The easiest way to solo over chords on the guitar is to first determine which key the chords are in, choose a scale that fits with that key, and use it to solo over the entire progression.
For instance, if the chords of the progression are C, Am, F, and G, you can use notes from the C major scale throughout the whole solo.
If you’re a beginner in guitar soloing, this is how you should go about it, and I show you how to do this here.
There is nothing wrong with this approach. Since all the chords are in the key of C major, the notes from the C major scale are not going to clash with the chords.
Note: Sometimes songwriters borrow chords that are not in the key; thus, if you’re soloing over someone else’s music, make sure this is not the case. If you’re writing your own music, this should not be a problem since you can make sure all the chords belong to a single key when writing the progression.
More advanced players take a different approach to soloing over chords and emphasize the chord tones of each chord in the harmony backing the solo.
This approach to composing solos over changing chords is what I will show you in this lesson.
Though this is not an easy skill to acquire, especially if you’re improvising in real time, it can be broken down into small steps.
One last thing before we start.
To make learning how to solo over chords easier, you must know the name of the notes on the guitar fretboard.
If you don’t know the guitar note names yet, it’s highly suggested that you do so before proceeding with the rest of this lesson.
Step 1: Analyze the chord progression and determine the key
In this lesson on guitar chord progressions I show you how each note of the scale is harmonized by a chord. A chord progression is two or more of these chords played in succession.
When coming up with a solo, you need to determine which key that chord progression is in.
The biggest hint to determining what key the music is being played in is the first and/or last chord of the progression you’re soloing over.
If these are the same, you can safely assume that the chord is the same as the key. If not, it may be a bit harder. This lesson shows you in more detail how to determine what key you are playing.
The chord progression we’re going to use as an example to work on in this lesson is made of only two chords: C and F.
Since the chord of C major is in the key of F major and the chord of F major is in the key of C major, both the scale of C and F major are good for soloing over this chord progression.
For this lesson, we’re going to be using the scale of C major.
Step 2: Decide on a scale pattern
In order to keep things simple it’s good to start soloing over chords using one position of the scale, rather than playing all over the guitar fretboard.
In this lesson, we’re going to use a 3-note per string pattern of the C major scale:
If you haven’t already, memorize this scale pattern before continuing with this lesson.
Step 3: Find the chord tones
What we have done so far is identical to what you would need to do to solo over a chord progression without bothering about the chord changes, the elementary approach to soloing.
It’s from here that things start getting more interesting (and more complex).
Though you will still be playing notes from the scale of C over both the C and the F major chord, you’re going to emphasize the chord tones of C major and F major when you’re on their respective chords.
What are chord tones?
Triads are the most commonly used chords and as the name suggests, are made of three notes.
Major and minor chords are triads and are made of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of their respective scale.
Thus the chord of C major is made of the notes C, E, and G, while the chord of F major is made of the notes F, A, and C.
These notes are the chord tones.
When soloing over chords we’re going to emphasize the notes C, E, and G when the chord in the progression is C major and F, A, and C when the chord is F major.
These are the chord tones in C and F major that are in the given scale pattern of C major.
The reason the chord tones given above look like arpeggios is that they are arpeggios.
This lesson on how to use arpeggios to create solos is in fact just a different approach to solo over chords using chord tones.
What we’re doing differently here is that we’re seeing the chord tones as individual notes rather than part of an arpeggio.
Step 4: Chord tone exercise
Now that you know where the chord tones are, you need to learn to find them when you want with ease.
We’re going to start with the chord tones of C.
Over this repeated rhythm in C major, play only the chord tones of C major – at random.
The purpose of this exercise is not to make any musical sense but to get you comfortable finding the chord tones.
First, play one note on the first beat of each bar.
Once you get confident doing this, you can play a note on the first and third beats of the bar. You can even go up to one note on each beat if you don’t find it too hard.
Next, do the same thing with the chord tones of F over an F major chord.
Step 5: Use passing notes
Using this approach to solo over chords on the guitar does not mean that you’re only going to play chord tones.
Chord tones are emphasized by being held for a longer duration, having vibrato applied to them, and being played on the beat.
However, if you don’t use any of the other notes, your solos will sound too consonant.
This can get pretty boring since what our ear really loves hearing is dissonance resolving into consonance.
Thus in this step, you’re going to solo over the chords C and F major (separately for now), emphasizing the chord tones, but playing other notes from the C major scale in between.
To help you with this, I’m giving you two short solo examples being played in this way.
If you analyze them you will find that the chord tones are in the most important positions (the first beat of each bar is a chord tone), are held longer, and have vibrato applied to them.
Over the C major chord
Over the F major chord
Step 6: Chord changes
So far we have been dealing with soloing over the chord of C major and F major separately.
In this step, you’re going to repeat steps 4 and 5 but this time the chords will be changing.
The following is an example.
Listen to it carefully and notice how clear the change between the chords sounds.
Here’s a backing track to practice with if you’re soloing over the C and F major chord.
Soloing over chords on the guitar and emphasizing the chord tones makes your solos more melodic and more professional.
In this lesson, we have just brushed the surface of a pretty advanced guitar skill.
If, once you’re able to play what’s suggested in this lesson, you want to keep learning how to solo over chords on the guitar, you just need to keep making this process harder one step at a time.
You can do this by increasing the chords in the progression, increasing the frequency of the chord changes, making the tempo of the solo faster, and, above all, being able to do this in real-time improvisation.
Which will take you some time, but in the end, you wouldn’t have just acquired a guitar skill but also improved your ear, your knowledge of the fretboard, as well as your general level of musicianship.
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