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

author: beginnerguitarn date: 08/14/2013 category: for beginners
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How to Choose a Scale to Solo With - a Quick-Start Beginner Lesson
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.


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.
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