Improvising With Knowledge: Lesson 5

How would you solo over Gm Cm Eb Bb? The G minor pentatonic scale? How about using 4 scales for 4 chords. It's easier than you think.

Ultimate Guitar
I am Greg Studley, and this is Lesson 5 of Improvising With Knowledge on Ultimate Guitar. These lessons are designed to get you out of your simple method of soloing using a single scale, and into the method of soloing by following the chords.

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 focused on learning how to solo over a major chord progression or a minor chord progression by following the chords and using different scales for each chord, rather than just using a single scale throughout.

Improvising With Knowledge: Lesson 5

In modern music, it is most common to have a combination of both major and minor chords. When creating a great guitar solo, can you still follow the chord progression and play a major/minor pentatonic scale for each chord? The answer is yes. This lesson will be a continuation of Lesson 4, now working with chord progressions that contain a combination of major and minor chords. Like the previous lesson, we will use the Three Step Method for conquering these chord progressions.

For those that did not read through the previous lesson, it should be explained why you would want to follow the chords and play different scales rather than just use the scale of the key you are in.

Here is how I explained it in Lesson 4:

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.

Now, back to Lesson 5.

This lesson will show how my Three Step Method can be used to prepare yourself for following the chords of a chord progression containing both major and minor chords, 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:

First, make sure you have a solid understanding of the following major and minor pentatonic scale shapes, and how to correctly place them on the neck. For each shape, the "R" represents the Root of the scale.

Min Pent E1 (from Lesson 1)
Maj Pent E4 (from Lesson 2)
Let's say you are working with the following chord progression:

| Gm | | Cm | | Eb | | Bb | |

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 minor chord and the major pentatonic scale that fits each major 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

Play through the chord progression 2 times. The first time through the chord progression, play the low roots of each pentatonic scale (on the low E string) as half notes, using the appropriate finger that fits the scale (finger 1 for minor pentatonic scales and finger 4 for major pentatonic scales). The second time through the chord progression, play the high roots (on the high E string). This first step will solidify your understanding of where your hand should be located on the neck in order to follow the chord progression. It is very important to use the correct finger that fits the scale!

Gm Cm Eb Bb
E |----------|----------|----------|----------|----------|----------|----------|
B |----------|----------|----------|----------|----------|----------|----------|
G |----------|----------|----------|----------|----------|----------|----------|
D |----------|----------|----------|----------|----------|----------|----------|
A |----------|----------|----------|----------|----------|----------|----------|
E |--3--3----|--3-------|--8--8----|--8-------|--11-11---|--11------|--6--6----|
Gm Cm Eb

Step 2: Play the Scales

Again, play through the chord progression 2 times. The first time, play the pentatonic scales through the chord progression using eighth notes, and starting each scale on a low root. The second time, start each scale from a high root. Notice that you will not need to move your hand when switching from Cm to Eb. They are relative major/minor pentatonic scales, and therefore have the same notes. They are still considered two different scales, however, because they have different roots. This concept is explained in detail in my book.

From low roots:

E |----------------------------|--------3--6--3-------------|
B |----------------------------|--3--6----------------------|
G |--------------------3--5----|----------------------------|
D |--------------3--5----------|----------------------------|
A |--------3--5----------------|----------------------------|
E |--3--6----------------------|----------------------------|
From high roots:

E |--3-------------------------|----------------------------|
B |-----6--3-------------------|----------------------------|
G |-----------5--3-------------|----------------------------|
D |-----------------5--3-------|----------------------------|
A |-----------------------5----|--3-------------------------|
E |----------------------------|-----6--3--6--3-------------|

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).

Remember to use the Three Step Method to prepare yourself for soloing from now on:
  • 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." All exercises, examples, and solos from these lessons are taken from my book, "A Guitarist's Guide to Improvising With Knowledge." You can also download PDF versions of the exercises and play with free jam tracks at

5 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Well I think this whole concept is nothing nobody ever thought of because I did so myself but then again I've been too lazy to work on it and there's still many other things to learn as I play guitar for only 4 years now... Good that someone spreads the thought
    Interesting, the easiest way would be just to play G minor Scale/Bb Major Scale, if you know the arpeggios inside the scale, you could follow each chord and add the colours of the scale, for instance, the 4th chord of the scale, the Cm, would have a major sixth, i guess that's what we call dorian, not sure of names, or the 6th chord, the Eb major would have an augmented fourth, being lydian. Anyway, does anyone has an odd way to follow all these chords?
    It is true, you can play the G minor scale/Bb major scale throughout and focus on the arpeggios. However, you would need to know different arpeggios shapes available on the neck (which not everyone has learned). As you noted, you could also play the appropriate modes - G aeolian, C dorian, Eb lydian, Bb ionian. Truly, this is the best approach but much more complicated to apply. I advise people to start with the pentatonic scales because there is no chance that they will land on a dissonant note and hold it (which creates a nasty sound). I don't mean a colorful note, but a dissonant one - like holding the A against a Bb major chord. This kind of playing lacks a professional sound where dissonance is used only in appropriate instances and for short periods of time.
    If you want to think in pentatonics, I'm sure this works. But this is basically the same as playing the G minor scale all the time (because that's what it will sound like). Gm pent - G Bb C D F = same notes as Bb pent Cm pent - C Eb F G Bb = same notes as Eb pent Let's combine those and we get G Bb C D Eb F. That's the Gm scale that just lacks the 2nd. But yeah, if it's easier to think in different pentatonic scales, that's OK. The most dissonant notes can also be made sound good by either sliding up or down - they actually add color and make it sound more interesting. For example if you play an Eb against a Gm chord, it may not sound that good, but slide it down one fret and it releases the tension. Just use your ears. If it sounds bad, go one step up or down and you'll hit a better sounding note. Why I prefer thinking in Gm instead of 4 separate scales is because the key stays the same all the time. To me that's way less complicated. Now if we are talking about more complex progressions (that use non-diatonic chords/modulation), it's a different story.