Chords are scales are chords. Learn them together.
Updated: Mar 24
For years when learning to play guitar, I had the same problem. I learned chord shapes and chords for songs. Then I learned scales. I mean I really practiced lots of guitar scales. And then I tried to use those scales to play solos over some songs.
And that's where the trouble hit. I had no idea how to apply my scales knowledge to create memorable lines.
Good if the whole song was in one key, I could at least figure out which scale to use and play with that. But what if it wasn't? What to play over that B7 that pops up, when the rest of the song is in G Major? Then even when I figured it out, my lead lines sounded... scalular? Did I have... scalulitis? Well as it turns out, it doesn't have to be this way.
In this guitar lesson I'll show you how to learn to improvise over chord changes without having to think of keys and scales (well not in real time...), and how to combine chords, scales and arpeggios in your playing.
This will also let you play more meaningful lines and remember your lines better.
Grab your guitar and strap in.
We'll learn to play over a Blues progression in G, with 2 different chord and scale shapes. Later you'll be able to use this approach for other chords and scales.
1. A Bit of Music Theory
All the chords that the basic 12-bar blues uses are Dominant 7th chords. We'll have to figure out a scale that we want to be playing with this type of chord.
Let's take the most common: Mixolydian. So for a G7 chord, we'll use the G Mixolydian mode, which corresponds to the C Major scale (Mixolydian is the 5th mode of the Major scale, so what scale is G the 5th of?). For every chord, we'll use its own Mixolydian mode. We can go and figure out which parent scale it is for every one of them. But we won't actually have to do it in order to be able to play.
2. First Chord-Scale Shape
Let's use an "E" Shape Barre chord for G.
Now we need to find a shape of our selected scale (C Major) that is in the same place on the neck as this G chord. For that, let's first find the C notes in this area.
What scale shapes for C major do we have around these notes? One option would be the "A" shape from CAGED. Here it is.
Now let's see how the G chord diagram from above looks overlapping this C Major scale shape.
Ok, now we have our G chord shape filled out with the notes of C Major / G Mixolydian. Great!
It's time to practice. We'll alternate between playing the chord and the scale. The idea here is to really remember them together. When playing the scale, try to see the chord tones. When playing the chord, try to see the scale notes around it.
Now let's add the G7 Arpeggio into the mix. Arpeggios are a powerful tool to navigate chords as single note lines, and it really pays to see them as part of the same picture as chords and scales.
Let's play around with that for a bit, combining the Chord, scale, and Arpeggio.
Now it's your turn.
Here's the backing track. If you can, try to begin and end your scale runs on notes from the chord.
3. Let's learn a lick
Here's a simple blues lick.
And how it sounds.
Have you noticed how it fits to our chord-scale shape?
Now let's give it the same treatment as before: alternate between playing the chord, the scale, the arpeggio and the lick. The key here is to remember the lick in context of the chord shape, as we did with everything else.
Give it a go.
When you've practiced that for a while, you can start playing the same things over any E Shape barre Dominant chord.
Here's a demo playing G, A, B, C, and D.
Zero thinking about scales and keys and which key to play over what chord went into that.
4. The Blues
For now, we'll stick with what we've learned already, and just move the same shape up the neck.
The chords for a blues in G are G, C, D; so these are what we'll use
Let's put on our Blues backing track and play our stuff over it. Let me demonstrate.
Don't worry if that's too hard for you right now. You can go and practice every chord separately first. Don't worry about the key signature and scale names that you're playing, just move the shapes around.
Don't worry about connecting the lines for now, it's completely fine if each line outlining a chord is separate from the next.
Now when you're comfortable, give it a go yourself.
5. Let's add more shapes
Congratulations! You can now solo over a blues progression.
Now this isn’t very impressive just yet - you have to do big jumps every time you switch chords. What you really want is to be able to play smoothly in the same area.
If only you had more chord shapes that you could play. Enter the G Major "A" Shape barre chord.
Then we'll figure out which shape of C Major fits over that, using the same process as first time (It's the "D" shape).
...and over the chord...
Same with the fingering for the G7 Arpeggio inside of this shape.
We could then take the licks that we've learned for the E shape and see how THEY fit.
Practice all of that together. Again with the aim of being able to "see" all of what we practiced around the chord shape itself.
Let's try it with a backing track too.
Now, having learned this new shape together with the chord, we can apply it to our blues. There are 2 ways we could fit all of the chords in the same area using these 2 shapes.
This also gives us 2 areas to solo in :)
Here's how it can look playing the blues in both areas.
Are you ready to give it a try too?
Hopefully this has been helpful.
I truly believe that this way of practicing lets us understand some music fundamentals.
Where to go from here?
Whenever you learn a chord, find a scale shape to associate to it and learn that shape together with the chord. It will "fill out" the chord and arpeggio sound and give you options. Later on you might want to learn more than one.
Whenever you learn a scale or a scale shape, find a chord (or chords) that you would like to use that with, and learn it together with those chord shapes so that you can actually use the scale.
When you learn new material (triads, chord voicings, arpeggios, licks, scale patterns…), try to relate it to the chords first and foremost, and to their related scale positions. This way you'll recall it later when playing the same chord shape, regardless of whether you know the song or key or progression.
Learn the numbers of the chords very well. These little 1 3 5 7 things are really your anchor points that you’ll use everywhere later.
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