Soloing Over Chord Progressions

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Learn several ways to solo over a chord progression by knowing the key or by knowing the chord.  Learn to use several methods of approaching each method.

Please note that this lesson is being updated with new content.  Please contact me if you have any suggestions.

Soloing Over a Key

Soloing by Key is the easiest method of soloing because you treat the entire song as one entity.  This is done by selecting a scale that works over the entire key and only playing its notes.  It really is that simple.

Selecting a Scale

Selecting a scale is done by selecting a scale that uses the notes of the key because the chords should also use those notes.  Usually, this is the major scale. For example, use the C Major scale for the key of C.  You can substitute the major pentatonic scale for the major scale because all its notes are part of the major scale.  If you have a minor key, you can use the minor scale or the minor pentatonic scale.  For example, use the A minor scale for the key of A minor.

If you want more information, I have lessons on the major scale and pentatonic scales on my site and in my book.

Now that you have your scale, you can play any note in that scale and it should sound good.  The easiest way to do this is by using a known scale pattern.  If you don’t know your scale patterns, use the links above to learn more about the major or pentatonic scales.

Here are a few tips to help you solo better..

  • End your phrases on the root note.  It will reinforce the key.
  • Listen for the notes that sound best over each chord.  Try to play the best notes.
  • Change positions when you play so you play low notes and high notes.  It will add interest to your solos.
  • Use dynamics by varying the volume of your playing.
  • Use bends, slides, and vibrato to enhance your solos.

Soloing by key works well for beginners, but you will eventually want to use more sophisticated ideas.  That is why we also study soloing by chord.

Soloing Over a Chord

Keys rarely change within a song, but chords change often.  The most interesting soloists change their soloing strategy based on the chord rather than the key. I will explain a few methods that work well for chord soloing.

Pentatonic Scales

It is  hard to go wrong with Pentatonic Scales.  They limit themselves to 5 notes that work well over many different chords.  The rule is to use Major pentatonic scales over major chords and minor pentatonic scales over minor chords.  This works well for most chords.  All you need to do is switch scales with the chord changes.  For example, if the progression was Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7, you could play D minor pentatonic, G major pentatonic, C major pentatonic.  You just need to shift the scale and play any note in the scale.

Because pentatonic scales only have five notes, they can start to sound boring and repetitive.  That is why we use other scales and the modes.

Major Scale and Minor Scale

Similar to soloing over a key, you can use the major and minor scales to solo over chords. The major scale can be used over major chords, and the minor scale can be used over minor chords.  Both scales, however are considered modes using the names, Ionian and Aeolian respectively.

Modes

Modes are made for soloing over chords.  Each mode is able to play over a specific set of chords.  If the chord is dominant, like a G7 or G9, you’d want to play the Mixolydian mode.  If it is a minor chord, you can play the dorian, phrygian, or aeolian mode.  As the chords get more complex, the mode choices go down.  Use the chart below to select the best mode for each chord.

I Major Ionian (Major Scale) Major, Major 7
II Minor Dorian Minor, Minor 7
III Minor Phrygian Minor, Minor 7
IV Major Lydian Major, Major 7
V Major Mixolydian Major, Dominant 7, Dominant 9
VI Minor Aeolian (Natural Minor Scale) Minor, Minor 7
VII Minor Locrian Diminished, Minor 7b5

For more information on the modes, read my lesson on the modes or consider getting a copy of Guitar Lesson World: The Book.

Chord Tones

Some guitarists solo using chord tones.  As the chord changes, you change the notes that you play.  Arpeggio patterns are a great way to learn the chord tones.

Approach to Using Scales

Once you have a scale, mode, or chord arpeggio to use, there are a lot of techniques that you could use.

  • Emphasize the root note of the current chord.
  • For modes, try playing every other note.  This should map to the chord tones.
  • Try to voice lead into the next chord. Before the next chord,  play a note that is a half step or a whole step away from the next chord’s root.  This will help lead into the next chord.  It takes some practice to master, but it sounds great!

What’s Next?

Soloing is mostly about knowing what notes to play.  We simplify the process by using scales, modes, and arpeggios.    I recommend recording some chord progressions and practicing your improvisation.  You can get some chord progression ideas from my chord progressions lesson.

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2 Comments on Soloing Over Chord Progressions

  1. Hey Patrick –
    I play flute and yours has been the most helpful article in clearly directing me on the road to jazz soloing over chord changes. I’m at the point where I’m memorizing my major, minor, and pentatonic scales, so now I know how to apply them to the chord changes in songs which I practice. I could use an easy way to keep the different types of scales in my head – or do I just need to memorize the feeling of each scale type through their interval and sound? So major scale -this is easy – we’re so familiar with it. Do Re Me Fa So La Ti Do. Right? Pentatonic Major – it the song Someone to Watch Over Me – So I got that one. How do I keep straight the Minor scales without having to calculate from the 6th of the major scale? And so on. Thanks again.
    Mike

    • Mike, Thank you for your kind words. You ask a good question about learning by feel, interval, etc. A guitarist would most likely memorize a pattern because it is so easy to do. Since you’re flute player, I would learn to modify the major scale that you know. The natural minor scale (Aeolian mode) lowers the 3rd, 6th and 7th by a half step. C major scale has the notes C-D-E-F-G-A-B. C minor scale has the notes C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb. Of course, you could build it off the 6th degree of the major scale like you mentioned. I hope this helps.

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