Scales and Soloing FAQ

Jun24

Putting together solos is not easy for a lot of people. Guitar scales and modes can be used as the building blocks for solos and chords. We have many articles worth highlighting on the fascinating subject of guitar scales and modes.

What is the major scale?

The major scale consists of eight notes. The first three notes are whole steps, followed by a half step, then three more whole steps and then a final half step (remember that each fret on the guitar is a half step).

Using the key of C the scale is as follows:

C major scale

To find out what all this knowledge is good for check out the article Theory Without Tears.

How do I build minor scales?

We know that for every major key, there is also a corresponding minor key. We also know (if we remember our discussion on relative minors in Happy New Ear) that, since C is the VI in the key of Eb major, C minor is the relative minor of Eb major. What you may not know is that there are three traditional minor scales for any given minor scale.

The natural minor scale is simply the C major scale written in the key of Eb major. It incorporates all the flats one finds in that key (Bb, Eb and Ab). If you can figure out what major key your relative minor belongs to, then you should be able to write out the natural minor scale without a problem.

And harmonic minor scales as well. The only difference between the harmonic minor scale and the natural minor scale is the VII note. The striking thing about this scale is the interval between the VI and the VII, now a step and a half. This gives the scale an eastern feel to it.

Melodic minor scales muddle things even further by having the gall to be totally different depending on which way you are going. The ascending scale is just the C major scale with a minor third instead of the regular third (Eb instead of E). The descending melodic minor scale is the same as the natural minor. This may sound silly, but I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the step by step (or half step in some cases) intervals in a descending natural or melodic minor scale are the same as the intervals in the ascending major.

To find get some clear examples and find out more on minor scales take a look at the article Scales Within Scales.

What are modes?

A lot of people look at modes as if it were a big mystery, but they are really a fairly simple concept once you learn how to use them on guitar. There are seven tones to the major scale hence there are seven modes to the major scale.

Here are the modes of the major scale.

Modes of the major scale

You simply take a note out of the major scale and play it as if that where the root. So if you start on C and end on C you are in C ionian. Now to find your relative minor simply go down three scale degrees from your root or up five. So the Relative minor of Cmaj is Amin. To find you relative major if you are in minor do the opposite. It also sounds really cool to play the major scale and it’s relative minor ate the same time. This is called harmonizing.

Really there is no mystery in modes or theory at all. The only reason why there is a so called mystery is because for some reason people start off learning songs and generally all they ever do is learn songs and copy licks instead of actually learning their instrument.

For a more thorough examination of modes and their uses check out the article Modal Thinking.

How do I build modal scales?

In addition to the three minor scales (natural, harmonic and melodic), there are also quite a number of modal scales. “Modal” is one of those theory terms that gives people the willies. If you want a much more scholarly approach, I suggest you check out Jimmy Hudson’s column entitled Modal Thinking or pick up your favorite textbook. For me, it is easier to think in terms of food. Your C major scale is your steak or chicken or soup stock or whatever you decide to start out with (hey, I never said this was going to be a great analogy…). The various flats and sharps that you can throw in are simply spices that will gives different flavors to your scale depending on the combination of spices you decide to use.

Most people learn various modal scales in order to develop different style for leads and solos. Some prefer to use them in order to spice up their songwriting. Bass players can utilize them to create astonishingly beautiful bass lines. Anyway you look at it your knowledge of minor and modal will augment your abilities.

There are some practical examples and uses for modal scales in the article Scales Within Scales.

How do I take a scale and make it into a solo?

Most solos are the result of planning. The guitarists involved know how many measures are involved or what chord changes are taking place underneath the solo. The good lead guitarists will construct a solo, giving it the same qualities of a well-written song – a beginning, a middle and an end as well as points of dynamic tension and release. Leads generally fall into one of the following categories: “rhythmic,” “melodic,” “slashing” and “effects.” They’re pretty self-explanatory and can often overlap. With a fair degree of practice and a backlog of riffs, just about anybody can come up with their own guitar solos.

For a complete answer head over to How do I take a scale and make it into a solo? A lesson on melodic solos, with a step by step guide to constructing a lead part, can be found in the article Leading Questions. Also don’t miss our series of lessons on creating solos, starting with Choosing Colors – Turning Scales into Solos – Part 1.

How do I know what notes I can use in a solo?

