Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Chord tone soloing - an exercise

One of the hardest things with learning to hit chord tones while soloing, is trying to do the mental multitasking it requires. At first, keeping track of which chord comes next in your mind - while you "relax" and solo - feels damn near impossible.... But it really isn't. It just is for you right now!

Do you remember the first time you rode a bicycle? You likely wobbled down the street, eventually gaining stability, then you get it BOOM! Before long, its tough to remember why you struggled with this in the first place. The same holds true of learning anything new. It takes a bit of doing but once your mind latches on, these tasks become almost second nature.

One of the hurdles we have to overcome in this day and age is there seems to be a real tangible fear of doing anything badly. Which is nonsense. Let me help liberate you on this - EVERYBODY who is good at anything, once sucked at it. Embrace sucking, learn to laugh at it, expect it. Because it is part of the road. A BIG part of it.

OK, so how do we get there then?

Leverage what you know
A great exercise to begin with is take a song that you know really well. Preferably a campfire style chord strummer and make sure you know the chord changes inside and out and can say them out loud. Now, pick an area on the neck and learn the arpeggios of these chords in this position. Play the song, but instead of strumming the chords, simply walk through the arpeggios, playing each chord change as a single note line.

IMPORTANT - Turn on a metronome, or tap your foot - something, ANYTHING giving you time. Force yourself to really nail the change on the click. The click is important to the process because it makes you accountable. You can't fudge this, either you are on it or you are NOT.

Once you are good with that now begin to improvise melodies using ONLY chord tones. At this stage, your only allowed pool of notes over each chord are the ones in the chords themselves. Try to create motifs and alter them accordingly as the change happens.

Once you have this DOWN in this one area of the neck, do the same thing in another area. Do not move forward until you have each area really owned. THEN and only THEN combine the areas - eventually spanning the whole neck.

Sounds kind of drab? How do we spice it up?
Turn each of the chords into scales... So if you are playing over a minor chord, use its minor scale (preferably Dorian!) using the arpeggio as its skeleton - these are your strongest resolve points. Same process if you are playing over a Major chord - use it's major scale.

Now do the same drill, but this time change the entire scale ON the chord change. Try to hit one of the chord tones of the new chord in your melody with each new change. The key here is developing awareness of the impending change. It forces you to do some pre-planning as you play, which is EXACTLY the exercise here.

Man, I sucked at that!
Yes you did! And you will for a bit. But that's OK. As I said above, learn to expect and embrace being bad. Notice the minute improvements as you go along. These are small victories. The reaching of these micro goals are steps toward reaching the macro goal of owning this technique. So be proud of each one you hit. How your think of your progress is a big part of succeeding.

Moving on
Now, try this approach with other songs you know really well first.

I should say that an immense help to this process is something that will generate a loop for you to play over. Using a looper pedal is a massive help. In my opinion, every guitarist should own one of these pedals. There are also software packages like "Band-in-a-Box" where you can input a chord change and it will generate the accompaniment for you. There are also some inexpensive iPhone based apps like ChordBot which do the same type of thing. I would highly recommend researching and purchasing something like this.

With some hardware or software at your disposal, the next steps would be to input some random chords. Diatonic - or of the key - first, eventually moving to completely unrelated or non-diatonic chords. Remember the chords can be anything really as the exercise here is doing the mental multi-tasking of getting ready for the change, knowing when it is and getting to the nearest chord tone in a musical way.

Jazz it up
Another fun thing to do is to get a jazz fake book. Open it up to a song with some chords you feel OK with and work with these changes. This is really helpful as it will also help develop your chord chops. Inevitably there will be some chords in there that you don't know well. Which forces you to learn not only it, but it's arpeggio as well, in more than one area of the neck.

The main thing with anything you do is to have fun with it. So get creative. If it's not fun then make it so or simply dump it and move on. If you do a little bit of this each day it will oneday click. Once you get good at this it can be really fun and addictive. It becomes a little mental puzzle for you to work through. When you go back to playing the one-key based structure that most popular music follows you will be surprised how easy it is. Soon you begin to HEAR the changes... no thinking required. This is when the real music begins to happen. Before long - like your bicycle - you will wonder why you weren't able to do this all along.


