A Beginner’s Guide to Soloing – Part 2 – Stretching Out

I’m delighted to see that A Beginner’s Guide to Soloing has struck such a chord with my readers. In response to the multitude of questions I received, here’s a few answers to help you get on down the road to the Arena show. Rock on!

When we first learn to improvise, it’s magic. Melodies struggle to emerge, but emerge they do, and boy, we know we’re on the way to being a Rock Star.

Now, since we’ve jammed on the exercises presented in “A beginner’s guide to soloing,” a few questions start to surface:

Where next?

There are a few things you should learn. I don’t usually say “should,” but I mean it this time. You should learn:

  1. The major scale and its seven variations, called modes.
  2. The pentatonic scale and its five variations.

While there are many other scales that are useful to our purposes, these are the perfect starting point. Modes often confuse even veteran players, and while their theory and application requires more than a few lines, here’s a brief explanation.

If we play a major scale starting on a note other than its root note, that resulting shape is a mode. For example, if we play C major starting on C, that’s a C major scale. But if we play the same notes in the key of C, but we start on D, the pattern would be called the second mode of C major, or D Dorian to be exact.

To help visualize this, picture a piano. Playing the white keys, starting on C, we automatically sound a C major scale. Now, instead of starting on C, we start on the next key, D. From D to D, still playing the white keys, we end up with a D Dorian mode, the second mode of C Major.

Since there are seven notes in the Major scale, there are seven possible starting places to play our variations. Hence, we end up with seven distinct patterns to play on the guitar.

Carrying this to a different application, we arrive at pentatonic scales. As the pentatonic scale contains five notes, logic has it that we have five patterns built from that scale.

5 Pentatonics +7 modes = 12 shapes.

Twelve shapes. Learn them. Now.
(See chart at the end of the article.)

Also, check out some of the other articles here at Guitar Noise, such as Scaling the Heights and A la Modal for more discussion on the topic of Pentatonic Scales and the various modes of the Major Scale.

I don’t want to sound like a classic rock band – What should I do?

Some folks want to sound jazzy, metal, or hardcore. They may be wondering if learning a scale such as the Pentatonic Minor, will inhibit their inherent “punkiness.” And perhaps major scales are too happy sounding? Well, my grandmother uses the same words that I do, but we don’t sound alike. While we both use the same words, our inflections, tone, and sentence construction are vastly different. Both Metallica and Mozart use the same notes, but style is what sets them apart. Using a certain scale will not always make you sound a certain way. Sure, some scales are bluesy by nature, but style is what truly defines genre.

This runs the other way, too. I use the same scales as Stevie Ray Vaughan, but much to my dismay, I sure don’t sound like him!

However, there are common applications. Blues musicians have generally favored the pentatonic sound, while the shredders of the 80’s made frequent use of the modes, as well as exotic scales.

The answer? There are only twelve shapes presented in this lesson. Learn them, and decide for yourself. It certainly won’t hurt you.

I’m just a rock ‘n roll rebel, I don’t need no scales

Actually, you’re right! (And that’s a great Ozzy song.)

Check this out: There’s only twelve notes in the system of Western music.

A scale is seven of those twelve notes. It’s a sonic recipe that we just happen to accept.

So, chances are, if you’re not consciously using scales as of now, you might just be stumbling into them on your own.

The last thing I want to do is to stifle your creativity, and stomp out your musical spark.

No, sir! I’m offering you a shortcut. Yep. These shapes can actually help you be more creative, free, and rocking by not having to guess! Why “reinvent the Strat” when it can be understood in a few hours?

If you want to be truly rebellious, you need to know the rules in order to break them. And the ability to solo over the entire neck is a maverick goal, indeed. You’ll surely kick butt and take names with your newfound fretboard skills…Well, maybe.

Scales are just the beginning.

They’re the rules, and musical rules should never be taken too seriously!

While it is important to internalize and digest the shapes, I think Charlie Parker put it best when he was quoted saying “Learn the changes, and then forget them.”

Our goal is to know the shapes so well that we don’t have to think when we improvise. Mental effort generally doesn’t sound good.

There’s only twelve notes, so don’t get bogged down in them. Remember, while there’s a limited number of tones, there’s an infinite way to express them. After all, we’re trying to express music, not scales.


Now that you’ve gotten the hang of expressing with a minor pentatonic scale, have fun learning to talk with these new shapes. The patterns below will grant you freedom over the entire guitar neck, not just a position.

Don’t get stuck in the shapes, and feel free to add chromatic, or passing, tones to the scale. These are fancy words for “wrong” notes, or notes outside of the scale.

Beware: You may find that you can’t express with the Major Scale shapes as easily. That’s okay, and natural at first. They’re harder to digest, and contain several notes that aren’t as user-friendly as the pentatonic scale. Technically speaking, the fourth and seventh degrees of the Major Scale don’t sound too hot when you end a line on them. But, that’s the subject of another article. Experiment, get the sounds under your fingers, and keep at it.

Rock on! And don’t forget my blog!

The Major Scale and it’s Seven Modes

Note: These examples are written in the key of F major. Due to the layout of the guitar, I find this key easiest to visualize. Of course, all shapes are movable. To transpose to a different key, simply move the scales up or down.

F Major Scale
A Phrygian
Bb Lydian
D Aeolian
E Locrian

The Minor Pentatonic Scale and it’s five modes, Key of A Minor

A Minor Pentatonic
C Major Pentatonic
Shape 5

Also check out… A Beginner’s Guide to Soloing – Part 1