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General Approach to Soloing

Question by Angelo

I'm Angelo from Venice! Here comes my question about your general approach to soloing in a major key e.g. "Blowin in the Wind" in G – C – D - Em:

I was told that when playing lead it is important first to check out if all chords are in the same key and, if that's the case, I can play the major or pentatonic major scale (G in this case).

At the same time I was told it is also possible to play the scale of each individual chord of the song when that chord is being played. Is that correct?

This doesn't make sense to me because the chords C and D have different notes than G in their scale!

So what would you do when there's a chord change – stay in the key of G and learn all the G major scales in order to play over the whole neck?

In this context – do you have a general trick for me if I want to improvise quickly and there's not enough time to analyse the song - how does your mind think and decide so quickly which scale and starting note to use? Best would be tabs and audio examples of lead runs and stick to the simple song mentioned.

I'm really looking forward to reading your comment!



Greetings Angelo!

You were informed correctly - if all the chords in the progression are part of the same key, then in most cases you can use one root scale throughout.

The most common keys are the natural major (Ionian) and minor (Aeolian) keys.

So in your example of Gmaj / Cmaj / Dmaj / Em ...

The G major scale would be the natural choice.

This means G major pentatonic would also work, since major pentatonic is just the major scale with the 4 and 7 omitted.

It also means G minor pentatonic would have some mileage, since minor pentatonic is versatile enough to be used in major keys as well as minor keys - blues and rock have demonstrated this time and time again.

In diatonic keys such as this, where every chord in the progression can be tied to the harmony of a single scale (G major in this case), there is no real need to play a different scale for every chord.

Playing a Different Scale for Each Chord

You do of course have the freedom to experiment with different scales on the root of each chord if you're looking for a specific sound.

A lot of this experimentation will rely on trial and error and will be dependent on the overall feel of the music and the expression you're trying to create.

For example, in Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind (which is actually in D major - I think he uses a capo), the very natural sounding D major scale and D major pentatonic just feel right for that style of music.

But in a more drawn out, ambient or progressive style of rock, you might try something completely different like D Lydian dominant over that Dmaj chord to support a darker atmosphere.

I'll go back to G major because that's the example you gave...

The only difference between G major and G Lydian dominant is the 4 becomes a #4 (C becomes C#) and the 7 becomes a b7 (F# becomes F).

However, it won't necessarily work over any of the other chords in the progression like G major does (you could say G major is the easier option in that respect - only one scale to think about!).

You'd either have to resort back to the parent G major scale for the other chords, or think about a separate scale for the next chord.

So these diatonic rules of "G major key = G major scale" are not set in stone.

Whoever taught you that you can play a separate scale for each chord was just opening your eyes to another way of selecting notes for your solo.

This way is known as the chord-scale system and used predominantly in jazz music, where diatonic harmony is often altered and reharmonised, so the musician can't simply think in terms of one scale for the entire progression.

When a chord progression makes changes outside of this diatonic (I ii iii IV V vi vii) framework, that's when you need to think about connecting scales to each individual chord separately.

For example, if instead of moving from Gmaj to Cmaj the progression went from Gmaj to Bb7, that's a non-diatonic relationship, because Bb7 contains notes outside the G major scale.

In other words, you can't connect Bb7 harmoniously to the G major scale like you can with C major, D major and E minor.

So we may be able to use the G major scale over the opening Gmaj chord, but we'll need to switch scale over that Bb7 to accommodate these new chord tones.

The only way to be confident with soloing over this type of progression is to:

1) Build up your repertoire of scales.

2) Know which intervals the scale uses.

3) Know which chords can be harmonised from the scale (e.g. If the chord contains a b7, you'll want a scale that uses a b7 not a 7).

4) Practice applying these scales in a non-diatonic context (e.g. the progression example from earlier of Gmaj - Bb7).

Arpeggios are a good place to start with this, because as you move between chords, you're simply playing the tones being used in the backing chords. You're outlining the chord, in other words.

So over Gmaj I would play a G major arpeggio (G, B, D or 1 3 5). Over Bb7 I would play a Bb7 arpeggio (Bb, D, F, Ab or 1 3 5 b7) and follow the chord changes like that.

Arpeggios can be seen as the backbone of your soloing phrases and you'll see why in a moment. They become your safest target notes.

Pentatonics are another way to accustom your ear to non-diatonic chord changes, because in most cases you can simply tie the root of the pentatonic scale to the chord.

For example, over Gmaj I might play G major pentatonic and when it moves to Bb7 I could use Bb major pentatonic.

But this kind of "pentatonic shifting" is rather limited and you'll probably get bored of it quickly.

So, I cannot stress this enough, learn as many scales as you have the patience for, and learn how they can be harmonised, i.e. which chords they can work over based on their interval structure.

Identifying Target Notes in Scales

Knowing which notes to target (start and end your phrases on) comes with a good knowledge of scales as mentioned above and knowing exactly which chord tones appear within the scale.

The reason you need to know this is because the safest target notes are the chord tones themselves, since these are the tones being played in the backing chords. You know they will harmonise with the chord and there won't be any unpleasant dissonance.

Once you can identify these chord tones within the scale patterns you learn, you'll have a much clearer path for your soloing phrases.

Using the G major progression example, we know the G major scale would be a natural choice, but within this scale are all the chord tones of G major and the proceeding chords - C, D and Em.

In my series on soloing over chord changes (it's still a work in progress!), I give you a process for finding these target notes and connecting them into phrases over a chord progression.

Also see my lesson on soloing over blues changes as it uses the same concept of identifying chord tones over a I IV V blues progression.

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately, there is no "quick trick" for this, Angelo.

The only "short cut" is to resort to major pentatonic for major key progressions and minor pentatonic for minor keys.

This will work over most pop, rock and blues progressions, but it won't work every time because not all progressions use notes from these scales.

If you want to be able to improvise confidently, you need to spend time practicing playing over different chord progressions, starting with those progressions that can use just one scale - major or minor (these are the progressions I begin with in the aforementioned lesson series).

Only then will your ear be trained enough to hear chord relationships that imply a given key and scale.

Through your practice, you will have developed your memory of what works over a given sequence of chords.

That's the only way to do it. But enjoy the learning process! It will make you a better musician to explore this kind of thing independently.

Of course, I will be developing the soloing over changes series to help you along the way so please subscribe below so you can stay updated.

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More questions on this topic
By: Angelo

You covered so much and I am deeply greatful to you. In order to grasp things even better, could you kindly give some practical tab and audio examples of the following you mentioned (in connection with "Blowin in the wind" in G):

a) Use of G min pentatonic
b) G Lydian Dominant
c) chord-scale System
d) How scales can be harmonized

Thank you kindly.

My last question
By: Angelo

Hi Mike,

Any possibility of you answering my last question which you have on the website? I would really appreciate that. I can understand it will require more time.

Thanks & ciao

By: Anonymous

Just Learn your modes and when you do..it will all make sense now..cheers

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