There are many ways to go about soloing over chord changes, but it essentially comes down to outlining the chords in the progression to highlight the changes. In this lesson we’ll take a look at some simple options for playing over chord changes that work in a writing setting as well as for improvisation.
Understanding the Chord Progression
Before getting into what to play over a chord progression, you first need to understand the progression itself. To start, list out all the chords in the progression and determine the key.
Are all the chords in the progression diatonic? Are there any key changes? Knowing this information will help determine the options you have for playing over the progression.
If the chord progression is diatonic, using the parent scale to solo over all chords is an option. If, however, the progression contains chords not in the key, you’ll likely have to consider other options when playing over those chords. Likewise, if there are any key changes in the progression you’ll need to consider that as well as the tonal center of the progression will have changed.
Finding the Chord Tones
Regardless of what approach you take, be it using a single scale over the whole progression or taking a more chordal approach and playing the changes, you’ll need to determine the chord tones contained in the progression. The chord tones are just that, the notes that make up each chord in the progression. These will serve as target notes, or notes to emphasize, while soloing. Targeting the chord tones keeps the solo connected to the backing music.
If you know the CAGED system, then finding the chord tones will be simple as you should understand the relationship between scale shapes and the CAGED chord shapes and triads. This will allow you to easily identify the chord tones within the chosen scale.
If you’re not familiar with this, I recommend picking up Guitar Essentials: Foundational Fretboard Navigation to get up to speed.
Soloing Options Over Chord Progressions
There are many ways to approach playing over progressions, so let’s take a look at a few common options.
Using a Single Scale
If the chord progression is diatonic you have the option of using the key scale to play over each chord. For instance, if you’re playing over a G major to A minor chord progression (I – ii in the key of G), you can use the G major scale to play over both chords. Let’s take a look at why this works.
Notice that all of the chord tones for both chords are found in the G major scale, which means you can effectively target these notes using just the G major scale.
In the example below we’re using positions 5 and 1 of the G major scale to play over the G – Am progression. Pay close attention to the tab to see how the chord tones are targeted.
Using the G major scale works fine in this situation, but you have to be a bit careful to make sure you’re not landing on any sour notes. To avoid this and make it a bit easier to play over this progression, you can try utilizing the G major pentatonic instead.
Soloing Over Chord Changes with the Pentatonic Scale
In many cases, using a single pentatonic scale will work just fine over a diatonic chord progression. If you haven’t read the Yellow Ledbetter lesson, I recommend checking it out to see how Mike McCready solos over a I-V-IV-I chord progression using just the E major pentatonic scale.
Let’s take a look at how the G major pentatonic works over the same G-Am chord progression from above, starting with looking at the chord tones available to use from within the G major pentatonic scale.
Notice the G major pentatonic is missing the minor 3rd (C) of the Am chord, so we can’t target this note using the G major pentatonic scale alone, so we’ll have to adjust our lick from the previous example. In this example we’re using positions 5 and 1 of the G major pentatonic scale.
The G major pentatonic works over both chords as well, but not being able to target the minor 3rd of the A minor chord is a bit limiting. The 3rd creates the feel of the major/minor chord, so this is a valuable tone to target when moving between major and minor chords. But let’s take a look at another pentatonic option that works really well when playing over diatonic and non-diatonic progressions.
Changing Scales Based on the Chord
Instead of just using the G major pentatonic scale for both chords, what if we switch to the A minor pentatonic over the Am chord? Let’s take a look.
By using the G major pentatonic over the G major chord and the A minor pentatonic over the Am chord, we have all chord tones available to target over both chords.
If you looked closely, you may have noticed that all of the notes of the A minor pentatonic scale are also part of the G major scale. Effectively, we’re using the G major scale over both chords, but using the structure of the A minor pentatonic over the Am chord. This has the benefit of allowing us to target all of the chord tones of the Am chord while also utilizing the familiar and easy to use structure of the pentatonic scale.
With the exception of the 7th degree, this is true for all of the pentatonics created from each degree of the major scale.
The diagram below shows each of the pentatonic scales based on the chords of G major. As you can see from the overlays, each pentatonic scale for degrees 1-6 contains only notes found in the G major scale. Given this relationship, you can incorporate the related pentatonic with any chord in the diatonic chord progression. If this is all foreign to you, again, I recommend picking up Guitar Essentials: Foundational Fretboard Navigation as it will tie all these structures together for you so you can see how they’re all related.
Must you switch scales on every chord change? No, absolutely not. It’s just an easy way to highlight the chord, but it isn’t always necessary for every change.
Soloing Over Non-diatonic Chord Progressions
Progressions that use non-diatonic chords (chords outside the key) can pose a bit of an issue when trying to use the single parent scale to solo over the entire progression. When these chords come up in the progression you have to consider a different approach.
The pentatonic approach described above will work well in this situation. Although all the notes of the scale may not be in the parent key, they will reinforce the major/minor intervallic relationship to the chord being played over. You may also be able to use the parent key of the non-diatonic chord or a modal scale.
Perhaps the most straightforward option, however, would be arpeggios.
Arpeggios are a bit of a fail-safe when it comes to soloing over chord changes. Since the notes are derived directly from the chord itself, there’s no chance of hitting the wrong note. Additionally, you can introduce intervallic skips, not too different from spread triads, or pedal points in order to make the lines a bit more interesting and avoid playing straight up or down the arpeggio.
Chord Progressions to Play Over
Below are a couple of backing tracks to put this information to use. The first progression is the G – Am progression used in the examples above. The second is a C minor groove track that gives you a lot of room to experiment, particularly with the C minor pentatonic scale. Visit the backing tracks page for more options.
G – Am Backing Track
Cm Groove Track
When it comes to soloing over chord changes, there’s no one size fits all solution. Every approach has its strengths and weaknesses and it really comes down to what works best for you in a given situation. Hopefully this lesson has opened you up to some of the options to dig into for further exploration. If you’re new to playing over chord progressions, you may also want to check out The Improvisation Framework, which simplifies the process with an extensible framework that is both flexible and easy to use.
The Improvisation Framework
Unlock Your Improvisation Skills!
The Improvisation Framework is a powerful method to simplify the improvisation process and easily improvise anywhere on the guitar.
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