How To Solo Guitar: Scale Choice Confusion?

Today I am going to talk some more about improvisation, specifically melodic improvisation: `soloing’ or `lead playing’ as some call it. Sorry jazz people, I am going to disappoint you and focus on songs that stay in a single key. In particular, I want to reach those people who have only recently started exploring improvisation.

How To Solo GuitarThe trouble most players have when they start out is figuring out which scale to play with which song. How do you know which one sounds good against which sequence of chords?

The usual answer that more experienced people give is that you should play a minor scale over minor chord progressions, and a major scale of major chord progressions. While theoretically sound advice, I think this just adds to the confusion and it certainly doesn’t always hold true.

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Those scales again

If you’re just starting out with improvisation you will probably have learnt a few basic scales and modes. I am a big proponent of the idea that you should start off knowing just the minor and major pentatonic scales. At this stage, simplicity is key — you do not want to overload your mind with a whole range of different scales and modes to choose from.

Let me rephrase that slightly. There is nothing wrong with learning a whole lot of scales when you are just starting out. But when it comes to improvising, you should forget all of them except the major and minor pentatonic scales — just for now. You can view many other scales and modes as extensions to the pentatonic scale, later on.

Let me emphasise that this will not restrict your ability to improvise nearly half as much as you think it will. The pentatonic scale may consist of only five notes, but you can play an infinite number of interesting melodies with these. Remember it’s not about which notes you play, it’s about how you play them. A lot of the great guitarists have done great stuff using just the pentatonic scale.

So now that we’ve narrowed our choice of scale down to just two, things suddenly look a lot simpler. Luck has it that for most songs either (or sometimes both) of these scales will fit the chords of the song perfectly. All you have to do is figure out the key of the song — which is usually the root of the very first chord and/or the very last chord of the song — and then pick either the minor or major pentatonic scale and play it in the correct key.

Still not sure which one to pick?

Try both of them and see which works! After a while you will get a feel for which scale to use when. Not long from now you will be able to instantly know which scale to play when you hear a song.

Sometimes, both scales work. In fact, if you have a song over which the major scale works, chances are that the minor scale will also work. You will find that this minor scale will add a bluesy somewhat rebellious (and liberating!) feel to your solo. Many players use this trick. I recommend you do the same.

Got a question? Comment?

If you’re stuck somehow and need some help, or if you have something else to say, write a comment at the bottom of the page. I — or perhaps another reader — will be able to help you.