Choosing Colors – Turning Scales into Solos – Part 1

Playing a Guitar Solo

I got this email a short while back:

Hi David,

I’ve read a few of your articles about constructing solos, and I appreciate the advice (thanks!). I would rate myself as an intermediate guitarist and am trying to branch out into building better solo skills. I have a fair grasp of scales and some modes of play. But I have a few questions on building solos:

It seems matching scales to a key doesn’t always work! For example, I’ve found simply using a G Major Pentatonic scale over a G-Major song doesn’t always sound right. Why doesn’t that always work? What would you say to help me build a better solo pattern?

Thanks for the advice,

As I worked on responding to this email, it seemed to make more and more sense to answer it in the way I do in private lessons, which is through listening and participation. And that idea turned into an article, an incredibly dense and cumbersome article by the way, which then turned into this, the first of a series of shorter lessons that will (hopefully) walk everyone through the steps of moving from knowing one’s scales to applying that knowledge to playing solos.

This series of lessons is going to be a little different than the others here at Guitar Noise (at least the others up to this point) in that you, the reader, are going to need to do a lot of listening and also quite a bit of your own experimentation. Soloing, as with many other aspects of music, is highly personal. There’s not so much a “right” or “wrong” as there is convention. And taste and style, not to mention achieving the desired musical effect, should trump convention.

But before you take those statements as a free pass to playing whatever you want to, take a moment and think. Gaining the ability to listen and the ability to take what’s in your mind and put it out through your fingers into the guitar are going to take quite a bit of practice. The key thing is that you don’t have to start totally from scratch. The more you can tell yourself what you’re trying to achieve, the easier it tends to be to achieve it.

So we do need to be able to tell, or at least tell ourselves, something about what we hear and what we want to hear. And that’s where this lesson starts us out. We’re going to listen to the difference between two scales – the major scale and the major pentatonic scale – and to start to appreciate what each scale has to offer.

If you’ve not done so already, you may find it helpful to read an old Guitar Noise Guitar Column entitled Scaling the Heights, as a lot of the basic information we’ll be using is covered there. It also will not hurt you to know how chords are formed, so you might also want to brush up on that with a quick read of The Power of Three. All right, then?

For this lesson, we’re going to use a very basic (and very standard) chord progression, the I, vi, IV, V progression that you can hear in tons of songs (Stand By Me or Last Kiss probably being ones known to many of you). We’ll be playing this in the key of C major, so that means that the chords will be C, Am, F and G.

Since we know the key of the song (C major), many of you may already be ready to play – either using the C major scale or the C major pentatonic scale. But let’s get everyone else up to speed first. The notes of the C major scale are:

C major scale

Many guitarists automatic abandon the major scale, though, for the basic reason that pentatonic scales are easier to play. In most positions, you rarely need more than a stretch of three frets to play them. And the patterns of the pentatonic scale, especially the “Root 6” pattern (where the root note is on the low E (sixth) string), are fairly easy to remember.

To make the major pentatonic scale, we take the notes at the Root (“I”), second, third, fifth and sixth positions, so the C major pentatonic scale would consist of C, D, E, G and A.

Looking through Scaling The Heights, we learn that we can play the major pentatonic in the following pattern:

Relative major pentatonic

Translating this pattern into notation / guitar tablature, it will look like this:

Example 1

So let’s take this pattern and see what we can come up with when we play along with the chord progression of C, Am, F and G. Here’s something I did on a quick take:

Two things I want to point out – first, the object here is not to copy what I did. It’s to simply play around and to get used to the position of the scale, not to mention to get used to how the pentatonic scale sounds as a tool for soloing.

And that brings us to the second point – for the sake of this exercise, I’m not worrying about doing anything fancy. There may be a bit of a slide here and there, but no bends, no double stops, nothing remotely requiring any type of technique other than finding the notes of the scale. That’s kind of why it sounds like someone practicing a scale as opposed to a “solo.” Hopefully, not totally so! This is an issue we’ll address in a later lesson in this series.

For now, though, let’s move on to getting our ears and heads working a little more. I can’t say how true this is for all of you, but I find the sound of the C major pentatonic lead a little, shall we say, “lacking.” It’s not that it doesn’t sound okay; rather it just doesn’t seem to live up to its potential.

And when we make a closer examination of what’s going on, it’s not all that hard to see why. Let’s take a look at the notes that make up each chord of the progression, shall we?

Example 2

Remembering that the C pentatonic scale consists of the notes C, D, E, G and A, we see that, when we’re playing along with the C and Am chords, every note of the chord is accounted for in the pentatonic scale. But when we play the F and G chords, we’re missing a note in each. There’s no F in the C major pentatonic scale, so when we play along with the F chord, there’s no root note (F) to nail the chord down and give it a nice foundation. And when we play the G chord, we’re missing the B note, which determines whether the G chord is major or minor. Plus, the B note is the “leading tone” of the C major scale – the note that pulls our ears to the home tonality of C.

In other words, the notes that we’ve dropped from the C major scale to make the C major pentatonic (F and B) are kind of important in this chord progression. So let’s add them back and see what happens when we try soloing in the C major scale. First off, let’s look at the pattern:

Scale pattern

And now let’s translate that into notation and tablature:

Example 3

And, after practicing the pattern a little to get it into our fingers, let’s play along with the chord progression again. Just for the sake of being dramatic, I’d tried to stress the F and B notes when I played this:

Again, I can’t stress enough that this is a matter of personal taste. To my ears, using the entire C major scale sounds a lot more interesting. There are more opportunities to create interesting uses of dissonance (more on that in upcoming lessons!), not to mention using the B note to create chord variations – played over the C you get Cmaj7 and played over the Am you get Am(add9).

Try thinking about it this way: your solo is a painting and your scale is a pallet of colors. In this lesson, we’ve done two paintings, one using five colors (the C major pentatonic scale) and one using seven colors (the C major scale). Both certainly work, but if I were to ask you which scale is the “right” one to use, what would you say? It really depends on what you’re trying to paint.

So the first lesson we need to learn is this – it’s one thing to know our scales; it’s another matter entirely to have an awareness of what they can do. Or to know which one to pick or how to even determine how to know which one to pick. Part of this can be learned – convention dictates that some things just go together well. But part of it is also a matter of taking the time to listen and to experiment with what you know. Not to mention to continue to learn new things in order to have more with which to experiment.

So, to help you get going on this, here’s an “extended version” of our chord progression:

Download this MP3 file to your computer and use it as a backing track while you play around with both the C major and the C major pentatonic scales. Feel free to noodle aimlessly at first, but once you’re comfortable, try to listen seriously to yourself (recording yourself isn’t a bad idea!) and to how you may gravitate towards one of these two scales more than the other.

Also, take the time to get very comfortable with both of these scales! We’ll be using them as examples in the next upcoming lessons in this series, so having them in your fingers can only be a good thing! Extra credit if you know the note names in position!

And, 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 [email protected]

Until next time…