An Easy Approach to Soloing

Understanding the difference between tonal and modal music and adapting one's approach to soloing according to it.

Ultimate Guitar
Foreword: this is a somewhat of a duplicate of a post I shared on Reddit.

1. Background

Way too often, someone will ask on a guitar forum the following question "here, a friend played this chord progression, what scales do I need to solo on top of it" and soon enough have some people succeeded at confusing the poor guy with advice along the lines of "learn the modes" "play F Neophrygian, followed by C flat Ultralocrian, that should work on top of that E major chord."

What few remember to mention is the fine difference between soloing on top of a tonal and a modal chord progression. I recently came across a situation wherein a guy, asking which scales to play on top of a chord progression more or less like this:

Dmaj - Amaj - Bmin - Gmaj

He was told by several forum members to play D Ionian, A Myxolydian, B Aeolian and G Lydian. Instead of simply telling him to play melodies in the key of D major, which, when properly thought out and structured, would fit perfectly those chords. This is the reason why I write this today, so that you know how to easily solo on top of pretty much any chord progression.

2. Applied theory

Consider, for instance, the following chords:

|| Emin / Fmaj Dmin || (repeat)

The progression is quite unlikely in the key of E minor, as the two last chords imply. It is a modal chord progression that clearly calls for a modal soloing approach. You can approach the solo in different ways:
  • You can play E Phrygian on the first, and F Lydian, D Dorian on the second two;
  • Or E Dorian on the first chord, and F Mixolydian for other two;
  • Or E minor pentatonic on the first, A minor pentatonic on the second one, D Dorian mode.
In case the Emin becomes an Emaj, then E harmonic minor on the first, an A Aeolian on the second, and D Dorian on the third. Or E Phrygian dominant and A blues minor pentatonic.

Or simply E Phrygian for everything.

The problem with modal chord progressions is that they seem to demand a modal approach to soloing, something that is not always the case, as you may use other scales to solo on top of a modal progression. Consider for example the following chord progression:

|| E7 Fmaj7 Dmin7 ||

The E dominant seventh chord offers a vast amount of melodic possibilities, and the fact that we're working with tetrads allows for lots of melodic diversity. You need not use and abuse the Phrygian dominant mode on the first chord. You may use the Gypsy scale, the Hungarian scale, or the Neapolitan scale. Do not be afraid to try out some chromaticism to connect the chords, either. For the Fmaj7 chord, try out some Japanese pentatonic scales, which have a Lydian feel to them. For the Dmin7 chord, you can use the Dorian mode, or D minor pentatonic, or D blues pentatonic or even the Romanian scale. The final result will have much more colour than if you had used Phrygian dominant, Lydian and Dorian all along.

Tonal music is less of a challenge, as far as improvisation goes. Consider a simple chord progression like this:

|| Emin / Cmaj Dmaj || (repeat)

In this case, scales such as the E minor pentatonic, or the E blues scale or simply E minor natural (E Aeolian) will do the job. There is, however, an even easier approach to get started with soloing, specially when confronted with tonal chord progressions: simply stick to playing melodies in the tonality or harmonic frame implied by the chord progression!

For the first chord progression, it's all about playing a melody in the key of A minor, with a defined focus on E, as it is the centre of the chord progression. Similarly, for the second example, you should improvise melodies in the key of E minor, with a defined focus on E, and referencing the notes that make up the chords.

It's really that simple.

3. Closure

Using modes is thus only truly called for when soloing on modal chord progressions, and even then, you can totally get away with using scales that sound more interesting than the regular church modes. All you should care about is staying within the tonal frame implied by the chord and the tonality implied by the chord progression, and sometimes even going beyond that, by playing the "wrong" notes on purpose.

I hope this lesson will somewhat help you find ways to improve your improvisations and open new perspectives to you as a musician.

About the Author:
By Miguel Marquez. Feel free to check out my videos and my music on YouTube and/or to ask questions through Facebook.

3 comments sorted by best / new / date

    It makes sense but you have no reference to teach someone you need more explanation at an easier level to understand. Note your use of exotic scales, its great that u mentiond what feel they have and sound in relation to texture but you dont say why