The Major and the Minor – Turning Scales into Solos – Part 3

Welcome to the third installment of “Turning Scales into Solos!” I hope you’ve been both practicing the exercises from our first two lessons as well as spending time listening to solos in music. And I guess this is as good a place as any to note that you should listen to any solo, whether it’s played by a guitar or an ocarina. Listening to other instruments solo is a great way to develop your ear for phrasing, as well as to pick up ideas that may eventually find their way into your fingers as they fly over the frets.

To recap briefly, Choosing Colors, our first lesson in this series, introduced (or re-introduced) us to the Major scale and the Major Pentatonic Scale, which are the two important scales that most guitarists fall back on for soloing. In the sound files accompanying that lesson, we listened to the differences in the two scales when used for soloing over the same chord progression.

The second lesson, One Note at a Time, hopefully demonstrated that as you are learning your scales, you shouldn’t feel the need to cram every single note you’re learning into a solo. Phrasing, which we’ll be getting into big time a few lessons down the road, is more important than speed. That’s not to knock speed. People often mistakenly put speed into the same category as “unemotional” and nothing could be further from the truth. It’s phrasing that makes a solo sound like a solo and not like someone simply practicing his or her scales. And the speed you’re playing at doesn’t enter into it at all.

Well, that’s not totally true, and we’ll also be looking at that aspect of things three lessons from now.

Meanwhile, on with today’s work:

A lot of what we’ll cover today, in terms of the theory at least, we’ve gone over before. The Guitar Column, Scaling the Heights, contains much of the raw information that we’ll be examining, so you might want to take a moment or two and read (hopefully “re-read”) that particular lesson.

It might also be good to have a gentle reminder of what got this whole series of articles going in the first place! As with many lessons at Guitar Noise, an email is usually a good place to start:

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?

Let’s examine the example cited:

…using a G Major Pentatonic scale over a G-Major song doesn’t always sound right…

While this statement raises many questions, I’d like to focus our attention on two: First, what do we mean when we talk about a “G-Major song?” and secondly, what do we mean when we say “doesn’t always sound right?”

Knowing a song is in the key of G Major should mean a few things to you. If you’ve read the Guitar Column Five To One, you are thinking that the G major chord is what gives the song is sense of tonality, of “home,” if you will. And, if you’ve read our other theory columns, you might also be thinking that there are certain chords that you are going to run into in the key of G major. The “I,” “IV” and “V” chords, for instance, are G, C and D (all major chords). The “ii,” “iii” and “vi” chords are Am, Bm and Em. These six chords are considered diatonic, which may sound like my beverage of choice, but really means that all the notes of these chords are taken from notes of the major scale in question. In this case, that means the G major scale. If you want to see how to come up with this yourself, take a look at the end of the section titled “Stackables” in the Guitar Column The Power of Three.

Chances are very likely that if you’re playing a song in the key of G, you’re going to run into the G, C and D chords more than anything else. For that matter, in whatever key you may find yourself playing, the “I,” “IV” and “V” chords usually are the ones you’ll find yourself playing most.

So, for the sake of keeping things simple (not to mention maintaining a balance with our past two lessons), let’s switch off to the key of C again. The “I,” “IV” and “V” chords in the key of C are C, F and G. We saw this in our previous lessons as we used the classic “I – vi – IV – V” chord progression (that being C to Am to F to G in the key of C) as an example to solo over. In the first lesson, you’ll remember we used both the C major and the C major pentatonic as our soloing scales, while in the second lesson we stuck strictly with the C major pentatonic. Things didn’t sound too bad, although I’m still getting emails from readers as to which scale they thing sounded better. Some liked the full major scale and some liked the pentatonic.

To me, these emails are fun because they aren’t really about which scale sounds better. They are about the readers and the music that sounds good to their individual pair of ears. Are you ready to try out another sound test and learn some more?

This time out, we’ll take a simpler chord progression, one using just the three primary chords of the C major scale – C, F and G. But in this lesson, we’re going to give the chord progression a bit of a blues feel, using a typical blues shuffle type pattern and a standard “Twelve Bar Blues” format. In case you’re not up to speed with knowing what Twelve Bar Blues is all about, not to worry! Just mosey on over to the Easy Songs for Beginners’ page and take a look at the lesson on Before You Accuse Me and then come right back.

Alright, then! In the key of C, the standard twelve bar blues progression would go like this:

Example 1 part 1
Example 1 part 2
Example 1 part 3

Now, we could have all sorts of things go on in the last measure (also called the “turnaround”), but again, for the sake of simplicity, I’m just going to flip to G in order to get back to the initial C in the first measure.

For our first two sound file examples, I’m going to play this twelve bar blues progression a total of three times, the third time ending on C in measure twelve instead of G in order to give us a sense of finality. In the final MP3 sound file, I’ll play the progression a total of six times.

