Improvising With Knowledge: Lesson 4

Don't just solo using a scale that fits the key of the song... Follow the chords! This lesson will show a simple and effective method to following the chords while you are soloing - like all the best guitarists do.

Ultimate Guitar
Hey guitarists! This is Lesson 4 of Improvising With Knowledge on Ultimate Guitar.

Here's what we've covered in the previous lessons:

Improvising With Knowledge: Lesson 1 focused on the Minor Pentatonic Scale Shape E1, notes across the E-string, moving the Min Pent E1 shape across the neck, and soloing over a minor chord.

Improvising With Knowledge: Lesson 2 focused on the Major Pentatonic Scale Shape E4, understanding flats and sharps, moving the Maj Pent E4 shape around the circle of fifths, and soloing over a major chord.

Improvising With Knowledge: Lesson 3 focused on alternate picking eighth notes to increase your speed, and incorporating rhythmic and melodic motifs into your improvised solos.

Improvising With Knowledge: Lesson 4

This lesson will focus on the Three Step Method for conquering chord progressions containing either all major or all minor chords. Very often, people will argue that you can simply play the major or minor pentatonic scale that is the KEY of the chord progression (G major pentatonic scale for a song in the KEY of G major). You can do this, but it is NOT actually the ideal method.

Why? Well, let's assume that we are in the key of G.

The G major pentatonic scale will fit perfectly with the G major chord, the most common chord to be used in the key of G. The other most commonly used chords are C major and D major. The G major pentatonic scale has a bit of dissonance against the C major chord and A LOT of dissonance against the D major chord. If you are not sure if this is true, try playing the G major pentatonic scale against these different chords – you will notice the increased dissonance when playing, especially if you hold each note for a second or two.

How can you resolve this issue and avoid dissonance against the C major and D major chords? It's quite easy. Play the G major pentatonic scale against the G major chord, the C major pentatonic scale against the C major chord, and the D major pentatonic scale against the D major chord. Essentially, as the chord switches, your scale will switch.

This lesson will show a very simple and practical Three Step Method that you can use to prepare yourself for following the chords of a chord progression, ensuring that your pentatonic scale changes as each chord changes. All elements are explained in the video below (with scrolling TAB so you can play along), but here is a short summary.

Let's say you are working with the following chord progression:
| Bm  | | | | Em | | | |

| F#m | | | | Em | | | |
And have knowledge of the following minor and major pentatonic scales:

Min Pent E1 (from Lesson 1)
Maj Pent E4 (from Lesson 2)
First, test your abilities by recording the chord progression and see if you can solo over it, making sure to play the minor pentatonic scale that fits each chord. Many people have trouble with this at first. If this is the case, try and follow this Three Step Method and see if it prepares you for soloing by Step 3.

Step 1: Play the Roots

Using half notes, play the root of the pentatonic scale through the chord progression, using the appropriate finger that fits the scale (in this instance, it will be finger 1). As simple as it may seem, this first step will solidify your understanding of where your hand should be located on the neck in order to follow the chord progression. (This step may also be done using high roots, located on the high E string).
Bm Em
F#m Em

Step 2: Play the Scales

Using eighth notes, play the pentatonic scales through the chord progression by starting and ending each scale on a root. (This step may also be done by playing from the highest root of each scale, located on the high E string).
E |----------------------------|--------7--10-7-------------|
B |----------------------------|--7--10----------10-7-------|
G |--------------------7--9----|-----------------------9----|
D |--------------7--9----------|----------------------------|
A |--------7--9----------------|----------------------------|
E |--7--10---------------------|----------------------------|

Step 3: Improvise Over the Chord Progression

Try to solo over the chord progression again, now that you are aware of where all necessary scales are located and how to move them around the neck. (The video below gives a sample solo, with scrolling TAB so you can play along).

Now try applying this same method to the following chord progression. Each chord is only 2 measures, so you will need to play less roots and shorten the scale. You can play the scale from a low root to a high root (or high to low) within 2 measures. (The video shows how to apply this, also).
| F | | Bb | | C | | F | |
Remember to use the Three Step Method to prepare yourself:
  • Step 1: Play the Roots
  • Step 2: Play the Scales
  • Step 3: Improvise Over the Chord PROGRESSION
Use the following video to practice all of the different exercises listed above, with scrolling TAB so you can play along. 

YouTube preview picture

About the Author:
By Greg Studley, author of "A Guitarist's Guide to Improvising With Knowledge" and "Speed, Accuracy & Technique for Guitar." You can also download PDF versions of the exercises and play with free jam tracks at

4 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Kudos to the author for such a detailed lesson. However I have to respectfully disagree with the lesson's categoricalness. The thing is that in the past I used to improvise in the minor pentatonic scales adjusting them to the chords in the manner described in this lesson. It really sounded quite "perfect" in terms of harmonic relations between my melodies and the chords. However, such perfection lacked that cool bluesy tension that is created when you simply play the root pentatonic scale across all the three chords. I still sometimes do the scale-switching when I strike for extensive melodiousness. However in most of the cases my current pentatonic solos are based on playing the root scale regardless the chords. This is especially applicable to the fast runs; when it comes to longer notes, I more often choose them from an underlying chord's arpeggio than anything else.
    I almost always improvise/solo staying in all the scales of the key, for example if i'm in C Major key (let'say the chord progression is C Major, G Major, E Minor) i will improvise in C Major scale, D Dorian, E Phrygian and so on. I'm not an advanced player, so is my aproach wrong?
    Your approach is absolutely correct if your goal is to improvise in key (which is quite common for many solos); The discussion in this lesson is on the pentatonic scale which is a 5-note "subset" of the "full" major/minor 7-note scale. The pentatonic scale has many interesting properties that make it so special. One of them is that the "full" minor (Aeolian) scale contains the minor pentatonic scales from its root, subdominant and dominant. The same applies to the "full" major (Ionian) scale and the major pentatonic scales. Hence, if you play pentatonic scale from either root, subdominant or dominant, you always stay in key with the "full" scale.