First off, just wanna say thanks for people always giving me valuable responses to my questions. I don't always respond, but your answers are very appreciated.

I know that an important piece of the puzzle with soloing is knowing the chords and selecting notes which have certain characteristics against those chords. My problem is that when I am soloing I cannot really 'hear' the chords. Although you can tell me the progression is
F#m D A E, i probably wouldn't be able to differentiate between the times I am on F#m or A. When I am soloing it seems like my brain is too pre-occupied with selecting the next note rather than knowing which chord I am on and what comes next.

Its kind of hard to explain, but I think you might get what I mean. My soloing stays relatively the same throughout all the chords, but I want to be able to give them ebbs and flows like chord progressions themselves have.

So if you guys have any advice for this as well as any techniques to acknowledge chord changes with solos, I'd appreciate it.

The name of the game is flow.

Let's take that progression you've just posted.

F#m - D - A - E.

Now, this is a diatonic chord progression in the key of F#m. So, because we have no indication of harmonic minor, we can use one scale for the entire progression. F#m Aeolian/Natural Minor, as well as the resultant F#m pentatonic scale. But you probably knew that.

In order to really "make" the chord changes, you need to target each new change with melodic material that creates harmony. To make a long story short, you need to aim for notes in the chord in question. But you probably knew that.

Where most people goof is here: They aim for the roots of the chords. This actually backfires, because it creates bad counterpoint with the bass. To "make" the changes, you need to aim for the thirds and fifths in a line. The roots still work (its not like they sound wrong), but the effect of really bringing out the harmony is diminished.

Check this thread out, it talks a lot about how to outline harmony:


You may also want to look into basic/intermediate CST to help tackle non diatonic chords. I can give you a crash course, and I'm sure many others here can too.

As far as the brain thing goes, its a sign there you aren't totally comfortable with the changes yet. The ultimate goal should be for you to be able to solo while:

1. Watching TV
2. Having an engaging non-musical conversation with a non-musician.
3. Both at once.

Keep working it, and it will become second nature, thus freeing up large amounts of mental RAM.

That being said, each of those chords actually has about 6-9 different scales and colorations you could use over it, and various harmonic alterations can always be made. But that is next to impossible until the basics are down.
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp
I studied music theory in college and applied a lot of it to my playing back then. At this point I am not consciously thinking about the notes in the chord but I hear the changes and it inspires different movements and riffs. This comes from a lot of practice both alone and with others. I like to solo over tracks by Larry Carlton and Robben Ford because they use a lot of chord substitutions that open up new possibilities in soloing. This keeps things fresh and interesting even while jamming with the boys on a straight 12 bar shuffle.
"Your sound is in your hands as much as anything. It's the way you pick, and the way you hold the guitar, more than it is the amp or the guitar you use." -- Stevie Ray Vaughan

"Anybody can play. The note is only 20 percent. The attitude of the motherfucker who plays it is 80 percent." -- Miles Davis

Guthrie on tone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmohdG9lLqY
Quote by hanginout

I know that an important piece of the puzzle with soloing is knowing the chords and selecting notes which have certain characteristics against those chords. My problem is that when I am soloing I cannot really 'hear' the chords. Although you can tell me the progression is
F#m D A E, i probably wouldn't be able to differentiate between the times I am on F#m or A. When I am soloing it seems like my brain is too pre-occupied with selecting the next note rather than knowing which chord I am on and what comes next.

How good is your ear?

If you're NOT soloing, can you follow the chords? Can you hear the changes if you know in advance what the progression is? How about if you don't?

Practice this, without soloing, until it's easy.

Similarly, developing your ear will help you think less about your solo itself, it'll make it more automatic - the way you don't really have to think about the words you speak, they just naturally flow out of your mouth. Practicing stuff like singing a line, then playing it, will help develop this.

