How to Choose a Scale to Solo With - a Quick-Start Beginner Lesson

Let's learn how to pick a scale to fit a bunch of chords and do it without sinking into a quicksand pit of jargon.

How to Choose a Scale to Solo With - a Quick-Start Beginner Lesson
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If you've ever looked at a sentence like "Over an m6 chord you can solo with a melodic minor scale" and thought to yourself:
  • I'm never going to be able to memorize all these chord/scale match-ups.
  • I don't even know what a melodic minor scale is.
  • Maybe I'll just go watch TV instead.
Then you are in good company. With this lesson, I'd like to give you a simple way to figure out which scale to use over a chord progression. And hopefully we can do this with as little jargon as possible.

Note to the naysayers and nitpickers: This is not an exhaustive list of appropriate scales to use over particular chords. This is a quick-start system for beginners to figure out a scale to use and get to playing, instead of fretting about theory. (Ack, I made a pun...)

There are a couple pre-requisites:
  1. You should be able to read your entire guitar fretboard.
  2. You should know how to play and spell the chords (i.e. which notes the chord contains).
  3. It's helpful, but not super required, if you can figure out what key your song is in.
If you know how to do #1, then #2 is easy. Find a fingering for any chords you don't know, then read those notes right off the fretboard.

For #3, check the last chord of the song. In most cases that's going to be the key of your song. Not 100% of the time, but often enough where you can use it as a rule of thumb. Even if you're not sure, this method will still help you find appropriate notes to play.

A couple quick vocabulary words, just in case:

Scale - A scale is just a set of notes (usually 7 or 5). Think of it like a painter's palette. On the palette, the painter has all his colors - red, blue, black, white, pomegranate, burnt sienna, etc. He throws those colors at the canvas and creates a painting. Our scale is the set of notes that we'll throw at the guitar to create a piece of music. We can lay them out one at a time to create melodies or we can stack them to create chords.

Key - When we say a song "is in the key of..." it just means that's the scale we used to create the song.

Also, any place where I mention "Theory Junk" isn't required reading. That's where I'll use jargon to explain what we did. But if you're just starting with this stuff and don't understand it, don't worry about it for now. You can still use this system without it.

Example 1

Let's start with a very simple chord progression: C major, F major, G major, C major.

Step 1: Spell out each chord.

C major - C E G

F major - F A C

G major - G B D

Step 2: Line those letters up in alphabetical order.

C D E F G A B C

Why did I start with C instead of A? Check the last chord of the progression I gave you above. It's C major. That tells us we're in the key of C major. We're using a C major scale to create the song. So we'd want to start the scale on C.

And that scale we ended up with is called a C Major scale. But what if you tried it on your own instead of reading ahead for the answer (good for you!) and started the scale on A instead?

No big deal. You end up with an A Minor scale. But it includes exactly the same notes as the C Major so you'll still have the right notes.

Example 2

Let's try a little trickier progression: E minor, A minor, B7, E minor

Same deal here...

Step 1: Spell out each chord

E minor: E G B

A minor: A C E

B7: B D# F# A

Step 2: Line 'em up like a firing squad.

E F# G A B C D# E

Theory junk... What you end up with here is an E Harmonic Minor scale. But at this point I don't care if you know what it's called. I just want you to have something to play.

Tip: If you can't figure what the scale is called and need to know - maybe so you can yell it at the bass player at band practice and say "Dude, don't you know anything?" - then copy and paste that set of notes into a Google search and a zillion pages will pop up to tell you what the scale is called.

Example 3

We'll run into a little snag with this progression: F major, Bb major, A minor, G7, C7, F major

Step 1: Spell them out like a kid in Putnam County.

F major: F A C

Bb major: Bb D F

A minor: A C E

G7: G B D F

C7: C E G Bb

Step 2: Line them up.

F G A Bb B C D E F

See the problem here? We've got two different kinds of B's, a B flat and a B natural. Exclaim, "What to do!" in your best Southern belle voice and fan yourself with a hanky.

Look for a majority rule thing here. Two of the chords use the Bb and only one uses the B. So in your scale use the Bb.

BUT when that G7 chord comes up have a choice to make. Either avoid the B/Bb note altogether (which no one will pay to see) or purposefully use the B natural (instead of Bb) to highlight the new harmony that chord provides (undergarments thrown at you on stage).

