Taking Care of Choices – Turning Scales into Solos – Part 8

First, an apology – even though I mentioned (last time out) that we’d cover two topics in this particular installment of our “Turning Scales into Solos” series, I’d like to put one on hold for a (very) short time. We’ll look at the inherent trap that almost all of us fall into simply by practicing scales in “Part 9,” which should go online sometime in mid-June.

Today we’re going to look at little harder at how we choose a scale to use as a solo. And, hopefully, we’ll see that there can be more than meets the eye.

To make this lesson somewhat practical and useful, why don’t we use a typical rock “˜n’ roll chord progression? How about C to Bb to F to C, say four beats (one measure) each? You can go ahead and give the final MP3 file a listen if you’d like, just to get a handle on what we’ll be working on.

You can hear that C major is definitely what we’d call the tonal center. But is it the key of this progression? We can certainly make an argument for it, and chances are, if you were looking at sheet music for something like this (maybe Bachman Turner Overdrive’s Taking Care of Business, for example) the key signature would indicate C major by having no sharps or flats and adding the Bb to the Bb chord by means of accidentals. You can also find a surprising number of books where a chord progression like this would be written out in the key signature of F, which has one flat (Bb). But C is certainly our center, our sense of “home,” if you will.

Okay, so we have a key. One step down and several decisions to go…

This particular progression, going from the root (I) to the flat seven (bVII) to the four (IV) chord, is very common in rock music. Without batting an eye, you could probably come up more than a dozen songs you know that use it in one form or another. You’ll also find this chord progression in country and folk and even in some guitar studies by the immortal Fernando Sor, which means that people living around 1800 were not strangers to these sounds.

Thinking in terms of the typical rock guitarist, we might automatically reach into our “toolbox” and pull out the C major pentatonic scale. In case you’ve forgotten (even though it’s not been all that long since we used it last!), the notes are C, D, E, G and A.

Looking at the make up of the chords in the chord progression, we find the following:

C major contains the notes C, E and G

Bb major contains the notes Bb, D and F

F major contains the notes F, A and C

While the major pentatonic is not going to cause us a lot of stress, there aren’t a lot of nice target notes from which to choose. By “nice,” in this case, I’m talking about root notes of the chords. There’s C (and E and G, too), but no Bb or F. We do have the D (the third of the Bb chord) and A and C (the third and fifth, respectively, of F). You could use this scale but you will probably find yourself unhappy with how it ultimately sounds. Don’t take my word for it. Since you’ve downloaded the last MP3, give it a try and then come back to the discussion.

Alright, then, the C major pentatonic was a bust, so let’s try the C minor pentatonic. I’m sure you remember this one:

Example 1

Because we’ve given a very nice rock feeling to this chord progression, using the blues idea of “Minor pentatonic over a major key” works pretty well here. Have a listen:

We’ve got blue notes Eb (flat third) and Bb (flat seventh) to play over the C chord, and there’s Bb (root) and F (fifth) of the Bb chord and also F (root), C (fifth) and Eb (flat seventh) for the F chord. All and all, this doesn’t do that bad of a job.

Can we do more? Certainly, we can. Take a look at all the notes of our chords again, this time written out as they would appear in a scale:

C D E F G A Bb

Does this look at all familiar? Except for the last note (Bb), everything else is a note of the C major scale. There is, of course, one major scale that has only one flat in it, and that is the F major scale. You’re probably more familiar with it if we start on the root:

F G A Bb C D E

How about that? Of course, you’ve already read A La Modal or any of our other Guitar Noise lessons on modes, so you know that when we use the F scale but start out on the C note, it’s technically the C Mixolydian Mode. And in root six position on our guitar we’ll find it here:

Example 2

This is an interesting mix because it gives us more target notes, but eliminates many of the “blue notes” because we’re using E instead of the Eb of the C minor pentatonic. Consequently, you get a markedly different feel when using the C Mixolydian, as evidenced here:

Interesting, isn’t it? Even though we’ve got the same progression and I’m using the same style to solo with, this has more of a pop feel and less of the blues edge to it. Many rock guitarists find the Mixolydian mode fits very well into quite a lot of their music.

Of course, you can always decide to “mix and match,” using the C minor pentatonic for a phrase and then switching off to the C Mixolydian for another. But for those of you who enjoy playing one single scale, then I would ask you to think back just two lessons ago in this series and perhaps consider the C Dorian scale, which would be a C scale, only in the key of Bb (which has two flats, Bb and Eb):

Example 3

Here you’ve got the two blue notes of the C minor pentatonic, plus you’ve got the Eb as a blue note for the F chord, but you still get all three notes of the Bb and F major chords as you did with the C Mixolydian. Here’s what a solo in this scale sounds like:

You might notice on this solo that I went out of my way to use the D note as a target to make things even more interesting. D on top of the C chord makes Cadd9, and over F creates F6. It is, of course, the third in a Bb chord.

And, as always, I cannot stress enough that these are still only a few of the possible choices available to you, not even counting combining scales, as mentioned just a few paragraphs ago.

And, again as always, this is why it’s vital for you to take the time to experiment and noodle and, most important of all, to listen to what you’re doing so that you can get a feel for what you want and when you want it. Here is a backing track so that you can practice the scales we mentioned, plus any other scales or combinations of scales you might find intriguing:

I hope you’ve enjoyed this and I hope that you are starting to get (or getting more of an idea) that there will almost always be a multiple choice answer to the eternal question of “which scale should I play!”

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…