There are no shortcuts - you have to build up your fundamentals here, and develop that ear-mind-fretboard link.
you dont have reflect each chord in your solo. for example in a ii V I progression you can treat the ii as just an extension of the V in addition when selecting a chord tone it is best to select the notes which mostly characterize the chord e.g. 3rd or 7th. now take only the 3rd of the chords and play only them on each chord this will give you the junctions you need for the improv, then do it on the 7th, then improvise and try to target these notes
Try an experiment. Without a guitar in your hands, and while listening to the chord progression on playback, can you hear in your mind how you'd like the solo to go?

If not, try putting the progression on repeat until some melodic ideas start coming.

If you have the ability to do this you will eventually be able play what your mind hears without worrying too much about note names and chord names. What you'll effectively be doing is playing by ear. In theory terms it's probably best thought of in terms of intervals.

The success of this method depends on your musical imagination. Of course it also depends whether you have the technical ability to play what you hear in your head.

I now compose all my leads this way. Sometimes the whole lead will come at once, but you can also do it bit-by-bit or by trial-and-error if necessary.

However, perhaps Musician Talk is not the best place to discuss ways of bypassing music theory.
First just listen to the sound of the backing track. Don't start noodling around yet. Just listen to the sound so that you remember how it sounds like. IMO that's really important if you want to play by ear. You need to know your backing track. That way you can just think in melody and you don't need to think about the chord changes.

The progression you posted is one of the most common ones. It is used in so many pop songs.

I think what could help is just learning a lot of songs by ear. Try figuring out the chord progressions of whatever songs you hear. Listen to the bassline. Also listen to solos and learn to play them by ear. First it's going to be trial and error. But once your ear improves, you'll notice it's not that hard.

I think the best solos are in your head. If you start thinking too theoretically about every note you play, it just may not sound right. Best musicians have good ears. I'm not saying don't learn theory - it will help and may give you new ideas (and if you know theory, it's way easier to figure out what's happening in your favorite songs). But the most important thing in music is sound, and theory without sound is kind of useless. You hear sounds in your head and play them. That's what improvisation is about. Of course that's not easy but I think that's a good goal - to be able to play what you hear in your head.
Quote by AlanHB
Just remember that there are no boring scales, just boring players.


Bach Stradivarius 37G
Charvel So Cal
Fender Dimension Bass
Hartke HyDrive 210c
Ibanez BL70
Laney VC30
Tokai TB48
Yamaha FG720S-12
Yamaha P115
It really helps to start with slow music with slow and obvious chord changes, such as blues. In most blues, you only have three chords to worry about and its pretty easy to emphasize each change.

I agree with HotSpurJr above - it's an ear issue more than anything. This is something you build with experience but you really need to work on it to be a good soloist. Not knowing what chord you're playing over is a recipe for mindless scale runs etc. It takes a lot of practice to get to the point where you can really play progressions well, so it's perfectly normal that this isn't something that comes easily.

My advice is to start learning a lot of music by ear - chords and solos. That really helps build your ear. If you haven't spent a lot of time on that yet - start now!
+10 to everything here. Great advice.

Another point of interest is this:

Using a pentatonic scale "changes" the progression you are soloing over to one chord.

Using a major/minor scale forces you to make the changes.

You should be able to hear the chord progression in question in your head, even if theres no music playing. That's step 1.
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp
Quote by Jehannum

The success of this method depends on your musical imagination.

Yes and no.

Before you musical imagination can kick in, you have to be able to think in music. People with poorly-developed ears don't think in music very well - the pitches they hear in their head are not well-defined. So they'll get an idea in their head, and they'll try to play it, and it'll be super frustrating ... because that idea doesn't actually exist.

To run with the language analogy: until you can hear something and play it accurately and (relatively) quickly, you don't speak the language of music. The sounds you hear in your head may have no more connection to actual pitches than the sounds I imagine when I try to think of what a sentence in Chinese would sound like has to actual Chinese.

This is a little strange, because people think that they're thinking in pitches. But they're actually not. e.g., if you ask a non musician and a non-musician to sing a melody line, without words, the musician will probably sing it as a series of pitches all on the same vowel sound (ah-ah-ah-ah, varying in pitch) whereas the non-musician will often sing it not varying the pitch (or varying the pitch in extremely inaccurate ways) but changing the vowel "ah eee o o." Their brain subconsciously knows that something is supposed to be changing there, but they can't actually process it properly, so they substitute something in that they can process properly.
^ That's really cool.

