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Soloing Over Chord Changes

Updated on September 1, 2012

The run down

I am often approached, both by the seasoned vet and the new upstart alike as to what scales can be played over what chords. Most of these guys are young guns who want to learn how to play scorching solos while some are just wanting to have a better understanding of their craft. Either way having the knowledge of which scales are compatible with which chords is a vital tool for the musical mind. As an avid bass player with a deep background in jazz for me it is usually just about breaking down each chord into it's individual components and walking the bass line on home, but for a guitarist that may not be the option they wish you go with. In this lesson we will look at a simple chord progression and what scales we can utilize to develop a line over top the progression that will fit and be musically safe.

Let's say we are dealing with a simply ii V I progression in the key of C Major. The ii V I is often used as a turn around but lends itself to a plethora of musical options. First let's take a peak at the key of C Major.


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

The 2 chord would be D, but not just any D we know the second tone of the major scale is a minor tone, thus making the first chord of our progression D minor (D-F-A) Now we look to our 5th, G. The 5th is Gmaj. Rock and metal guitarist are very used to the 5th of the scale as it is often the basis for the power chords that drive that style home. Gmaj is made up of G-B-D. The last chord in our progression is of course our root note C which acts as a major chord (C-E-G). We now have a progression we can work from and develop a line.

Since we know that we are dealing with the key of C major the simplest way to handle a solo line over this progression is to just solo on the C major scale. This will provide a firm safety net that will allow you to be creative without risking going out of key. A simpler way would be to utilize the C major pentatonic scale which is very similar to C maj but relies on less tones.

C major pentatonic= C-D-E-G-A

Be sure to notice that the scale contains each of the roots to the chords we are using. The minor 2nd D, the 5th G, and our root C.

While using the same scale over the entire progression is effective and completely accepted some players feel it limits what they can do musically. This creates a search for other ways to play over top this progression without being to invasive and maintaining that musical harmony we need. In the event one scale just isn't satisfactory it is possible to approach the progression one chord at a time. I like to look at it like this. Using the C major scale over the entire progression creates a map that is akin to that of a satellite picture. It gives us our general area but we don't have the detail we could have. Breaking each chord down and looking at the progression more deeply creates a road map with more “landmarks” for us to navigate through and makes the music more “visually appealing”.

Let's look at the first chord of our progression, D min. It is possible to simply break the chord into it's basic notes D-F-A and play those but most players would find it very difficult to develop a good line using only three notes. It is very restricting to say the least. Now don't get me wrong some cats can really ride high on three notes, Skunk Baxter, Steve Cropper, and Travis Tritt have made some very keen bread and butter solo lines with this method. Sometimes breaking these triads into individual notes is a great way to develop your line but other times you may want to go even deeper into the chord.

Of course with our chord being minor we could rely on the minor scale to play.

D minor= D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C-D

D minor pentatonic= D-F-G-A-C

It is entirely possible to use D minor or D minor pentatonic over top of our Dmin chord and get by just fine. When I am using a minor chord as my starting point I like to try and utilize that dreary nature of the chord and one of the best scales to apply to achieve that is the blues scale.

D blues scale- D-F-G-Ab-A-C

Take care to notice that we still have our initial notes that make up our original chord, D, F, and A. It is vital that any scale, mode or musical passage we use over a chord must contain the elements that define the chord. The blues scale is more accustomed to the genre of blues (I know duh!) It is also very useful in rock settings and if used right with a little twang it makes for interesting and very fun to play country lines as well.

Scales are great but we also have a world of modes to draw inspiration from. Modes make musical passages more pleasing to the listener and a lot of times more fun for the player. Let's explore some modes that lend their musical magic to the chord Dmin. D Dorian is a very useful mode to throw into a solo situation. Dorian is a firm backbone in jazz and anyone familiar with Miles Davis will recognize the sound of this mode quite frequently in his work.

D Dorian= D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D

Again notice we have our root D, the third F, and our 5th A. Dorian gives us that dark quality of the minor scale but with a slightly brighter tonality.

Another mode that lends itself very well to the minor chord voicing is phrygian. Those bass players reading this are going to quickly associate phrygian with the work of Stu Hamm.

D phrygian= D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb-C-D

Again we have our root-D, the 3rd-F, and our 5th-A. This mode really gives a piece a solid sound and a lot of players will use this in rock settings to get from point A to point B.

The last mode we will discuss for use with the minor chord voicing is the aeolian mode.

D aeolian= D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C-D

Aeolian will give you a sound that is almost a mirror of the traditional minor sound. You now have a plethora of options to use with your minor chord. Let's look at what we can use to play over those pesky major chords.

Let's look at our next chord Gmaj. The chord is a triad made up of G, B, and D. Of course we can rely on breaking this down and playing the three notes of the triad. Another way is to use the major and major pentatonic scales over the chord, but once again modes may be the route you want to explore. Let's look at Lydian as our first means of soloing over our G major chord.

G Lydian- G-A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G

Take keen notice of the fact this mode contains our root-G, the 3rd-B and the 5th-D. That is always a vital key to deciding what scales and modes can be used over any given chord. The Lydian mode is often associated with film and TV. It will give you a real over the top sound and make your line a bit more appealing to a listening audience.

The next mode that we will look at is mixolydian.

G mixolydian- G-A-B-C-D-E-F

Again we have all three individual notes of our chord present the root-G, the 3rd-B and the 5th D. This mode is a very useful tool for songs with an oldies rock feel. A lot of players grab this mode to add nostalgia to their solo lines. Cats like Buckethead are real avid users of this mode to give their sound an older more timely feel.

We won't waste time on the Cmaj chord you just utilize the same rules for Gmaj.

Now you have a working understanding of some simple yet effective ways to put lines over chords. Remember that the scale or mode you use must contain the notes that create the chord you are playing over. I cannot express how vital it is for a player to learn and utilize scales and modes in their everyday practice routines. Scales are the foundation we as musicians build everything we play from and having a knowledge of their use and applications in musical styles and genres will allow you as a player to expand what you do and add more depth to your music. Stay tuned for a more in detail look at what notes you can play over what chords where we will move up from the major and minor chord voicings and get into mote intricate chord voicings and progressions as well as look at some examples of what we can do using the knowledge learned. For now I bid you farewell, live long and jam.


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