When learning scales, you not only need to memorise how their patterns
form on the fretboard, but also which chords they work over.
begin exploring how scale tones interact with the chords you're playing
over, you soon realise that certain tones within the scale don't fit as
well as others. These dissonant or non-chord scale tones are commonly
known as passing tones
and, as you'll hear, we can still use them, just in a different way.
In this lesson I'm going to show you how to identify these passing
tones so you can then work on integrating them more effectively and fuidly
solos. This is as much an ear training exercise as it is a
Remember, you can learn many scales in the scales
section, and each have their own "passing tones" but I'll
show you some specific examples here as we go.
Identifying passing tones in guitar scales
Let's start with the major scale. It always seems the most logical
place to begin when studying scales.
We can see that the major scale consists of 7 tones. We can also
tell from the existence of the major 3rd
that this scale will work over major chords (although the name "major
scale" is a bit of a giveaway!).
Now, when getting to know scales, one method I find useful is to record
myself playing a backing chord in the same key and then playing each
tone from the scale over that chord to hear how they harmonise as
In this example, we're using the B
major scale over a B
major chord (this means our scale root needs to be on B),
playing each of the tones of the major scale
from 1 to 7.
What this will do is train your ear to pick out any scale tones that
don't sit right over its root chord, known as non-chord tones, so
when you come to soloing, you will treat these as passing tones,
which I'll explain how to use in a minute.
There is another way to
identify these tones without hearing anything, but actually hearing the
difference between dissonance and harmony is really important when
first learning this stuff. There's a simple B major backing track which
you can download below so you can get a feel for this yourself.
Also known as the major 3rd, and part of the major triad.
This is the
tone that makes it a major scale - click to hear
Now, here is our first passing tone. You can tell because it
sound as relaxed against the backing chord as the other tones - click
There's an air of unresolved tension about it. We can mark this up and
come back to it later. It's worth noting that the 4th is rarely added
to the major triad, but there are exceptions such as using the octave
of the 4th (known as the 11th) which tends to sit better against the
This is known as resolution.
The passing tone provides an unresolved
tension that is resolved to one of the more stable tones in the scale.
The most stable tones in the major scale are the root, 3rd and 5th -
and it's no surprise when you understand the root, 3rd and 5th make up
major triad! It's the foundation of the major chord.
I call these safe
tones or resting
So, going back to that resolution phrase, I've resolved the 4th, a
passing tone, to the 3rd, a tone we can rest on harmoniously.
You could also resolve to other tones outside the major triad - the
2nd, 6th and 7th, with the 7th being the least resolved out of those 3,
but these are specific flavours of this particular major scale, so you
need to know for definite that these tones are compatible with the
major chord being played in the background, especially if there are
chord changes. We'll look more at that some other time. We need to walk
before we can run!
Passing tones in the natural minor scale
Let's look at another scale which makes use of passing tones. Remember,
scales can have more than one passing tone, but the scale we're about
to look at only has one, like the major scale.
This is known as the natural
Its intervals are:
From the name of this scale we can tell it's a minor scale, so it'll
work over minor chords, but if it was called something less obvious,
we'd know it's a minor scale because of the flat 3rd, also known as the
Let's go through the same process we did in the first example, but this
time because it's a minor scale I'll be playing it over a minor chord.
In this case it's D
minor (click here for a D minor drone
track similar to the B major one before so you can explore this scale).