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Introduction to Improvising on the Guitar

By Darrin Koltow

Some quick tips

  • Start out learning the pentatonic scales. You can sound good quickly just by knowing a pentatonic pattern or two, and where to apply it.
  • Learn arpeggios. Then learn how to flow arpeggios smoothly. For example, in a C to F7 chord progression, play the C major arpeggio. If you end the C major by playing E G C, start the F7 arpeggio with the note in F7 that's closest note to C: Eb
  • Learn and apply chord scale relationships. That means know what scales sound good over a particular chord.
  • Take the time to try improvising, no matter how little you think you know; do play something over chord changes: single notes, scale bits, arpeggios.


Scales to use for Improvising

Let's get into a topic that gets a lot of guitarists excited, and some maybe a little frustrated: scales to use for soloing. Specifically, single line, improvised soloing. This could apply to rock and jazz players, but others might benefit also from learning the theory being applied.

Super practical example: You're playing some tune in C major and want to improvise over the changes (that's "chord changes" if you're new to guitar lingo.). What scale do you use? Correction: what scales -- plural -- could you use? Let's go from the most obvious to not as obvious options.

The obvious option is the C major (A minor) pentatonic. Need a pattern for this? How about the following:


And let's have a basic phrase in C major:

||: C major, A minor, D minor, G7 :||

You don't need two guitar(ists) to practice this. Get a program like Power Tab or record yourself playing the change just given, and then play the penta pattern just mentioned over it.

How does it sound? Not terrible, right? But there's a rough spot: If you're playing the C major penta over a G or G7, you might hear this dissonance: the C note clashing with the B in the chord. It doesn't sound terrible if you don't emphasize the note. Just remember that soloing isn't all about playing your fingers off. You have to listen, listen, listen.

Next we'll answer this: Is the C major pentatonic the only scale you can use over a progression in C major? I think you already know the answer.

Beyond the C major pentatonic

We're looking at scales to use for soloing. Here's the progression we're working with

||: C major, A minor, D minor, G7 :||

Last time we improvised over these chords using the C major pentatonic.

Is the C major pentatonic the only scale you can use over a progression in C major? Thankfully, no. We have many choices. Listen carefully to how this next scale plays over the aforementioned changes. This is the G major pentatonic:


The G major pentatonic has none of the notes -- F and C -- that could cause unacceptable dissonances. Specifically, the F, if present, would clash over a C major and A minor chord, and the C, if present, would clash over a G major and E minor chord.

Let's generalize this finding so we can play in other keys: if you know a phrase or progression or sub-progression is going to stay within a major key and not stray outside it, instead of playing the major pentatonic from the root of the key center (e.g. C penta within C major), play the major penta from the V of the key center (e.g. G penta). For D major, this means you would use the A major pentatonic pattern, and for G major, you'd use the D major pentatonic pattern.

Improvising with the blues

Let's review the phrase we're improvising over:

||: C major, A minor, D minor, G7 :||

Now we're going to use yet another scale to play over this phrase in C major, with the intention of hearing some blues.

The basic guideline to getting a blues sound is this: take the major scale you'd normally use over chord -- like C major scale over the C major chord -- and instead play the major scale a minor third up (Eb major scale over C major chord).

This is not the only way to get a blues sound; it's just one approach.

Here's the pattern we're going to use:


Play this pattern just shown over a tape recording or midi file of the C major progression.

How did it sound? We can get it to sound even better by highlighting those bluesey dissonances like this: start out playing the G major pentatonic (described the last time) over the progression, and then after a few seconds play the Eb major pattern just given.

This pattern is the Eb major or C minor pentatonic. Yes, it has two names. It's not a true blues scale, but it conveys the feeling of the blues. And that feeling comes from just two notes within the Eb major: Eb and Bb. Playing those two over chords in the C major scales produces the sweet, "incorrect" intervals we call the blues.

Remember the basic guideline to getting a blues sound: take the major scale you'd normally use over chord -- like C major scale over the C major chord -- and instead play the major scale a minor third up (Eb major scale over C major chord).

We now have three different scales to play over the C major progression. Are you ready for yet another?

Using the Lydian mode for improvising

Thus far we've covered these scales: C major pentatonic, G major pentatonic, and Eb pentatonic. The Eb scale gave us a sweet blues feeling.

Now we're going to use another scale, and we're just going to use it over one chord instead of several. First, the chord we're going to solo over:

||: C major :||

Record this onto a tape, mp3 or something similar. And get several minutes worth to play over.

Once you've recorded that, play over it with the following scale: G major. Yes, G major, not G pentatonic nor C major. Regular G major, with the F#.

How did it sound to you? That F# really sticks out, but you might like the sound. To me, it evokes the feeling of childhood hope, playfulness and possibility. I believe this sound is prominently used in To Kill a Mockingbird, and maybe E.T. the Extraterrestrial and other movies.

What will happen if you try to play the G major over other chords in the C major scale? Let's simplify and say we're just talking about these chords:

||: C major, A minor, D minor, G7 :||

G major over C major evokes that feeling just mentioned. Not appropriate for all situations. The F# note over the A minor chord is going to sound good. Remember that A minor is a substitute for C major. They both represent tonic chords -- that's the most restful sounding chord in a key center.