Theory junk... The scale with the Bb is called F major. The scale with the B natural could be called either F Lydian or G Mixolydian. It doesn't super matter which because they're the same notes.

Incidentally, that G7 chord, in this case, is called a "non-diatonic" chord. That just means it's a chord that uses notes from outside the key. Like a sexy neighbor that comes over to spice up a boring afternoon.

So... Anytime you end up with more than one kind of a note, just figure out which gets used most and use that in your home base scale. Then adjust that note when you hit the chord that it doesn't fit.

Example 4

Ok, one more. This time with a different quirk: G major, A major

Step 1: (Say it with me now...) Spell the chords out.

G major: G B D

A major: A C# E

Step 2: Line 'em up, take their picture, "turn to the left, please,",= "It was him, Officer, I'm sure of it."

A B C# D E G

Two things pop up here. First, the key is pretty vague. A major? G major? Something else? Don't worry about it right now. As long as you have notes that work, that answer can come later.

Second, we're missing a note. There's no F! Shock and awe and more shock! The good news is you can pick any kind of F you want to stick in there. Either F natural or F#. It doesn't matter because that note isn't in either of the chords. The different F's will each lend a slightly different flavor to your lines, so try both.

Theory junk... As for the key, I would call it D major. I know, there's no D major chord here. But the usual place you'll find two major chords next to each other is if they are the IV and V chords of the key. So if G and A are IV and V, that would make the I chord a D.

That being the case, if we use the F#, we have a regular D major scale. If we use F natural it becomes D Melodic Minor. There are other possibilities for naming here, including using a different key root, but they all end up with the same notes anyway.

You'll find a ton of songs where all the chords fit a scale (everything is "diatonic") and other times you'll find songs where it seems like you have to alter your scale in some way with every chord. Such is the versatility of music. :)

And, as I mentioned, this is a system to get you going. The scale you come up with is most likely not the only thing you could play over that chord. For instance, over the progression in example #1 you could also use a C minor pentatonic scale and sound way cool. That wouldn't come up based on our system here, but it's out there.

Once you've played with this system and have an idea of what scales to use in your songs, then you can start looking into the theory both to learn about what youre already using as well as find some new tricks. But for now... PLAY!

One last little pro tip... If you're on a note in your scale that doesn't sound good to you over the chord you're on, go one scale tone in either direction and you'll find something that sounds better.

If you accidentally slipped out of your scale pattern to a weird note, go one fret in either direction and you'll find something better.

And there's one thing in my decades of playing and teaching that I've seen make the biggest difference in how fast and how easily you become a better guitarist. Click here to learn what that one this is.

