Having not been unable to understand why my improvising/guitar solo skills were so samey, I did as much research as I could on the subject and I realised that my current approach is not the approach used by proficient guitarists.

As an example:

Backing track - Am, C, Em, G

As these are all diatonic to the Am scale, I would have just played A natural minor or pentatonic throughout.

I did try to experiment using various minor modes throughout but could not work out why they did not always fit.

From what I have now read, I have seriously been limiting my playing and instead need to be considering a different scale for each chord.

For example, you can use any A-based minor scale when playing over the Am (A Aeolian, A Phrygian, A Dorian, A Harmonic Minor, A Minor Pentatonic)

And then switch to C-based major scale when moving on to the C (C Ionian, C Major Pentatonic, C Lydian) etc.

I have found that this method definitely makes me think more but I have found that I no longer have to worry about key changes as I am considering chords rather than keys.

It also has helped me appreciate how to properly use modes – if I were using A Phrygian in the above, I could previously not understand why I only got the eastern sound that I was after when the Am chord came up – I didn’t realise that I had to shift to E Phrygian over the Em to keep the root “drone” going.

I was just wondering whether the other guitarists on here would agree with this approach or whether I am massively over-complicating things.

One quick question – if I wanted to maintain a Phrygian sound throughout a solo, am I correct in thinking that it would not be possible to use the above chord progression above as I could not maintain the minor sound against the major chords of C and G?

Is the option to instead remove the third and play them instead as power chords?

Hope this all makes sense – hopefully, I am starting to make some real progress at last.
Backing track - Am, C, Em, G

What is the style?


Edit: Forgot to ask: Each chord lasts for one bar?
Last edited by Tonto Goldstien at Apr 22, 2015,
Just as an example, I would probably play the above backing in a slow ballard type style - I am not fast enough to consider anything quicker than that at the moment.

The chords would probably also be for a bar each.
Last edited by elsmandino at Apr 22, 2015,
Am, C, Em, G

These chords are all in the key of C or G. You can play in the key of C or G. Or you could play Am,C in C and Em,G in G. There are other possibilities.


These chords are all in the key of G. You can play in the key of G.


These chords are all in the key of G. You can play in the key of G.


These chords are all in the key of C. You can play in the key of C.

You could also play in the key of C over the first four chords and in the key of F over the last three chords. You could also play in F over the last four chords as G7 is a substitute chord for Gm which is in the key of F. (Read up on chord substitution).

"For example, you can use any A-based minor scale when playing over the Am (A Aeolian, A Phrygian, A Dorian, A Harmonic Minor, A Minor Pentatonic)"

A Aeolian, A Phrygian, A Dorian, A Harmonic Minor are from different scales and contain different notes. They cannot always be used interchangeably.

Consider these progressions:

Am,C,F,G - A-Aeolian

Am,C,D7,G - A-Dorian

Am,Gm,C,F - A-Phrygian

A-Aeolian is from the key of C
A-Phrygian is from the key of F
A-Dorian is from the key of G
A-Harmonic minor is the harmonic minor scale

These are only "rules" in the world of musical harmony. You can do whatever you want if you like the sound.

Trying to switch modes between chords is quite tiresome and impracticable in actual playing. It's easier to group chords by key centers that is, groups chords by the key they are in. Many great jazz players use this method.

Take a look at the chord progression for "All The Things You Are". You will note how the chords in the tune can be divided into sections which correspond to several different keys.


Modal playing is generally used over single chord type progressions.
"When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. This is my religion." -- Abraham Lincoln
Last edited by Virgman at Apr 22, 2015,
From what I have now read, I have seriously been limiting my playing and instead need to be considering a different scale for each chord.

For example, you can use any A-based minor scale when playing over the Am (A Aeolian, A Phrygian, A Dorian, A Harmonic Minor, A Minor Pentatonic)

And then switch to C-based major scale when moving on to the C (C Ionian, C Major Pentatonic, C Lydian) etc.

I wouldn't use this approach unless the chord you're approaching lasts for a long time, e.g., if you're vamping on the Ami for ~16 bars .

Otherwise, if you treat each chord as a temporary tonal center, then what happens is you put your Phrygian (or whatever) motif in your listener's ear, and then you move on to something else before you've had a chance to develop the motif. The effect is sort of confusing (even jarring.)

Remember: As improvising musicians, most of us have already moved on to the "next thing" before our listeners have fully absorbed what we just played.

I would stick to the key center approach (A Aeolian in this case) and look for other ways to add interest to your solo.

There are numerous devices you can use to accomplish this.

The device(s) you choose should be determined, in large part, by the style.

Is it a slow pop ballad? Or a mid-tempo country tune. Or?

Anyway, assuming each chord lasts one measure, I would probably be more inclined to use devices like playing the upper structures of chords, playing off extensions (e.g., over the Ami chord, start your solo on the 9th and bend up to that pitch on the adjacent string) using chromaticism, (e.g., resolve to a chord tone in next chord (C) from a half-step below, i.e., Eb --> E) upper and lower neighbor tones, etc.