There’s actually a little more to it than simply knowing what key the song is in, but let’s start simply. The easiest way to tell what key a song is in is to look at the sheet music. The number of flats or sharps will pretty much tell you. Chances are, though, that you rarely use sheet music. You’re more likely to have a sheet which has the chord progression. (And to be honset with you, the chord progression is a lot more important than the key but we’ll come back to that…) If you look at the chord progressions of a song, the chances are pretty likely that the song is grouped into patterns of progressions. Usually, but not always, a song will begin and end on the chord of its key. Also, if you listen to the song, there are places where it just sounds like it comes to a conclusion and that will almost always be the same chord.

Knowing what I call the “primary and secondary chords” of any major key can be very useful to you. For instance, if you see that a song has G, A, D, Bm and F#m chords in it, you can make an educated guess that it is in the key of D major. Bm and A major are also possibilities and you’d have to listen to the song to know for sure, but look – you’ve narrowed it down to three of the twenty possibilities! That’s a great start. If you want to know more about how to figure out the primary and secondary chords of any key, read my article The Power of Three.

But you will find out that knowing the key is not always an indicator of what notes to use. This is why knowing some theory will help you out a lot. Take the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. This song is in the key of E but the chord progression is E, D, A, E. I’m sure you know that the D note is not part of the E major scale. So what do we do? Well, if you know modal scales, an E Dorian scale (E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D, E) will work very well. You may not think that the G would work but it provides what is called a “blue note” that gives some nice tension to the proceedings provided you do not just sit on it for a long period of time. Sometimes it is a lot easier to look at the chord progression and think, “Okay, what key would normally have all these chords” and then work from there.

Another thing that works quite well fairly often is to use the relative minor pentatonic scale. If you know a song is in G major, for example, soloing in the E minor pentatonic scale (E, G, A, B, D) will sound perfectly fine.

I hope that I’ve demonstated here that while knowing the key of a song is very important, it’s also just as important to carefully examine the chord progession when trying to figure out what notes you want to use to solo.

Check out our series of lessons on creating solos, starting with Choosing Colors – Turning Scales into Solos – Part 1.

Which mode should I use?

D Ionian is the same thing as D major. D Lydian is the same thing as A major but starting, or emphasizing the D. You can start with any note you choose to. But keep in mind that in order to have the feel that your solo is going somewhere along with the chords, the solo should contain elements from the chords. That’s where modes come in. If you are in the key of D Major. The Chord A Major can be found in it. Over that chord I would play A Mixolydian or C# Locrian or E Dorian. These are elements from the chord that are going to be emphasized by the mode being played over it. There are other scales that can be played over this, but this should get you started.

How do I get away from pentatonics when soloing?

This is one of the problems when people learn to only use scales in terms of leads and improvising. Solos can be thought of as songs within songs – with their own melodies and dynamic tension. If you haven’t done so yet, you might want to read Leading Questions and Picture In Dorian Gray.

Also, we’re in the process of putting together quite a few articles on soloing and improvisation that might interest you. What I’d recommend is to start looking outside of your normal style for a while. Check out Gilbert Isbin’s piece on fingerstyle. This shows how different chord voicings can lead to interesting improv ideas: Improvisation for the Fingerstyle guitarist.

Look out for our new articles where we’ll be dissecting other people’s solos and seeing how they tend to come from a combination of scales and chord voicings. We’ll also work on constructing some of our own.

Also, and this is incredibly important, listen to how other instruments solo. Trying to imitate phrasings other than the guitar can also inspire you to new things.

On Guitar Noise you will find more than a month’s worth of articles on this topic on the soloing and improvisation page.

How do I move a scale from one key to another?

What you want to do is to look at your scale positions that you already know and figure out two things: the note on the 6th string and its relationship to your pentatonic scale. Since you are using an Em pentatonic scale (and we know that the notes are E G A B D E, let’s look at what you already know:

Pos 1- 0 open E (root) on sixth string
Pos 2- 3 fret G (3rd)
Pos 3- 5 fret A (4th)
Pos 4- 7 fret B (5th)
Pos 5- 10 fret D (7th)

Now since we know that a Dm pentatonic scale is D F G A C D, then we can just look at where these notes fall into place on the sixth string and our patterns will remain the same (unless we have open strings to deal with):

Pos 1- 10th fret D (root) on sixth string
Pos 2- 1st or 13th fret F (3rd) – on 1st fret watch for open strings
Pos 3- 3rd fret G (4th)
pos 4- 5th fret A (5th)
Pos 5- 8th fret C (7th)

See how easy it is?

