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Home > Scales > Solo Over Chords

How to Solo Over Chords

Learning how to solo over chords is important for applying your knowledge of scales (theory) and lead technique (practical) in the context of your own songs and improvisation.

If you're the lead guitarist in a band, or you at least aim to be, knowing how to play lead harmony over chords is crucial as you'll most likely be expected to write your own licks. By the end of this course, you will be confident with this.

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First, please make sure you're confident with these preliminary lessons...

small chevron Basic fretboard theory

small chevron Chord theory lessons  (parts 1 - 3 for now)

Also, it will of course help to know a few scales, but I will be referencing scales in the examples throughout this course, so as long as you understand what scales are and know a few scale patterns (e.g. pentatonic, major scale, natural minor etc.) you should be fine.

Make a promise to yourself now that you'll read every word of this course and devote time to it every day. You'll be writing your own solos sooner than you think! Not only that, this course will give you the grounding you need to develop your improvisation skills. Without these first crucial steps, improvisation will be a difficult task.

Video Lesson

Choosing the scale for your solo

A lot of people ask me how you apply the scales you learn over chord progressions (i.e. a sequence of chord changes). Forget about progressions for now! The first logical step is to learn how to apply scales over single chords. Soloing over chord changes is a far more advanced concept which we'll come to later.

We begin by identifying which scales will be compatible with different backing chords. After all, the notes we use in our solo need to correspond with any notes being played in the backing chord, or it'll clash and sound unmusical.

Once you learn a scale or chord, you should know the tones/intervals from which it's built, not just the pattern it forms on the fretboard. My scale and chord theory lessons show you these building blocks. By knowing these intervals, you can match up the chord with a scale that uses those same tones.

I'll reference these intervals through the examples in this course so you can learn as you go.

There is a set process I use for working out which scales I can use over the backing chords. The more you practice, the quicker this process ticks over in your mind...

1.  Identify a root/bass note to establish the key of your solo.

2.  Identify the basic (triad) chord type. Is it major, minor, suspended, diminished or augmented?

3.  Identify if the chord is a 7th chord and if so whether it's a major 7th or minor/dominant 7th.

4.  Identify any extensions the chord has (e.g. 9th, 13th, #9th etc.).

In a minute we'll get cracking on the 1st step, but overall this 4 step process is crucial as it defines the key in which you play and which scales/tones you can use in your solo. Only then can we move on to learning how to apply these scales fluidly and musically.

It could be that the backing chord only includes the basic triad form (or even just a powerchord or bass note), in which case steps 3 and 4 are irrelevant and you have far more choice over which scales you can use to "colour" those chord flavours.

Step 1 - Finding your key

When soloing over chords, the key of the solo is most often defined by the root note of that chord, which in turn becomes the root note of any scale you might use. This is also called the bass note, as it's most often the lowest note in the chord, and will therefore commonly use the low E, A or D string on your guitar.

The root note is 1, and you'll see it referenced in scale and chord diagrams on this site.

For example, here is a chord and related scale diagram with their intervals labelled. Identify the root notes on these diagrams...

major 7th chord

major scale with A string root

As you can see, both these patterns are rooted (i.e. their lowest, bass root notes are positioned) on the A string. However, what's more important is the root note itself, as this defines the key. So if the root note of the backing chord is D (e.g. A string, 5th fret), then we know any scale we choose should also be rooted on the note D.

Our solo would therefore be in the key of D. We'd be playing a D scale.

Ideally, you should already know the chords being used during the solo (e.g. you write them yourself or a band member writes them down for you). That way, you already know the chord names and therefore which root note they use.

We can use this root note to find a starting point for our solo on the fretboard. It's best to use the low E or A string as this starting point, as the most familiar chord shapes and scale patterns are rooted on these strings.

So, for example, if the backing chord was B major/minor, I might find the note B on the low E string at the 7th fret as follows...

B root note on low E string 7th fret

And if the chord was Eb major/minor, I might use the Eb note at the 6th fret on the A string...

Eb root note on A string 6th fret

If the chord was E or A major/minor, we could even use the open E and A strings as the bass root notes. As long as you're familiar with playing scale patterns from open string root notes, it's an option.

So we've now theoretically established the key and a starting point for our solo. As you'll see in the next part, we don't actually have to begin the solo on that bass root note - it's just a reference point to help us find our bearings on the fretboard.

Try locating multiple root note positions for a backing chord. This will allow you to move in and out of different scale positions more fluidly when you come to soloing.

In the next part, we'll look at the 2nd step - identifying the chord type, which will help us narrow down our scale choices for our solo.

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Soloing Over Chords Part 2

Learn Guitar Scales

Learn Guitar Chords

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