Improvising in Major Keys

This week on the GuitarBlog I discuss some of the ways that players can improve their Major Key improvising through unique practice strategies.

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Andrew Wasson of Creative Guitar Studio answers questions from off of his Guitar Blog website...

Q). I've been working at developing my improvisation skills. One problem I'm having is being able to solo in Major Keys. When I solo in Minor, I can use the Minor Pentatonic, or the Blues scale to play leads. But, when I try and improvise in Major, I feel completely lost with it. I'm starting to feel really depressed over this. Do you have any Major Scale soloing tips you can share?
Parker - Nanaimo, BC. Canada

A). The problem you're experiencing is an extremely common one... I've certainly had many of the students who've been studying improvisation with me go through troubles with the Major Keys when they're first learning to solo. Part of this might have to do with the fact that almost all of the Rock music we're initially exposed to (in our early days of learning how to play guitar), just so happens to be in Minor Keys. This means, when we begin trying to play lead, (in Major), we wind up having issues. Likely due to our predominant exposure to Major Key's. In this lesson, I run down a number of helpful ideas you can apply right away to get your Major Key Improvising up to much better level.

One of my old teachers from G.I.T. (Joe Elliot), introduced me to a concept called, "Chord sandwiches." This involves using the geometrical shape of a common chord as a template for creating melody. Another strategy I discuss is the use of, "Relative Keys." Since every major key has a Relative Minor, (which shares all of the same scale tones), we can use the Relative Scale to create melodies as we develop more skills with the Major Scale Patterns. These are both easy & fun ways to push your major key soloing up to an entirely new level of playing. 


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By Andrew Wasson.

11 comments sorted by best / new / date

    steven seagull
    playing the "relative minor" - one of the most commonly peddled pieces of duff information in guitar circles. It's symptomatic of people getting too wrapped up in the physical and technical aspects of playing the guitar instead of actually listening to what they're doing It was guff 30 years ago when someone first introduced me to the concept, and it's still guff now. Sadly if people say something with enough authority and confidence then it can be easy to convince others that it's correct.
    If the major scale and its relative minor share the same notes, what's the advantage of playing the relative minor instead of the major scale? Don't say "you can use the minor shapes" or "it creates a minor sound". The shapes were available before (same notes) and the sound has not changed (same notes).
    Well apart from runs and fills that you might be more comfortable with in the minor pentatonic shape (I know I am lol), there's other minor options. Only the natural minor scale (aka Aeolian mode) will have the exact same notes as the major scale. The harmonic minor is used pretty often and is just the natural minor with a raised seventh, which can create different tensions and voicings. The melodic minor raises the sixth and the seventh when the scale is ascending, and makes them natural when it's descending so you have a lot of leeway with different tones there.
    The relative "minor pentatonic shape" was always available, it's the same notes. That's cool if you find it easier to play with that shape but there was nothing stopping you before. As for your other suggestions about employing accidentals, this is a way to create a different sound, however in a major key you should think about the accidentals in relation to the major scale as this is how they function and will be heard. So for your examples: Playing the relative minor with a raised 7th = Major scale with a b6. Playing the relative minor with a raised 6th = Major scale with a b5 Using accidentals isn't playing the relative minor though, as you pointed out they are not relative.
    In the video he plays the G# minor pentatonic scale over the chords which are in the key of B major. The important connection to make here is that the G# minor pentatonic and the B major pentatonic are the EXACT SAME SCALE! If you map out those two scales on the fretboard, they have all the same shapes and all the same notes. If you look at the shapes of the major and minor pentatonic, you will realize that they are the same. So it would be more correct to say that he is playing a B major pentatonic scale in the video. He only calls it a G# minor pentatonic because his students are more comfortable thinking of those same shapes as a minor pentatonic. The scale in the video does NOT have a minor sound because it is actually a major scale. And you don't use the minor shapes, you use the major shapes! This same concept is seen in all 7 modes. C Ionian = D Dorian = E Phrygian = F Lydian = G Mixolydian = A Aeolian = B Locrian. All 7 of these scales are identical in every way. The only distinction between them is in their theoretical application. If you were playing in the key of C major, you would play a C Ionian, not a G mixolydian, even though they are identical. I hope that wasn't too confusing...
    If this post is addressed at me, I agree that using these scales in the ways described above is redundant. However there are more valid ways available of using both the modes and minor scales that are not described in your post or the video.
    What does the m next to your username mean? Perhaps you already have an understanding of the idea. From your question I assumed you were confused.