian guitarist Gilbert Isbin's early influences, from blues to contemporary jazz, classical, ethnic and freeform music, has ultimately contributed to his now distinctive and refined style. His music is filled with strong melodies, rich colorful harmonies, sound effects and polyrythms, highlighted by delicate acoustic guitar picking.

Gilbert Isbin has recorded ten albums, which have been highly acclaimed by the international music press.

He has collaborated in concert and/or recorded with American and European players, such as Cameron Brown, Joe Fonda, Ernst Reijseger, Michel Godard, Jaap Blonk, Fred Van Hove, John Ruocco, Rudy de Sutter, Sandor Szabo, Philippe Deschepper, Geert Verbeke, Joelle Léandre.

Gilbert has written music for documentary films, has published his original guitar music and is a guest column writer for,, The Online Guitar Magazine(UK) and Acoustic Guitar Workshop

He performs solo or in small settings. His performances, within the live environment, establishing a communication between both artist and audience, is an essential ingredient in the realization of his creative ideas. 

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