Like jazz, blues and other genres, rock has its own masters who charted the course for the development of the improvisational style. Whether by intention or as the fruit of their individual expression, these artists play with an immediately recognizable and unique sound. While there are many processes involved in creating this signature sound, everything runs down to hours and hours of constant practice and keeping an open mind.

We are going to take a look at some of the key improvisers in rock music, their influence on the generation of upcoming artists and their undeniable contribution to the scene.

Jimi Hendrix

In the history of the electric guitar, there are two periods:

  1. Before Hendrix
  2. After Hendrix

He was the kind of artist who knew the legacy of the prior generations of musicians, including blues masters like: B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Guitar Slim and also jazz cats like: Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel to name a few.

Combining this knowledge with his restless mind and imagination, Hendrix propelled the electric guitar to dominate the scene as the most popular vessel for musical expression for decades to come.

Hendrix’ compulsive creativity led him into worlds of timbre never before imagined. He was the first virtuoso of distortion, feedback, and FX. Hendrix was known to intuitively rewire his guitar’s electronics just before a gig.

Check out his solo on “Voodoo Child” starting at [2:12]. He was an artist laying down the path that all improvisers would follow by experimenting with expressive techniques and establishing musical phrases for the upcoming hard rock scene.

Robby Krieger

Robby Krieger’s solo on “Light My Fire” is a great example of an artist showcasing his individual sound. His solo kicks off at [3:11]. Robby’s approach to playing solos is all about using melismas and scale melodies. Instead of having typical pentatonic licks he relies on sparse phrasing and developing melodies gradually. You aren’t going to hear technical pyrotechnics in Krieger’s solos, nonetheless you’re always going to recognize his sound due to the tone and phrasing.

Jimmy Page

Jimmy Page is one of those rare cases when a musician found a golden balance between technical virtuosity and melodicism. Listen to Page’s famous solo on “Since I’ve Been Loving You”—the improvisation begins at [3:53]. Starting the solo with fast cosmic guitar licks, he is able to balance those out with outstanding melodic phrases, like the ones at [4:17]. Contrast drives this improv as he constantly shifts between faster and slower guitar licks.

Jimmy Page perfected the art of the guitar solo. Starting as a session guitarist early in his career, Page always displayed an exquisite taste in creating catchy guitar riffs and creating complex solos out of pentatonic and blues scales, arpeggios and various classic rock licks.

Carlos Santana

Another fantastic improviser on our list who mastered the aesthetics of his sound is Carlos Santana. His music is often fused with the influence of Latin accompaniment and skilfully crafted guitar improvisations. Jump to his solo starting at [0:48]. Give it a listen and pay attention how he’s developing an amazing solo step by step.

It all starts from a simple motif that he repeats back again with support from the keyboard player at [1:10]. This is an amazing example of a musically interactive band—they all listen to each other and add to the whole of the expression, taking the listener’s experience even further.

Yngwie Malmsteen

Yngwie represents a later generation of musicians. Drawing a lot of his inspiration from classical violin music, Malmsteen accomplished recognizable sound across all of his compositions.

Tune in to his solo on “Black Star”. Jump to [2:33]: Malmsteen’s outstanding guitar technique takes center-stage. Relying a lot on arpeggios and expressive elements, such as vibrato and string bends, Yngwie also displays proficiency in the now popular tapping technique.

A few words about improvisation on this record from Malmsteen himself:

“I’ve been playing that song, or variations of it, since I was a teenager in Sweden,” Yngwie Malmsteen recently told his fan club. “I used to play really long, uninterrupted improvisations when I played local shows in Stockholm back then, and it developed from that. I didn’t sit down and actually write out the notes for it; when I’m feeling inspired, the music just flows out of me. It’s in my head and my ears and flows out of my fingers.” —Guitar World Presents the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time!

Perfecting the art of rock improvisation is an endless but highly gratifying pursuit. The first step is listening: these rock greats all stood on the shoulders of those who had gone before. And yet they emerged with unique and beautiful musical expressions that were as individually recognizable as a human face.

As you listen to Jimi Hendrix, Robby Krieger, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, and Yngwie Malmsteen, what musical elements speak to your soul? Are you excited by the energy of blazing technique, moved by a searing tone? With determined, consistent practice routine—and a healthy dose of experimentation—you will make all your inspirations a part of your own expression as you grow your own unique signature sound.