  1. stupid question probably but... why do you recommend dorian over aeolian? I haven't explored the various modes yet but aeolian just seems easily translatable when going from the major to its relative minor

  2. Not a stupid question at all. Especially with the Aeolian being the true natural minor it stands to reason that that would be choice 1a. The thing here lies in the b6 of the aeolian mode. The Dorian is essentially the same - except the b6 becomes an unaltered 6th. Which is a bit of a sweeter sounding note. The Dorian is the most commonly used mode over a minor chord. Similar to the Lydian (with its adjusted - sharpened 4th) over the Ionian mode for major chords.

    The real 'secret' to understanding this stuff rally lives in your ears. Play a minor chord with a looper and play the Aeolian mode... Then play the Dorian... which sounds better to you? Use that one! But when you are playing other people's lines, it is helpful to know that most will treat it as Dorian.

    Hope that helps

  3. Okay I'm sorry I'm kind of new at this but I'm trying to adopt an overall framework which I will explain and if you don't mind I want you to tell me if this is a good thought process or bad. You will see why my question about the mode preference makes sense I think and I may very well just be thinking about it incorrectly but here goes... Let's just say I'm jamming along in the key of C... I try to envision the entire C major scale of the fretboard and based off of that I try to figure out which chord shapes I can play at what positions (E major bar at fret 8 , E minor bar at fret 5, etc.) and which collection of notes I can use to solo (either by just going off and playing whatever notes I'm feeling within that C major scale that I've laid out in my mind or by trying to target chord tones based off of the progression which I need help with also)... Using this approach (not necessarily paying attention to logical chord progressions in this instance), I can play an E major barre at fret 8 for a C major chord, an E minor shape and A minor shape at fret 5 to play A minor and Dminor chords which fit into the harmonized major scale... the trouble comes when soloing... at fret 5 using these barre shapes, playing over the Aminor and Dminor requires the use of different scale shapes to play both in Dorian... I know this is obvious since the root note is in different locations depending on the mode and the associated scale shapes but how do I need to think about this... Do I lay the whole major scale out and play those notes or when soloing over the A minor and D minor in this example do I need to change the scale shape so that the shape used is in the Dorian mode with respect to each root? It seems as if that would add notes that would not be in the parent key... I tend to over think things so I apologize if I have asked too much but any help would be greatly appreciated

  4. There are many different ways to approach a solo... your method works in a general sense (playing the parent scale over all chords). But the thing is, as each chord changes the focus note moves... If you are playing a Dmin on the key of C the focus is now D - not C... so certain notes of the parent C Major scale will work better now... others worse. So using this approach you really need a developed ear to navigate this properly. Most players don't... so they are really just throwing darts and hoping to hit something. Usually relying on fingering patterns or canned licks the whole time.

    To play melodically, following the chords along in your mind is a massive help. You don't necessarily need to switch to a Dorian sound over every minor chord per se... but you need to switch to the new focus note to enhance the chord change.

    So in the key of C - sure a Cmajor scale works over all chords... But if you stand on a C note as the chord changes to a G you are gonna have some grimaces from your band mates and audience.

    Work towards understanding the modal shapes associated with each chord of the key as a first step. Practice switching 'mode' while the progression moves - but don't shift to a new fingering position. Do the same thing with arpeggios for each chord. Play some songs you know the progression to well, using these ideas instead of playing the chords. You will teach your ears the sounds too.

    There are stages to this: in the early stages it's good to group things together under one scale form to make it easier to memorize. But once you have done this the next step is to start treating and respecting each chord as it goes by (unless they are flying past). As you progress you will need to unlearn earlier things - this is all part of the process my friend. Every great player had to deal with these stages so don't let it intimidate or frustrate you. Just stay the course and keep on doing. Just like the first time you tried to play that F chord it seemed impossible - and it is now as easy as breathing - this will get that way too. But not if you dodge the work.

    Does this help?