Playing the G major over D minor will produce a D7#9, a chord that sounds kind of pungent. Jimi Hendrix used this (besides lots of other players.) Again, not appropriate for all situations.

How does the G major scale sound over G7? The F# clashes with the F natural. Doesn't sound terrible if you don't "lean on" the F#. That is, do play the F# on a weak beat, usually beats two or four in 4/4 time.

We've been doing a lot of focusing on finding scales to play over major chords. Let's now look at dominant chords.

Scales for soloing: dominant chords

Let's work out some scales to play over dominant chords now. Let's do a one-chord progression with G7:

||: G7 :||

Record that into your Band in a Box software, or a simple tape recorder, or something similar. Power Tab - free software - is highly recommended.

Now play back the recording. What are going to play over that G7? If you're playing it safe, you can start with an arpeggio rather than a scale. Play a G7 arpeggio such as the following:


What you're doing is just playing each chord tone of the G7 one note at a time. You're not hearing anything that's not in the chord. For a little variety and color play an A note with that arpeggio. Also, try E.

Let's go back to scales and re-ask the original question: what scales will sound good over G7?

C major is a good candidate. Why? G7 is found in the C major scale (among other scales). In other words, every note in G7 can be found in the C major scale.

Yet, there's a dissonance if you use C major over G7: the C note. Play the C over the G7 and listen. As mentioned in a previous tip, this note wants to resolve to B.

So you've found one scale with a dissonant note and now you say, "Well maybe there's a scale that contains the notes in G7 but doesn't have the dissonant C." You learn a bit of theory and you come up with this scale: G pentatonic. We presented this in a previous tip, so we're going to zip over to yet another scale: D melodic minor.

Believe it or not, you can use melodic minor scales in at least 4 different ways to play over dominant chords. Let's take a look.

The melodic minor scale for soloing

Let's touch base with our original question: what scales to play over dominant 7 chords?

We're working with this one-chord progression, which we've recorded into Band-in-a-Box or a tape recorder or something similar:

||: G7 :||

And let's take look at a single melodic minor pattern to solo with. But before we do that, a bit of explanation on what the melodic minor scale is. Super simple explanation, though a big difference in sound: the melodic minor scale is just a major scale with its major third turned into a minor third. Example:

C Major: C D E F G A B C Melodic minor: C D Eb F G A B

And here's a pattern for D melodic minor. Why D melodic minor? Hang tight: play first and we'll answer questions in a bit.


Get acquainted with this pattern and play it over the G7 chord. If you already know a few major scales, this pattern is real close to one you know: the D major scale. As just mentioned, there's just one note difference between the major and melodic minor scales.

What did you think of the sound? That gets us into answering the question: why are we using a scale whose root is D to solo over a G7 chord? Is it magic, or are we just playing scales at random?

No, we're not just choosing any scale. Let's look at the notes in G7 and those in the D melodic minor scale:

G7: G B D F D melodic minor (starting with G): G A B C# D E F G.

You see that the D melodic minor scale contains the G7 chord with no conflicts. That is, every note in G7 is found in D melodic minor.

But notice something else: The D melodic minor scale has just one accidental: C#. The whole scale is extremely close to the C major scale -- just one note different. This means that if you're playing a tune that uses the C major scale and come across a G7 chord, you can play the D melodic minor scale instead of the C major scale; you will sound interestingly different, but not so different to where you would consider the sound wrong or ugly.

Now let's look at another way of using the melodic minor scale to play over a Dom 7 chord.

The melodic minor scale for soloing, part two

Now we'll see that D melodic minor is not the only scale to contain a G7. Look at the C melodic minor scale:

C D Eb F G A B C

Just one note different from the C major scale: Eb. Once again, G7 is present: notes G, B, D, F. We're going to use this C scale to solo over G7. Here's a pattern:


Record yourself strumming the G7 chord onto a tape recorder and then play back the recording. Play around with the C melodic minor pattern just given.

Let's cap this exploration of using the melodic minor scale for soloing over dominant 7 chords by adding one more point:

It's possible to use two other melodic minor scales over the G7 chords, besides the D and C scales mentioned. Without getting into details here, you can try the F melodic minor scale and also the Ab melodic minor scale. Neither fully contains the G7 notes, but both may still sound good to you.

Now let's work out scales for soloing over minor chords.

Soloing over minor chords

What scale can we use to solo over an E minor 7, for example? Let's rephrase and ask this: in what scales does E minor 7 appear? If we limit our choices to major and melodic minor scales, we get this:

C major: E minor 7 is the III chord D major: E minor 7 is the II chord G major: E minor 7 is the VI chord D melodic minor: E minor 7 is the II chord.

If you are just starting out soloing or learning about how scales and chords are connected, you might have had the idea that there was only one scale you could use for a particular chord, E minor 7 in this instance. But now you're a bit more savvy, and maybe even relieved, to see that you have many choices for melodic improvisation. The point? Learning a bit of chord scale theory can enrich your playing.

Try each of the aforementioned scales over E minor 7. You can have you mind filled with memorizations of possible scales to use for a given chord; but until you get "inside" the music and do it, you won't truly be soloing.

Thanks for reading.

Lesson by Darrin Koltow


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