31 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    beginnerguitarn
    Ah boy... Some of you guys take this stuff way too seriously. To those of you that found this lesson helpful, thank you for your nice comments. I'm happy to have helped you. Please feel free to message me on my profile if you have any specific questions you need help with. Thank you Hydra and CrazySam for jumping in on the question about C vs. C major. Dumbface12 - Yes, you're absolutely correct on that. It is a secondary dominant to a key cell of C major. And despite the difference in root, would still include all the same notes as the other scales I mentioned. As I said early in the article, I was trying to help people get started quickly with as little jargon as possible. Steven Sea... Thank you for your feedback. And your first comment is absolutely true. Learning to hear the root is very important. However, my purpose here was to write for the rank beginner who doesn't know where to start, and to do so with as little complication as possible. As I said, early in the lesson, this is not the be-all, end-all for learning how to improvise. It is a method for getting started, and to be built on later. There's also two ways to look at this. There is "notoriously unreliable and ends up with people needlessly pulling all sorts of weird scales out if the air..." Or it can be though of as "might find an interesting sound that you might not have thought of or considered before." There's no such thing as a wrong note. Only a note that you didn't want to hear right then. As to your second comment, I have made my living for the last 20 years helping people learn to play the guitar. That's my job. I do that by both giving private lessons and writing useful online content such as this. For those skills, I expect to be paid. Do you not expect to get paid at your job? There is nothing sneaky about my link or what it leads to. It's called marketing. I'm sorry you don't understand how it works. You can be sure, that if I were breaking any rules or doing anything dishonest, UG would have edited it out before posting the lesson. This isn't some 350 word junk article that I threw together in 10 minutes. I put in about 5 hours of work writing and refining it to make it as useful and entertaining as I could while meeting the objectives set out at the beginning of the lesson. That's after I'd spent another couple hours thinking about lesson ideas and researching them on this site to make sure I wasn't duplicating material that had already been written about here. I spent the extra time to try and add something useful and fresh to the conversation. If you don't feel you got anything useful out of this article, I'm sorry. But you're also obviously more experienced a player than the people I was writing for. Which leads me to AlanHB... You must have been a particularly astute 12 year old guitarist. Congratulations. As you said, "it's an acceptable method for someone very early on in their studies." Which is exactly what I explained at the beginning of the lesson. This is a technique for beginners to be built on with more knowledge later. I'm glad you agree with me. I find it disappointing and unprofessional of you to assume that my knowledge on the subject ends with this article. Because it, of course, does not. And you could have instead asked something like, "Once a student has learned a technique like this, what would be the next step in refining that knowledge?" That would have been far more constructive and yielded better information for everyone. Instead you decided to troll and be antagonistic. So next time you have a question, 1. Re-read the article to make sure you didn't miss an important point and 2. feel free to ask me a constructive question so we can have an informative discussion on the topic rather than jumping to conclusions and attempting to discredit me to make yourself feel good. Be nice to each other friends...
    AlanHB
    Perhaps my comment was a little blunt, but I stand by my opinion. This article if taken alone spreads misinformation that would have to be rectified later. If it is intended as a way to secure people to pay for the "real" approach then it is successful, however this is not the appropriate place to do that.
    steven seagull
    And therein lies the problem, the lessons section does not exist for the purpose of "marketing". It's a resource for the community, if it's marketing you want then need to go through the appropriate channels on the site and pay accordingly. This site is not "your job", it's purpose isn't to help you make money and it doesn't owe you anything. Having a link back to your own site is fair enough, nobody's going to begrudge you a bit of exposure in return. However tagging on some sensationalist spin at the end that goes straight to a monetised link isn't really in the spirit of things.
    dennis.1960
    Great article. I really like that it teaches a little beginning theory in a painless way!
    steven seagull
    Yet you forgot the most important thing of all...LISTEN to your backing and find out where it resolve to. The "plug and play" method you're advocating is notoriously unreliable and ends up with people needlessly pulling all sorts of weird scales out if the air when they start trying to account for accidentals.
    wcrutherford
    Everyone gives the bass player shit. Well I'll just use some "theory junk" and change the chord structure by emphasizing a different note in the low end. Try your solo now! Figured Bass bitches!
    Zaxsk8
    Regardless of content, your writing style is lovely. I found myself laughing out loud in places.
    StLucifer
    Hey all you Jose Feliciano wanna-be's who dissed beginnerguitar for trying to help...just go and make a platinum record someplace and shut your gates. The man is trying to help. If you're so G-damn smart, then start your own guitar lessons, otherwise, keep your ideas to yourselves. Your intelligence really shows, or lack thereof. If you disagree, then disagree elsewhere. Your conceit is obvious...and so is your ignorance. In otherwords, FLOCK OFF LIKE THE BIRDS.
    steven seagull
    oh it's you, the one with the sneaky Jamorama ad at the end of every lesson. Please stop doing that.
    rockerwannabe
    burnt sienna... thank you, Bob Ross! I have been playing for nearly 30 years but sadly I am a beginner to theory and I thought this article was very informative.