And I agree with the advice given. The end goal is to know exactly what the changes are when you first hear a progression. Then you can figure out the key and play accordingly.

However there are two things you have to train:

1) Your ear. It will be difficult to develop your ear by figuring out entire progressions at once. It is best to learn how to play over shorter progressions like blues or ii-V-I and slowly branch out to larger ones. I hate to sound mathy but it is pattern recognition.

2) Like HotspurJr said.. you also have to develop your connection to your instrument.

To learn this properly, you simply have to select a style that is digestible and that you like. For me it was the blues. Spend time listening and spend time playing it. And when you play it, don't mindlessly noodle over it. Listen to the music then try to see if any musical ideas come to mind. Then try to make that idea tangible by figuring it out on guitar (it helps to turn off the music at that point sometimes).
Well, there are a few ways that you can improve your improv solos over chords. One of the easiest things to do is if your music stays in one key, figure out what key it is in and from there you can figure out the diatonic pitches. Playing diatonicaly will, for the most part, make your solos work a little better, or at least for tonaly. Another thing you can do is memorize the chord progression that you are going to play over or write the progression down and look at it while you solo. Figure out the individual pitches that make up each chord. You can use the individual pitches from chords as pitches in your solo and it will sound fine. If you don't have accsess to the chords, like if the whole thing you are soloing over is improv from a rhythm section I would suggestion training your ear for the quality of chords. It's pretty hard, unless you have perfect pitch, to determine what pitches are being heard, however harmonic relationships are easy to identify with some training. If you have access to a piano or a keyboard, even a virtual one, play a major chord with your eyes closed and really focus on how it sounds. Then do the same thing with a minor chord. After that close your eyes and have someone play a bunch of major and minor chords until you can guess which quality each chord has everytime. Then try it with augmented and dimished triads. And then with every kind of seven chord. Eventually you can figure out each kind of chord when you hear them and if you can find one pitch in each chord you can assume the other pitches and use them in soloing. I know there are a few websites that help with ear training, but I don't know any off the top of my head. Also, learn about cadences and phrasing, you can assume how a lot of music resolves and you can incorporate this into your playing. I hope this helps.
Some good comments already...

I've always recommended if you want to play lead, be the best rhythm player in town first. The only way I know of to effectively play lead i s to KNOW where the chord progression is going before it gets there.

I'm not sure what you mean by you can't hear the chords while playing lead, if you have to concentrate that much on playing lead, go back to playing rhythm for a while and get it to the point you can play rhythm to everything you play without thinking about it.

I practiced in the dark for 2 years so I wouldn't have to even look at the guitar when playing, my hands automatically knew where the strings and frets I wanted were. Same thing, I had to learn the rhythm part, in the dark, then work on a lead, also in the dark. When I started getting onstage again my playing was smoother, I didn't have to worry about being able to consciously hear what the band was doing, I already knew what they were doing, and I could pay more attention to the audience than the guitar. These days I'm almost on auto pilot when I play...

Main thing is, it's best to try and be the best rhythm player you can before worrying about lead. You'll still be playing more rhythm than lead anyway. That's the only way 3 piece bands can exist. Billy Gibbons, Eric Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Alex Lifeson, Johnny Winter, all have to be tremendous rhythm players to do what they do. And they're just the tip of the iceberg, if you look around you can find lots of other bands with one guitar player, either 3 piece or 4 piece with keyboards, and they all have to cover rhythm as well. Every one of them is a monster rhythm player. So concentrate on being the best rhythm player you can, then worry about lead. You want to be able to cover the rhythm part without thinking about it. Then you'll simply know where the chord progression is going before it gets there. If you can't already hear it in your head, go practice some more.
Hmmm...I wonder what this button does...
Chord. Tones.

If you can't hear the chords even if you know the actual progression, some ear training would be really beneficial aswell. If you don't know which chords you are playing over, your solo will most likely sound like random noodling.
Last edited by Thrasherx00 at Jan 28, 2015,