Learning to solo is a primary practice goal for all guitarists. It takes time, so we begin immediately. While learning to solo, we use parallel paths. One is to just do whatever comes to us…no maps. The other is to use frameworks and strategies, as described below, even though we can’t think our way into knowing how to do this; it must be experienced. Over time, like everything it evolves.
Our overall goal is to be melodic; to solo without boundaries; to enter the jam space – non-reference, lost, playing dumb, or however we describe it. Yet, by setting boundaries [limits], we start to learn how tonal content works together.
At the base level, we should be able to figure out melodies. And, we get comfortable with improvising [make up melodies on the spot, in the now]. This is possible through the development of melodic self & sensibilities [a lifetime quest].
One important idea for soloing is phrasing. A phrase is a melodic statement. It can be short or long. It has a shape and meaning. Often, we think in terms of question/answer [antecedent/consequent]. We say or ask a melodic question, then answer it with another melodic line.
Phrases can be comprised of what are called motives or motifs. Motives are melodic fragments or cells, which can be combined, mixed, inverted, etc. to create longer phrases. A famous motive is Beethoven’s “da-da-da-daaaaa” from Symphony No. 5. This whole symphony is unified by this one motive.
Playing others’ solos is an option, and we recommend learning at least one [Crazy Train is a good one for electric, Man Who Stole the World by Bowie, Nirvana version].
Our idea is to train beyond what it takes to play any solo that you have your sights on. When we do the work, for long enough, with quality, much of what we hear falls into the hands. We begin & continually deepen our melodic self development.
As you know, improvising is making up music on the spot. We aren’t working from a script, rather from experience and internal resources [inner hearing, singing, inspiration, visuals]. Improvising (single tone soloing and chord progression creation) is a primary practice piece for all guitarists, no matter what level or age.
For both of these paths [learning existing solos/learning to improvise], we train. When we train beyond what it takes to play a particular solo, the solo falls into the hands with relative ease. And, the same for our own solos…we can only play within our existing limits [leaps happen however!]. With focused training, we expand that boundary. Our goal with improvising is to ‘forget’ our hands [‘play dumb’], and just sing through the instrument.
When soloing, we have choices. Each of us chooses our approach [just playing by ear, using scale maps, thinking in chords/arp, etc.]. And, we choose our tone sets [scales, modes]. Playing over a chord progression comes down to knowing how tones work over certain chords [our ear also tells us this, whether we know what we are playing by name].
No ‘Wrong’ Tones
The typical saying is ‘wrong note’, but we are swapping note out, for tone. A tone is a sounding pitch. A note is a written symbol.
There really isn’t such a thing such as ‘wrong tones’, just wrong emphasis [beat placement/duration].
In any given situation, every tone can work in some way. So, when we say ‘wrong note’, we really are saying ‘wrong emphasis’. Some tones are passing tones [we pass through to get to emphasis or landing tone – emphasis/landing mean that we are targeting these tones on the beat or for longer durations]. Some are approach tones [typically a half step below an emphasis tone – we slide from an approach tone into an emphasis tone]. If we were to over-emphasize a passing or approach tone, it can sound ‘wrong’.
The main tones which sound good all the time for a sounding chord are tones which are inside the chord [such as the root, 3rd, 5th, etc.]. Tones which are outside the chord can add color or tension [sometimes to the point of ‘wrong’ if not resolved]. Some need quick resolution [they are dissonant and want to go somewhere, now!]. Other tones, such as the 9, might not be in the chord, but it can add color, and sits well in the chord. The 9 is typically always a good emphasis tone.
We can’t think our way into knowing how to solo [though we can create frameworks – strategies]. We must experiment. And, for years.
We simply experiment with the sonic impressions that tones produce over sounding harmonies. Over time, our knowledge and experience leads us to use this information in ways that are congruent with who each of us are as soloers. This is experiential exploration.
Against a Drone
A good place to start and to get a sense for how things work is to play against a drone. The drone is common and explored extensively and commandingly in Eastern music [e.g. East Indian music].
Another simple way to solo is to use a single chord. We can experiment with different tone/scales/mode by soloing over single chords. As with a drone, this gives us the opportunity to try any type of scale that fits the chord. We don’t have to go the long way to figuring out more ‘advanced’ scales. They are accessible at the start.
A chord symbol is also a scale symbol. When we see a chord symbol, we interpret and realize it as a chord and a scale [and the plural – chords and scales]. Just as a chord can be voiced or expanded based on its symbol and context, the scale or scales that can be played over that chord is based upon what lives inside the chord.
Over the C chord, play any scale which has a C-E-G in it. And, for Cm, play any scale which has C-Eb-G in it.
In Western music there are very few one chord songs [Row Your Boat, Are You Sleeping? for kids].
Make One Scale Choice
One of the easiest ways to solo is to make one scale choice. When we know all the chords that we are seeing and hearing are in the same key, we use that key’s tonal content to explore melody. We make one scale choice. In this next track, we play C-Dm-Em-F-G-Am-G7-C 5 times. This is from the Chords in C Major lesson. Use the C Major or C Major Pentatonic scale to explore melody.
The chords are changing, but when you are playing the key of C Major [the key which all of the chords are in], everything works out well, though there can be dissonant moments.
A subset of this is to think of each chord individually. We are still making one scale choice, C Major, but we think about it different. Different meaning that we are thinking of the scale having different ‘starting points’. When on Dm, we think of the C Major scale as a D type thing. This D type thing, we learn, has a name…D Dorian. It’s the 2nd mode of C Major. One scale choice, thinking differently.
Progression in the Same Key – Still One Scale Choice
Next is a chord progression where all of the chords are in the same key [by learning chord scales, we know what these are]. When we solo over a progression with all the chords in the same key, the modes [scale impressions] happen automatically [though we can approach each chord individually].
For this four chord progression, we can make one scale choice…C Major. The modes happen automatically. When the chord changes, the modes change without us having to mentally shift to a new or different tone set. What this means is that harmony ultimately determines how single tones sound within a sonic moment.
We can also approach each chord individually. Even though we can still use the modes found in C Major, we are thinking about each chord on their own. We don’t have to use modes from C Major over the chords [go outside the tone set], but this idea of approaching each chord on its own [starting with modes in the same key] is how we move into more advanced soloing.
More advanced soloing includes progressions which contain a chord or chords which aren’t in the same key. In this situation, it is essential to know what scale types fit with which chords. In this instance, the most advanced way to solo is to approach each and every chord in a progression as a single entity.
Above, since E Major isn’t in the key of C, while Dm, F, & G are, we have to think about E Major differently. We can take each chord individually or just play in C Major, except for the E. A good choice for the E chord in this situation is E Spanish Gypsy.
These are the basic ideas for matching up scale types with chords.
There are many ways to think about all of this. The idea is to simply start. Start soloing, improvising. Sing it out.