One Note At A Time – Turning Scales into Solos – Part 2

So, how did you learn to swim? Did you take it step by step – getting comfortable in the water, maybe learning to float and then dogpaddle and then finally get some real arm and leg motion going – or did you jump (or get thrown) into the deep end and figure that you’d better learn really fast. Not to mention soon!

As much as I like to joke about being a “deep end” learner, the joke being that once you get out of the canvas bag filled with cement cinder blocks it’s really not all that hard to swim, and as much as I think both methods have merits, there’s a lot to be said about learning at a pace that both suits you and makes sense.

Getting a handle on soloing can be a lot like learning to swim. While there’s a lot to learn, most of us would be happy, at least for starters, to simply not sink to the bottom. This series of lessons here at Guitar Noise is being written with the hopes that we can give you some tools so that you can get started on the wonderful world of soloing.

Hopefully, you’ve already read and worked on Choosing Colors, the first lesson in this series, which introduced us (or re-introduced us) to the Major scale and the Major Pentatonic Scale -two important scales that most guitarists fall back on for soloing. We also listened to the differences in the two scales when used for soloing over the same chord progression. And it’s cool because I’ve gotten email from folks in both camps – some favoring the sound of the pentatonic and some the standard major scale. That’s what makes the world go “Ëśround!

In this lesson, we’re going to stick with these two scales, not to mention the very same chord progression, but narrow our focus even more. One thing that throws many beginners is the fact that there are so many notes to play! Because of the emphasis on learning scales, we tend to think we need to throw in every note that we know. And nothing could be further from the truth.

So this time out, we’re going to first work with the idea of soloing with only two notes. Sound silly? Well, it can be. But think about this – by limiting the number of notes that you’re using, you can focus on two intertwining aspects of soloing that are far more important than speed and they are rhythm and phrasing.

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.

Some guitar teachers think these concepts are so important that when they get into the concept of soloing with their students, they start them out by playing a progression and allowing the student to use only one note for soloing. The idea is to make the note count by playing it in either a variety of rhythmic patterns that fit the mood of the progression example or by letting it ring out over a number of chord changes and create all sorts of interesting tonal moods.

But we’re going to go a little easier on you and let you use two notes for starters. Which two? Well, let’s take a quick look at our chord progression again and make some choices:

Chord progression

Just to get the ball rolling (or maybe just to show how lazy I am), I’m going to pick the notes

C and D for us to use on our solo. Why? Well, because they are the first two notes in both the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, and B) and the C Major Pentatonic Scale (C, D, E, G and A). Told you I was lazy!

Now we can pick any C and D notes anywhere on the fretboard, but I also want to work with getting comfortable up the neck a bit. So let’s use these C and D notes:

Example 1

Okay, so let’s take these two notes and make up a solo by playing over our chord progression. Here’s an example I whipped up:

If you’d like, go to the third MP3 file of this lesson and download it to your computer (or use the last MP3 file from the Choosing Colors lesson as it’s the same one!) and then give it a try.

Once again I want to point out that the object here is not to copy what I did. It’s to simply play around and for you to get a feel of what we’re trying to do here. Your sense of rhythm and phrasing is unique and you will undoubtedly come up with something far different than I did. Good!

Also, don’t be afraid of trying two different notes than the ones I chose. Changing even just one note will bring a whole new texture to the exercise, not to mention open up a host of other possibilities in terms of what you can play.

I also want to point out that I’m actually overplaying! Seriously. Just as in our last lesson, I simply want to try to give you a lot of ideas in a short period of time. You should, right now, experiment like crazy. Try to use these two notes as sparingly as possible. Try to use them as many times as you can. Make mental notes (or even write them down!) about what works and what doesn’t.

Most important of all, go out of your way to use different durations of notes – from whole notes to half notes to quarter notes to eighth and sixteenth notes – as well as making use of different durations of rests. Nothing sounds more like scales than playing every note at the same pace. Think of the very word “phrasing” and how it relates to speech. Some words or syllables are drawn out while others are clipped. You can convey a lot of emotion in how you play a single note.

Believe it or not, besides getting comfortable with the concepts of rhythm and phrasing, you are also developing your ears. You are hearing how different phrases sound and how they sound in relationship to the chord progression you’re playing. And, just as important, you are getting practice in expressing yourself. Put your emotion into the notes, even if there are only two of them, and you’ll sound like you have something to say.

After you’ve gone a couple of rounds with two notes (and remember to experiment with different combinations of notes), then try three or four. In our next example, I’m using four: C, D, E and G, in the following location on the fingerboard:

Example 2

Again, you don’t have to worry about being fancy. The point is to hear what you can do and with how little one can make a solo that sounds like a solo. Don’t have to worry about using tons of notes at blinding speed, worry instead about making every note count.

Here, once again, is 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. Start out with just two notes for the first few passes of the progression. Then add on a third, or a third and a fourth. Again, don’t feel you have to stick with my suggestions. Just pick notes from the C major scale and go to it! But don’t use more than four different notes for now, though!

Finally, you should also take the time to try out your notes at different points along the fingerboard. Stay in position for each set of four notes so that you develop a good sense of where those notes are in relationship to each other at the same area of the fretboard.

Okay, that should keep you more than occupied for this segment of this series of lessons on soloing. Best of luck with it and I look forward to hearing how you’re progressing.

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…