Let’s start by trying out the C major pentatonic scale as our soloing tool. In the first MP3 sound file, I’ll use the C major pentatonic in “Root 6” position and stay within the pattern we’ve learned. And if you’ve forgotten the C major pentatonic scale pattern, here it is in music notation and tablature:

Example 2

Take a few moments and get yourself warmed up by running through the scale a few times. Then, when you’re ready, play along with the final MP3 file (be sure to download it to your computer so you can play it whenever you’d like) and see what you think. Or listen to my take on it (and remember I’m only going through the progression three times here):

As in our previous lessons, I feel a need to point out that I’m still overplaying! At this stage, I’m more concerned about hearing the notes and getting a feel for how this scale sounds as a soloing stage for this progression. What do you think? Do you like it? Or do you find it a little, lacking maybe?

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with what we did, so it should sound fine. But, for some of you anyway, you may find it a little lackluster. Perhaps the reason isn’t found in the chord progression or the key of the song, but rather in the style of the song itself? Okay, try to hang onto that thought while we do a lot of hopping around to gather information!

One of the major proponents of playing the blues is the use of what we call “blue notes.” Let’s borrow a definition from Wikipedia here:

In jazz and blues, a blue note (also “worried” note) is a note sung or played at a slightly lower pitch than that of the major scale for expressive purposes. Typically the alteration is a semitone or less, but this varies among performers and genres.

The Wikipedia definition goes on to say “The blue notes are usually said to be flattened third, flattened fifth and flattened seventh scale degrees.” This is another piece of information to set aside for the moment. When playing the blues, it’s the juxtaposition of the blue notes (flattened notes of the major scale) with the major chords that produces the “expressiveness” of the genre. And if the scale that we’re using to solo with contains only diatonic notes, notes found only in the major scale of the key then we’ve got no blue notes to work with. What’s a soloist to do?

The easiest (and most obvious) answer is to use another scale. And here’s where a surprising little bit of music theory magic comes into play. Going back to our Scaling the Heights lesson, we know that every major scale, even the pentatonic one, has a relative minor scale that uses the same notes. The playing pattern is actually the same; it’s just that the notes are different. Here is a generic diagram for the major pentatonic scale, using numbers of the scale degrees instead of notes:

Relative Major Pentatonic

If you compare this to our C major pentatonic example we used earlier, you’ll see it all makes sense. “R” is the “Root” note, C. “2” is D (the second note of the D major scale). “3” is E, “5” is G and “6” is A (again, E, G and A being the third, fifth and sixth notes of the C major scale, respectively.

Now look at the same pattern, this time using the numbered scale degrees of the minor pentatonic:

Minor Pentatonic Root Form

If we remember that the notes of the C major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A and B, then we know that the notes of the C minor pentatonic scale are C (“R” or “Root”), Eb (flatted third or “b3” in the diagram), F (the fourth note or “4”), G ( the fifth note or “5”) and Bb (the flatted seventh or “b7”).

Translating that information to notation and tablature, we now have the C minor pentatonic scale in Root Six form:

Example 3

So, again take a few moments and get yourself warmed up by running through the scale a few times. It’s simply the same pattern but in a different place on the fretboard of your guitar. That’s not too hard to take, is it? Again, you can go right to the final MP3 (which is on your computer, right?) or listen to me giving it a run through here:

Now, how does this sound? Some of you may find it a lot more interesting and perhaps more “appropriate” to the music. In other words, it may sound “righter” than using the major pentatonic.

Why is that? Take another look at the actual notes of the C minor pentatonic scale:

C Eb F G Bb

Now think of the chords involved in our progression. C major is made up of C, E and G. In the C minor pentatonic scale, we have two blue notes of the C major scale – Eb (flatted third) and Bb (flatted seventh). Using these blue notes against the straight major chord sets up the “expressiveness,” or “blues-ness” if you will, that defines the feeling of blues in our ears. The Eb is also a blue note of F (the flatted seventh), while the Bb and F are both blue notes of G (flatted third and flatted seventh), so each chord in the progression is served a dollop of blue notes just by using this one scale.

In other words, if you have a song in a major key but it’s a blues-styled song (or you want to make it sound like a blues song), then you want to use the minor pentatonic scale of the major key in question to achieve that effect! Are you playing blues in A major? Try the A minor pentatonic scale.

Before I forget, here’s an “extended version” of our blues in C chord progression for you to work with!

Regardless of which scale you think sounds better, the main lesson here, as it has been with our other lessons in this series, is to listen to the differences and to develop a feel for each scale. Because you know what I’m going to say next, don’t you? There are certainly still more choices to make! Next time out we will see what happens when we can’t make a choice!

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…