By Antony Reynaert
Thinking back to the time when I first improvised with the pentatonic scale over blues backing tracks I can still recall how amazing that was. But after that initial excitement my progress stagnated again.
Every guitar player experiences a phase in which he feels his guitar soloing does not improve anymore. How come we all go through that phase? Here you will get an answer to that question and you will learn about the possibilities to keep improving and create melodically great blues guitar solos.
Are You Having Trouble To Keep Making Progress?
Almost every medium level guitar player only uses the pentatonic scale to improvise over a dominant blues progression. Moreover, they even use this one scale to play over the different chords in the progression. That’s why their lead playing sound quite repetitive and boring after a while. Those players do not know at all how they could progress their lead playing.
Those who can’t break free from this phase do not realize their approach to soloing is quite simplistic and is only one of the many aspects of blues lead playing. Don’t get me wrong, you can actually use this approach if you want, but this approach is very limited and should be used as an educated choice rather than a limitation.
In a nutshell, using the minor pentatonic scale throughout the whole blues progression is only the very beginning of blues soloing. So many guitar players do this, but they all come to a certain point when they stop improving.
The Tools You Need To Get Out Of The Minor Pentatonic Scale Rut
There are quite a few approaches to free yourself from this rut. A very efficient one is what we call Chord Tone Targetting. The really good blues players spell out the chords by applying different scales. In contrast, unexperienced guitar players limit themselves to playing one scale throughout the whole blues chord progression. Chord tone targetting assures that your blues solos will improve.
The Basics Of Chord Tone Targetting
Chord tone targetting probably comes across as something quite complex if you have never heard about it before. Nevertheless, it is actually not so hard to apply it to your guitar playing. In fact, chord tone targetting gives you a different vision to be able to free yourself from the pentatonic scale in box position. After you will have trained it for a while, you will see it is actually not hard at all.
In this video you can see me play a guitar solo where the licks/scales I use perfectly fit the chords I am playing over:
You will want to have some benchmarks in order to spell out the different chords in your solos. If you are able to do that, your solos will noticeably sound better. We are not going to end our licks on a single note, but we are going to end our lick with a doublestop (i.e. two notes ringing out at the same time). Those doublestops are taken from the chords in the progression. The purpose is to play the best notes at an optimal moment in the chord progression. This approach not only contributes to the melodic aspect of your solos, it will also change the way you experience music theory (from a practical point of view).
For example, we are in the key of A, so the notes in the doublestopes you can see underneath (on the right) are both notes that are taken from the chords (on the left) of a blues chord progression in the key of A.
The order of the chords from top to bottom are A7, D7 and E7.
If you don’t know how a 12 bar blues progression in A is built, you can see the chords outlined below:
A7 A7 A7 A7
D7 D7 A7 A7
E7 D7 A7 A7
These are the same chords, we took the doublestops from. From these chords we took the major third (the orange circle with the number 3) in it and we took de flat seven (the blue circle with b7 written in it). These two notes are the most significant ones of the chords. If you apply this technique at a good moment, you will be able to play captivating solos.
Play Like A Great Blues Guitarist By Realizing Which Notes To Hit
I like to call the notes we target ‘roadmaps, because we can use them to bust out of the pentatonic scale. In the illustration of the scale you can see underneath is expanded the A minor pentatonic, because we added the major third and the flat seven of the A7 chord.
So you could name this scale the ‘A7 chord roadmap’. You are probably eager to start experimenting with this, that is why we’ll turn this in an exercise and a lick in just a second.
A7 Chord Roadmap
The following scale is also the A minor pentatonic, but we take the D7 chord’s two most significant notes to bust out with.
D7 Chord Roadmap
Yet again the same A minor pentatonic scale underneath, but with the two most significant notes of the E7 chord.
E7 Chord Roadmap
Usefull Illustration Of The Approach
These are some illustrations of how to incorporate this technique in your blues solos. Underneath there is a lick that you could play perfectly over the D7 chord.
The notes we end this lick with are:
Look closely to the notes we end the lick with. It’s a double stop that consists of the F# and the C note. Do you understand the relationship of both notes with the D7 chord? You can clearly see the relationship in the illustration below.
So what have we done? We simply took the major third and the flat seven of the D7 chord to end our lick with. That’s the reason it sounds perfectly over the D7 chord. Chord tone targetting does actually mean that we pick the perfect sounding notes and use them at an optimal moment in a chord progression. As I have mentioned before, this technique is not that difficult to apply, because the chords are used as visual benchmarks to visualize the chord tones.
It would be a very good practice to play along with a backing track, but add the major third and flat seven of the chords to make your solos sound more professional. Check out the roadmaps I have shown you in the article and notice that they are simply the minor pentatonic box position with the major third and flat seven of the chords added.
However, there is one tricky thing. If chord tone targetting is completely new to you, it will be a bit challenging in the beginning to be aware which chord in the chord progression is being played. That’s why you should be able to do one thing:
You should always be conscious of where you are in the chord progression so you know over which chord you are soloing.
It might take a while to develop this consciousness, so make sure this skill is well-developed in order to apply chord tone targetting in the best possible way.
About The Author
Antony Reynaert is a blues guitar instructor from Belgium and teaches locally as well as online through his online blues guitar lessons.