Sustaining Interest in a Target – Turning Scales into Solos – Part 7

With your indulgence, I’d like to begin this next lesson by repeating a few pieces of information from some of our other lessons in this “Turning Scales into Solos” series. First, let’s look at this idea from our second lesson (One Note at a Time):

You may not think that lead guitarists have to concern themselves with rhythm, but you’d be dead wrong. Rhythm sets up the whole concept of phrasing and phrasing is what makes a solo sound like a solo and not someone practicing a scale.

And now this bit from the fourth lesson, Combining the Major Scale with the Minor Pentatonic:

…let’s take a brief step sideways to think a moment about what makes music interesting. At its heart, music is a constant shift between disharmony and harmony, what’s generally referred to in terms of “tension and resolution.” Good melodies, for example, don’t simply use notes taken from the chords of the chord progression of a song. It’s the interplay of the melodic notes against the chord progression that creates this give-and-take of tension and resolution.

Solos do this as well. Otherwise all soloing would be nothing but chord arpeggios. And we would be reading a lesson on “Turning Arpeggios into Solos” and not “Turning Scales into Solos!”

Alright then, let’s chat about “target notes.” And to do that, I’m going to quote Guitar Noise Moderator Wes Inman, who recently made a great post about this concept on the Guitar Noise Forum:

I am a big believer in “target notes.” This is when you pick specific notes to play over specific chords in your progression. I don’t like to play notes nilly willy; I like the solo to lead the listener’s ear. This is a method that will help you pull off a good solo every time, but it is not something you want to do every solo. You don’t want to sound like you are using a method. So, think of it as a tool. Once you get familiar with these target notes, you will remember them when you are improvising.

Now I’d like you to do me a favor. You’re going to use the same chord progression that served as our “backing track” in the first two lessons on this series (C to Am to F to G) and improvise a little solo, using the C major pentatonic scale. For those of you who may have forgotten it, here are the notation and tablature to help you out:

Chances are likely that when you’re playing this, you don’t run into a lot of tension or dissonance. That’s one of the reasons why the pentatonic scale is such a popular tool for a soloist. Remember that the notes that make up these chords are as follows:

The notes of the C major pentatonic scale are C, D, E, G and A. That gives you all three notes of the first two chords in our progression – C (C, E and G) and Am (A, C and E), plus two notes each of the F chord (A and C) and G chord (G and D). These notes, when played over the chords which they are a part of, are your safe notes.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg, if you’ll pardon the cliché. And this is also where having either a little chord theory or a lot of listening experience will come in handy. You might know from your own reading or experience, or by availing yourself of the many wonderful articles here at Guitar Noise, that you can add just about any note to a major or minor chord and come up with an embellished chord, such as a sixth or seventh or major seventh. If you want to catch up quickly on this idea, then give Building Additions (and Suspensions) a read.

Now let’s look one more time at our C minor pentatonic notes and examine how they relate to the chords they are not a part of. C, for instance, is part of the C chord (it’s the root), the Am chord (it’s the third) and the F chord (it’s the fifth). It’s not a part of the G chord. In relation to the G chord, C is the eleventh. More important to the soloist, playing a C while the backing personnel are playing a G chord gives the impression of turning the G chord into Gsus4. This is especially true if the backing people are playing G5 (the G power chord, if you will).

So give a listen to what I do in this MP3 example:

Here I’m using C fairly constantly, but I’m especially emphasizing it as my target over the G chord and I hang on to it when the chord then changes to C. This is known as sustaining a note. We’ve talked about this before in respect to chords (check out the article Sustained Tones: An Animated Discussion for more in regard to chords) but here we’re using single notes from the soloist to create the sustained chord. Cool, no?

You can, of course, do this with other notes from the C major pentatonic scale. Let’s look at each and see how it relates to the other chords that they are not already a part of:

  • D is the ninth of C, the fourth of Am, and the sixth of F
  • E is the major seventh of F and the sixth of G
  • G is the seventh of Am and the ninth of F
  • A is the sixth of C and the ninth of G

So now I’m going to try another solo over our progression, this time deliberately targeting notes that are not part of chords and then holding those notes out over a chord change. Maybe two…

I don’t know about you, but to me this is beginning to sound a little more polished. It’s certainly more interesting than targeting only my “safe notes.” And, obviously, things get even more interesting should you decide to go from using the C major pentatonic scale to playing the full C major scale, which adds the F and B notes:

  • F is the fourth of C, the sixth of Am, and the seventh of G
  • B is the major seventh of C, the ninth of Am, and the flatted fifth (a blue note) of F. And, as you already know, it’s the third of G

Having all the notes of the C major scale at our disposal will create even more interesting target notes when playing over our chord progression. In case you’ve forgotten where the C major scale is, here’s a reminder:

And here is a brief example of using all these notes over a solo:

This final solo sounds, again to my ears, even better than the last one. There’s a lot of interesting things going on and while I am simply using a basic scale pattern, it doesn’t sound like someone just tossing out a scale and hoping it can masquerade as a solo.

One vital aspect about using sustained notes as part of your soloing technique is that it forces you to hang onto a note, to breathe, to create a phrase instead of simply plastering the allotted space with every note available. The solo becomes something that, as Wes aptly put it, “leads the listener’s ear.” There’s an art to what’s known in music theory as “voice leading,” and good guitarists are always aware of that. It’s part of what can make a solo memorable.

As always, here is a backing track so that you can practice creating your own magic:

Next time out, we get back in step with modes, looking on various ways to spot clues in chord progressions that will help you determine which scale might work best as a choice for soloing.

Also, we’ll get to see firsthand the trap that we’ve led ourselves into by our very practicing of scales. Interested?

As always, please feel free to write me with any questions. Either leave me a message at the forum page (you can “Instant Message” me if you’re a member) or mail me directly at

Until next time…


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