I get asked this question a lot…
There are a couple paths you can take to learn how to solo or improvise (soloing) during a song. You can do both, but you’ll likely gravitate toward one or the other. Either way it is a good bit of work. I’ll try to give you as much info as possible about each way of learning and I’ll talk a little bit about the pluses and minuses of each.
Approach A – Learn A Bunch Of Guitar Solos
This method is well-suited for the self-motivated player who can not only build a library of lead guitar solos, but can also mix and match these patterns over time to form their own style. I can remember lead parts that I learned years ago that I can still pull out of a hat with a little bit of effort; Hey Joe and Lowdown by Chicago to name a couple.
Being able to adapt a previously recorded solo to a current piece of music can be rewarding; it just requires ability to move it to other keys, as well as build the transition melodies around it to make it work.
If I were doing this, I would keep a log of solos learned, including the keys and fret locations for recall. I might even record a snippet of the piece. A lot of you using this approach can probably retain this in your mind, but I’ve found that I tend to forget more than I’ve learned and over the years it’s benefited me to keep a notebook of songs learned.
This technique is especially useful for building knowledge of the things that can be done to strings while playing; bending, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, dynamics, etc.
So I think in order to improvise using this method, the more solo patterns you can learn, the better. You need a lot to choose from so that your solos don’t all sound the same.
Approach B – Learn Soloing Methodologies
This method may seem a little more ambiguous at first, but I believe in the long run, that it may produce a more versatile skill set.
Thinking about soloing with respect to using a particular method or even combining 2-3 methods at a time, tends to produce more creative results than applying a specific solo learned by rote. I have found it to be a faster way to teach a player how to think about soloing and a faster way to the application of it. Although teaching these methods can feel rather clinical and restrictive.
So with this approach, a player can learn one methodology and be productive right away. Then, as each methodology is learned, it can be stacked together with another one to achieve even greater results.
I’ve seen the faces of students light up when after just a few minutes of applying a pattern, they actually sound like a lead guitar player, improvising a new melody without realizing it.
So, as we’re talking about building improvisational skills on the guitar, remember that we’re referring to a section of the song that has a particular sequence of chords. Sometimes the solo is during the verse or chorus, or even during the introduction to the song. But in any case, the chord progression and the key of the song should be quite clear. It’s so important to have that knowledge in place before you begin to apply any of the methodologies.
Here are some ideas about the different ways you can solo over a progression. Not to worry if you’re unsure about how to apply one of these techniques. There will be articles explaining each methodology in more detail. If you don’t see one right away, please know that it’s on my list of ‘todos’ and should be available soon. For the purposes of this article though, I’ll list the method and then give a little bit of information to help ease any confusion.
Ways To Solo Over A Progression
1. Play the diatonic (Ionian) scale for the key in any order or rhythm.
The diatonic scale is simply the major scale for the key (also known as the Ionian mode scale). The ‘diamond’ indicates the root or tonic notes in the scale. All other scales will be subsets of this basic scale pattern.
2. Play the pentatonic scale for the key, any notes, in any sequence. See the article for pentatonic scales.
3. Play the “relative minor” pentatonic scale for the key, any notes, in any sequence.
4. Play the “tone centers” for each chord in the progression. Tone centers are simply the notes that spell the chord.
5. Play notes around each chord in the progression. Knowing the triad order of each chord is important here. If you know the location of the 1,3,5 notes, then you can find the other notes in the scale quite easily. Remember these will be notes that fit in the specific chord spelling (maj, min, dim, dom, aug, etc.), the moment it is being played.
6. Play a ‘relative mode’ solo for the key. So, a relative mode will be the same scale as a relative minor, which is the 6th note of the major key for the song.
7. Play an arpeggio. Essentially the notes of the chord shape played up and down, any number of notes in the sequence.
8. Play a scale that fits any two chords of the key if the progression doesn’t seem to fit in a normal key.
9. Play a ‘blues’ scale for the key, any notes, in any sequence. The ‘blue’ note is added to a pentatonic scale pattern. It is a flatted 3 note.
10. Play altered-dominant scales over dominant chords. These are 7th chords.
11. Use sub-scales. These are subsets of larger scales. Generally they can be string groups of 2-4.
12. Finish the solo on an atypical note or series of notes (i.e. the 2,7 or6 of the particular scale).
13. Let the chord shape dictate the notes of the moment.
14. Connect the scale of the key to the chord shape to produce diatonic, pentatonic, blues, or modal scale patterns.
15. Simplify the solo down to one or two notes. Insert the smallest part you can think of.
16. Use guitar dots for anchors. This gets the solo in the proper location with less fuss.
17. Use double stops. These are two notes played together, i.e 1+3, 3+5, 1+5 for majors, m3+5m 1_m3, or 1+5 for minors.
18. Think of chords first, then think of 1,4,5 chords.
19. Use the 1,3,5 notes in the chord of the moment as “home” notes when soloing. Practice ending phrases on these.
20. Try staying away from obvious resolving notes, like the 1,3,5.
21. Put the dominant 7 in the solo somewhere. A major scale doesn’t normally have a dominant 7 note. It’s the flatted 7 (or b7).
22. Memorize the 7 related chords of all keys.
23. Connect CAGED System forms up the neck, in your mind as you play in the key. These are patterns associated with each chord form. The better you can connect the forms, the better you can play the scale patterns as you go up the guitar neck.
If you only learned 1 or 2 of these methods, you would still be quite effective at soloing. Each method can be enhanced any number of ways and turned on it’s ear for all kinds of melodic outcomes.
Lastly, I confess that I kinda like the idea of learning methods, but also learning specific solos, because these can be mapped out and still combined with other methods to produce some unique styles of playing.
Until next time…