How do I use scales to play guitar fills?

If you listen to good guitarists you’ll note that they often put in a riff or a run of notes when changing from one chord to the next. It’s usually very short and rarely complicated – a hammer on here, a pick off there, maybe a bit of a scale. But for all its simplicity it adds a great deal of flair to your playing. A fill is nothing more than an interesting transition from one chord to another. Often what keeps a good beginner or intermediate from making the next step forward is an inability to incorporate fills into his or her playing.

The simplest fills are best summed up by that wonderful cliché “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” You’re on a C chord (in a song conveniently in the key of C major). The next chord in the song is a G. All you have to do is walk up (or down) the C major scale to G. Pretty easy, isn’t it?

There is a lot more said about this in the article All Down The Line.

If the major scale is comprised of 8 notes where is the 8th note?

This is one of those “quirks” of music. Let me see if I can explain it in one shot.

When you see the major scale written as “1W, 1W, 1H, 1W, 1W, 1W, 1H” you have to realize that you’re NOT counting your starting note! No lie! Whoever came up with this system takes it for granted that you’re going to know your root note and then continue from there. It’s not where is the 8th note, but rather where is the first note. Technically, this should be written as “Root, 1W, 1W, 1H, 1W, 1W, 1W, 1H” That gives you the root on both ends and all should be well with the world.

So in the case of the D major scale, it would be:

(root)
D
then one whole step (1W) to
E then another whole step (1W) to
F# – and not F as you have it
then your half step (1H) to
G
then three whole steps to
A, B and C# (not C)
and then the final half step (1H) to
D

How are Indian notes matched with the western scale?

First, I have to tell you that I am not absolutely positive about this, but I will do my best to check it out to make sure. In most cultures, when a basic scale is sung out in notes it is generally taken to mean that it is the simplest scale possible, which in this case would be the C major scale. I am making this judgment solely upon the similarities I encountered in Greece when a musician would tell me that a song was in “Re” or “La minor.” I have also run into this when playing with some people here in Chicago who play South American (Peruvian, in this case) music and we need to find our common knowledge in terms of keys.

I was able to do some research this morning and, based upon what I’ve learned so far, I think that this line of thinking should be correct. According to what I have learned, there are twelve tones (swara) in the Indian music system (although I think I should say the North Indian, correct?) and when they are arranged from end to end, from Sa to Sa, the flats and sharps do indeed correspond to those on a C major scale.

So, as far as I can tell, ‘Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni’ would be matched with ‘Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti’ which in turn would be matched to the notes ‘C D E F G A B’

What are some scales and chords used in celtic music?

One of the common misconceptions about Celtic music (not to mention all sorts of other genres) is that it contains different chords and/or scales than other music. Now while Celtic music may have a lot of “character traits” for lack of a better term, it still uses the chords and scales with which you are already familiar.

Most traditional music, including Celtic, was old long before the guitar even came around. Hence a lot of the flavor of Celtic guitar style comes from trying to get your guitar to mimic the nuances of the older instruments associated with the Celtic traditions – which would mean a lot of harps, fiddles and pipes. Having a lot of open, ringing strings creates both the sound of the harp and the drone of the pipes. This is why a lot of guitarists who specialize in Celtic music prefer either drop D or DADGAD tuning (which you can find out about in my column On The Tuning Awry), it gives a lot of opportunities for open drones in fifths. Say you’re playing a solo in the key of D. You can use your lower three strings as a drone and play a melodic lead on your high strings at the same time.

A further way to imitate the pipes is to use a lot of “trilling” effects – such as hammer-ons and pull-offs. If you listen to Celtic music (and listening to any traditional music is the best way to come up with ideas) there is a lilting quality to it. Melodies flit about in a very ornate style. You cannot add too many trills. Another cool technique is to use vibrato on various notes. Not typical guitar vibrato (where you slide your finger back and forth along the string) but rather hard vibrato where you move your finger PERPENDICULAR to the string. This will cause your melodies to occasionally go slightly sharp or flat, but this again gives the impression of the instruments not being perfect. Well placed bends can also do this.

For even more on playing celtic style music check out the article A Celtic Air and a whole series of celtic song arrangements by Doug Sparling on the celtic music page.