In a "plain vanilla" progression like this one, it can also sound cool to imply (in your solo) chords (or chord tones) that don't actually exist. For example, you can precede a given chord in the progression with its secondary dominant, e.g., use a G7 arpeggio to get from Ami to C.

Note Re: Harmonic Minor: Best to think of Harmonic Minor as a variation on minor harmony rather than as a tonal center unto itself.

With that in mind, you could use A harmonic minor at the end of the last bar of the progression to cycle back to Ami.

This would mean preceding the Ami chord with an E7 (or your favorite E Phrygian Dominant) arp.

To simplify the above idea even further, use the third of E7 (G#) (a.k.a. the leading tone, in this instance) to resolve up a half step to the tonic (A.) This device is most effective when the G# resolves to A on the downbeat of '1.'

Last edited by Tonto Goldstien at Apr 23, 2015,
If the whole progression is in the same key, I see no point with thinking in different scales. CST (Chord Scale Theory - basically chord = scale, look at the Jet Penguin's thread if you are interested) doesn't make that much sense over a simple progression (unless you want to add some extensions to the chords). CST, if understood wrong, can make a simple progression look complex. If you are using CST, you still need to know the key you are playing in and understand the chord functions. Just randomly choosing different chord scales doesn't make any sense.

The progression is in Am, no matter what scales you are using over it.

You don't need to learn more scales to play good stuff. You need to be able to use the notes. Scales don't automatically sound good.

(There are actually two scales that would fit all chords - A minor and A dorian. That's because there are no F naturals or sharps in the chords you are playing over.)

But really, the scale isn't going to make you sound good or bad. It's how you use the notes. A lot of solos stay in one scale.

Use CST only if you are playing over a more complex chord progression (that doesn't stay in one key), and I would really suggest first playing over more simple chord progressions. To really use CST properly, you need to understand chord functions. Because in many cases CST just makes everything a lot more complex. For example thinking like Am = A aeolian, C = C ionian, Em = E phrygian, G = G mixolydian is just way overcomplicated. That's because all of these "different scales" have exactly the same notes. And it will sound exactly the same as just playing Am all the time. Also, if you don't understand chord functions, you may end up playing notes that don't really fit the overall progression. For example playing G lydian over the G major chord would sound pretty off because we are still in the key of A minor. Using G lydian would add two sharps - major 6th and major 3rd scale degrees. It would change the sound closer to A major and it would just sound a bit strange. And as I said, we are in one key all the time. Thinking in different scales could make you lose the feel of the key.

If you are thinking in one scale, you can still use accidentals. You don't need to change your thinking to other keys or scales to use accidentals. The key is to learn how the different scale degrees sound in a key. Start with diatonic notes and then move on to accidentals.

To make your solo playing sound more interesting, start using your ears. Don't just play with your fingers and hope for the best results. Think in sound. If you learn how every scale degree sounds like, you can use any note.

"A-Aeolian is from the key of C
A-Phrygian is from the key of F
A-Dorian is from the key of G"

No... Not really. Aeolian, phrygian and dorian are not from any keys. They are not keys. They are modes. Modal music was pre-tonal music. Back when modes were used, there were no keys. Actually the major key originates from the ionian mode and the minor key originates from the aeolian mode, not the other way around. Yes, some of newer music is also modal, and again, it's not based on keys. I suggest reading Jet Penguin's thread about it.

A dorian is the same notes as the G major scale, but that's where the similarities end. A dorian is a lot closer to A minor than G major when it comes to sound.
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What you are doing is applying an approach called Chord Scale Theory, it's just one way to come up with different ideas over a chord.

As for Modal, simple answer is this. they superimpose a scale with a modal name over the chord, but you are not playing modally. The scale is just the scale. The application, isn't modal.


Yeah, none of those progressions Virgman actually listed are modal at all. Those are all in keys.

You're thinking of modal interchange, which is a totally different story.

Sean and Maggara got this.

A minor/minor pent scale all the way. You don't need to branch out yet, CST doesn't really come into play until we begin modulating and tonicizing (or neither) on a regular basis.

You're on the right track, using CST to expand your palette over a diatonic progression, but it's a little more intricate than just use X scale over X chord.
"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
TS your favourite guitarists are probably using the same approach as you (thinking of the progression as one key).

But they're also thinking about the chords that they are playing over, phrasing, tempo and creating a melody.
And no, Guitar Hero will not help. Even on expert. Really.

Keep it simple. The Am C Em G backing track is a good progression because it's simple.

Am over the whole thing will work. However you have to think about the chord progression. You have to think about where and how you want to build tension and how you want to resolve the tension. Outlining the chords is an excellent way to go. To do that you don't have to change scales on each chord you just have to be aware of the notes in the chord.

Also thinking in terms of melodic devices such as repetition, scale runs, arpeggios, sequences etc will help you with your soloing ideas.

And of course one of the most important aspects of good soloing is developing a good sense of phrasing.

If you feel you are stuck in a rut and always play the same old thing when you are soloing then learn some more solos. The more you learn the more you will teach your mind and fingers and the more you will have to incorporate into your own solos.