    lemusan
    Hi, thanks for the lesson, though the majority of us more seasoned musicians already know most of it I still got to pick up some tips! Obviously that's why other musicians like myself come to this site. I've made my living in the music business for over 30 years. I've learned that no matter how good you are or how well you do something, someone somewhere will always make a negative comment or criticism. I really don't read the negative stuff nor will I read what some disgruntled commentator may say about me. To these people I say: Get a life and learn to appreciate what people work hard to make and give it to you free of charge! What's the old saying? "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth!". Good day to all!
    AlanHB
    When I was reading this I was like "well it's ok, I kinda thought like this way when I was a 12 year old without a teacher", meaning that it's an acceptable method for someone very early on in their studies. Over time they will learn what a key actually is, and how to listen for the resolution and know what chords are diatonic or not etc. And then I noticed that you are actually professing to be a professional, pushing us to pay for more of your services. At this point I simply find it disgusting that you'd dupe people into paying for a 12 year olds misunderstanding of music theory.
    RetsoNadroj
    Great article! This is a great way to figure out a good starting scale for a progression. I don't particularly like that the author suggests a C minor pentatonic for the first progression, it wouldn't sound all that great. The only way you could get away with it is if the soloist was very careful about when he/she was hitting the Eb or Bb notes in the pentatonic scale. Those particular would sound awful over top of the C or G chord in the progression (Eb over E never sounds good, and ditto with B and Bb).
    bldunn
    I know I am going to look stupid, but when you're spelling out the chord, you're just counting up the frets on the same string as the chord starts? I have been reading my little note chart of the fretboard driving myself nucking futs trying to figure out exactly how a C chord is C-E-G. I really want to learn this, perhaps I should have went to something easier before this?
    bldunn
    Or does it not matter what string you start on with the C, as long as C-E-G are in it for the purpose of soloing?
    rdel6915
    Leo..... If you take the 1,3,5 of any major scale you get the notes of a major chord. C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C - C,E,G - to get the minor you flat the 3rd.... C, Eb, G (Eb is also D#) to get a 7th you add in the 7th of the scale - B (remove your finger from b string... Now you need to learn the circle of Fifths and see how the Keys change (sharps are added to the right and flats to the left) to make up the major scale for each key... Key of D has 1 sharp, Key of E has two sharps.. etc.... I am a player who learned everything self taught and I still struggle with solos and improv... I am now working on the theory aspect to improve upon what I already know. Here are my tips: 1) Play with as many people as you can and ensure they are better than you... you will grow with them and they will learn things they have forgotten or it will freshen up ideas as they teach you. 2) Be fearless.... as beginner stated... there are no wrong notes, just notes someone doesn't want to hear at a particular point in time.... 3) this stuff isnt rocket science but it does require focus, dedication and passion.... having an interest in how things work tends to be my driver for wanting more.... Two great books to help you - fretboard logic 1,2,3 & Guitar Grimoire - scales and modes.... Happy playing all - thanks for the insites beginner....
    gumbalfrank
    bldunn, Don't worry I got confused about this too. Turns out its not about counting up the frets but counting up the major scale. I found this video which cleared it up without any jargon or theory junk!
    leo.dickaprio
    how are you ending up with those as minor notes if i play a e minor 2 and 2 on the a and d strings i end up with ebe not egb if i play an a minor chord which would be fret 1 b string fret 2 on g and d strings that leaves me with e a and c that im fretting i dont understand how you get these notes from these chords?
    INSULIN
    WHY DO PEOPLE AWAYS SAY C MAJOR AND NOT JUST C ETC.WHEN YOU PLAY A C7 YOU DONT CALL IT C MAJOR 7.HA HA HOW PEOPLE ARE CONFUSED NOW HA HA
    crazysam23_Atax
    Because there are different "C chords", maybe? You have Cmajor, Cminor, C7, Cmajor7, etc., etc., etc. Yes, most people would know what you mean when you say just "C", but it's technically more correct to say "C major".
    beginnerguitarn
    Thanks for your responses guys. Yes, Alan, this lesson is an oversimplification of the subject. Which is what I said at the beginning of the lesson. These ideas are not misinformation. They are ideas to be built upon later, with further lessons. I build this lesson based on some accelerated learning techniques I'm working on with my private students that are working very well. It's about music being made, first and foremost. And Steven, I'm sorry you don't understand the concept of content marketing. It's quite prevalent these days. I'm also sorry you'd rather see my clutter the site with ads instead of offer useful information. By the way, "exposure" means nothing. Club owners like to offer that when they want you to play for nothing too. And I'm not looking for it. I'm looking to help people reach their goals and make a living while doing it. And I guarantee you that nobody has been damaged by clicking that link. But I can guarantee you that people have been helped. So, different viewpoints guys. I'm not here to fight. I'm here to teach. Agree to disagree.
    Th3R00K13
    what if you're on drop d tuning? Would all of this still apply to it? What if the chord progression doesn't end in the same chord?
    dumbface12
    The theory junk for example three is junk because when you are on the G7 chord you're actually using a secondary dominant so when you get to that point it would not be F lydian or G mixolydian at all, instead it would be C major for a brief bit until you get to the C7 which then your back to F major.