When it comes to lead guitar playing, a common approach is to play the pentatonic scale or the blues scale over a chord progression. This is especially common in blues based music, and it works great. For example, if the song has the chords A7, D7, E7, you can sound great just using the A minor pentatonic scale. This is also true for a minor song, where they chords might be Am7, Dm7, E7, and the A minor pentatonic can be put to great use there too.
However, you can run into some difficulties when songs deviate from those typical I – IV – V progressions we usually find in blues tunes. For example, if your approach is to use the minor pentatonic over a song like “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” for example, you’ll likely find that it’s hard to make it work well. Granted, with some experience and skill, it will be possible to sound great with that approach, but it’s not easy. Luckily, there is another way.
Melodic soloing, in my view, means having the skill and fretboard knowledge for finding chord tones without hesitation, as the chords go by. At the core of this idea is highlighting the root, third and fifth from the chord, in musically attractive ways. These are the first three notes that make up the chord (there can be more notes, depending on what the chord is), so when we make these stand out in our solos, it’s going to sound as though they fit like hand in glove – because they do!
Obviously, it’s not enough to just play three notes for each chord, as we are playing a solo. We need more than that. By using the associated scale to find other notes for approaching and tying together these chord tones, we get what we need. In this example, as well as in much of popular music, that is the major scale. Additionally, I can also assure you that this approach also works great in combination with the pentatonic concept, so we can still play our favorite blues licks.
Let’s take a look at an example solo and relate the licks to the chord tones. I have indicated the intervals in the neck diagram, so you can easily see where the root, 3rd and 5th intervals are. You can view this solo on YouTube. It’s a very melodic sounding solo, and it’s all because I’m constantly emphasizing the chord tones for each chord.
Here’s a backing track for the C Melodic Example:
All the chords come from the key of C major, and chord progression goes like this:
C | G | Dm | F
Am | G | Em | F
For the first chord, C major, I’m playing this lick. Let’s ignore the last two notes in this bar, since they are pick-up notes for the next lick. There’s only one note of the first six that isn’t a chord note, the 2nd, and it’s used as a passing note to go from root note to major 3rd. No wonder these notes fit so well here. You will notice that the last note of the lick is C, and ends on a downbeat. Playing chord tones on downbeats makes for a very strong statement, and that approach is quite apparent in this solo.Lick 2
For the 2nd chord, G major, I start with two pick-up notes at the end of bar 1, going from C to D to B, which is the major 3rd for the G chord. The note B comes on beat 1 of bar 2. This is a strong little melodic statement in itself, because the notes are not far apart, and the B note comes on a downbeat. From there, I play a G major triad, but with one extra note, C. The reason I do that is because I want the last note in the lick (B), to come on a downbeat, and I’m approaching that last chord tone from a half-step above. I’m also playing triplets here, as a way to make a more interesting rhythmic phrase. Study the first five notes that happen on the G chord, and you can see that they are all chord tones, except for that passing note C (p4). The next note in this measure is a pick-up note for the next lick, which happens of the A minor chord. Therefore, we can view that note as belonging to the next chord.From here, I suggest you analyze the rest of the solo in this manner. Doing so will help in you in more than one way:
- You will improve your fretboard knowledge of where the chord tones are for these chords.
- You will improve your ability to hear these chord tones, since you will listen over and over to the solo. Over time, you will be able to instantly recognize when the notes from a triad are used in a solo.
- You will improve your ability to improvise melodic solos.
Keep in mind that you should vary your rhythmic phrases, length of notes, and how fast the notes go by. As you listen to the full solo, you will doubtlessly notice that I’m playing a standard pentatonic blues lick over the E minor chord, and it sounds just so right. This means we can for sure combine more obvious chord-tone lines with standard blues licks! Well executed blues licks can fit in almost everywhere, but playing only blues licks over a chord progression like this can sound a bit boring. By combining more than one approach to soloing, such as chord tone licks, scale sequence runs, blues licks, long notes, short notes, for example, we draw the listener in, and we’ll sound more interesting in the process. It will also likely be more fun for you as a player!