Targeting a Mode – Turning Scales into Solos – Part 6

If there are two main points that you have, hopefully, gotten thus far in each of our “Turning Scales into Solos” series of lessons, it’s that, first and foremost, a solo should be determined by the song, by its mood, feel and chord progression. The second idea is that a single scale is rarely the only solution to finding a way to solo over a chord progression.

Getting these two thoughts into your head is essential if you want to be able to solo over any song. If the point hasn’t been driven home yet then, again hopefully, this latest installment will help you drive the point home.

On the surface, this should seem easy enough. We’re going to use a simple progression of two chords and figure out what will be the best way to solo over it. I should rephrase that, as not all of us are ever going to agree as to what is the “best way” to solo. How about we say instead that we’re going to look at various options, each valid in their own way? Ready?

Okay, our chord progression will be in four-four timing and will consist of one measure (four beats) of Dm and then one measure of G. That’s G major. If you’d like to hear it, skip down to the last MP3 file of this lesson. Be sure to right click it and save it to your computer so that you can play along with it later.

Again, it sounds pretty simple, right? But before we jump right in, let’s take a moment or two and think about what we’re going to do in terms of soloing.

First, we might want to think about what key this progression is in. D minor certainly seems like a good bet as things seems to focus around that D minor chord. But if we look carefully, we should see a flaw in that logic. Have you found it?

Maybe it would be good to back up a step and look at the chords themselves. Dm is made up of the notes D, F and A, while G is made from the notes G, B and D. We should all be agreed on that, right? Let’s take a look at all the notes:


Given this much information, we could just construct a scale from these notes. Because it has five notes, it’s certainly a pentatonic scale, but it doesn’t match any of the two pentatonic scales that we already know. The major pentatonic is the root, second, third, fifth and sixth. So if D is our root, the D major pentatonic is D, E, F#, A and B. The minor pentatonic is made up of the root, minor third, fourth, fifth and flat seventh, and if we again use D as our root, that would mean the D minor pentatonic is D, F, G, A and C. Neither of these is a total match for what’s going on here, and although the D minor pentatonic is a better match, it’s still missing notes that would make it sound more complimentary to the chord progression.

As much as I hate to say it, this is where even the slightest bit of knowledge of music theory might be a big help. You would know, for instance, that the notes taken from our two chords would have to come from the key of C. Why? The first tip off is that there are no flats or sharps. You might argue that there could be a C# or an Eb, but I would point out to you that both the F and B are natural. The key of C has no flats or sharps. When we move to the key of G, which has one sharp, that sharp is F#. It has to be. There is no key signature that has only a C#. If we go in the other direction, the key that only has one flat is F and that note is Bb.

Another argument I might use is that the key of C is the only key where we’d be able to construct both the Dm and G chords out of the major scale, as you may have read in The Power of Three or in other theory articles we have here at Guitar Noise.

It’s situations like this where we have to make a great leap forward in our thinking. We have to learn that, sometimes, there is a difference between a key or key signature and a tonal center. People often use these two concepts interchangeably, but there will be occasions where you need to separate the two ideas.

So even though we have a progression where the two chords are taken from the key of C, the tonal center we are shooting for is D minor. What does this mean to us? Well, as mentioned earlier, we could create a new pentatonic scale, just for this occasion. Seems like a lot of time and effort though, especially since we’ve already learned our pentatonic scales so well.

How about this? Let’s try using the A minor pentatonic scale, since Am is the relative minor of the key of C. The notes of this scale, which are A, C, D, E and G, will certainly fit the bill because they are all in the key of C. I’m going to do a short solo using the “Root Six” position of the A minor pentatonic:

Example 1

Not sure that I’m really okay with that one…

How about trying the D minor pentatonic scale, which I’ll write out for you as well in “Root Six” position:

Example 2

That certainly sounds a little more like it. But I can’t help thinking that I still might have a better option.

And I do – the C major scale. It has all the notes of both chords of the progression, especially the B note (noticeably absent in both our previous pentatonic scales), which totally makes that G major chord sing out.

The trick, if you want to think of it, is that while we are using the C major scale, we’re actually going to target notes in both these chords, the Dm and G. If it helps (and it certainly helps many people), don’t think of this as the C major scale, but rather as the D Dorian scale. I’ve taken the liberty of writing this out as such:

Example 3

Now, folks will endlessly argue about whether or not this scale is the C Major or the D Dorian, and you’re certainly welcome to add your two cents. For right now, though, I just want you to take the time to experiment with all three, to compare and contrast sounds, to listen to what aspects of each you like. Or don’t like.

In order to help you do so, here is an “extended” version of our chord progression, just for you to play over:

One thing you should definitely take away from this lesson, though, is the idea that you can fall back on the Dorian mode whenever you run into this particular type of chord progression, going from a minor root (or tonal center) to the major fourth. Sure, you can certainly fall back on the tried and true minor pentatonic, but your ears may appreciate you adding the extra two notes you get from taking the full scale. Your audience might, too

While you’ve gotten quite a bit of information this time out, I also want to leave you thinking about this puzzle over what to call our last scale. You might want to take a moment or two and read up on modes here at Guitar Noise. The article A La Modal might be a good place to start.

And next time out, we’ll pick right up with this question, because I think that I may have an answer that will work for many of you. 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 [email protected]

Until next time…