Soloing Over Chord Changes

Welcome back to my column. You may or may not be glad to know that we’re completely changing topic for the next kw issues, moving away from chordal and harmony ideas, into the techniques and concepts involved whilst playing over chord changes. This is a huge topic that takes years of dedicated practice to master but some fairly basic ideas can go a long way, so well be dealing with some basic information first before moving onto more complex ideas in later article.


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For this session well be dealing almost exclusively with diatonic progressions, meaning chord progressions that are composed using the notes of a single key or scale. In later issues well deal with non-diatonic and modal progressions and the techniques required for playing over more complex chordal structures.

Before we really dive in, let me outline some bask assumptions that I’m making about your knowledge. I’m going to assume that you already know basic chordal harmony and understand the intervallic structure of triads and 7″1 chords. If you don’t know or understand chord construction or basic intervals then this lesson may be too advanced for you at this stage, in which case, don’t worry, you just need to go and read-up on basic harmony and chord construction from any music theory book or online lesson. There are some perfect examples on the Lick Library site for example. Just in case you’ve forgotten this basic information, here’s the intervallic structure of the most common chord types you’ll encounter.

Major Triad — Root, Maj3rd, Perfect 5″

Minor Triad — Root, Min3rd, Perfect 5″

Diminished Triad — Root, Min3rd, b5th

Augmented Triad — Root, Maj3rd, #5″

Major 7″ Chord — Root, Maj3rd, Perfect 5″, Maj7th

Dominant 7″ Chord — Root, Maj3rd, Perfect 5″, Min7th

Minor 7′ Chord — Root, Min3rd, Perfect 5″, Min7th

Minor 7b5 Chord — Root, Min3rd, b5th, Min7th

If you’re not familiar with this information then you need t0 learn this first before moving on. For this session were going to be dealing with major scale harmony and specifically a chord progression in the key of C. What people tend to do when soloing over tunes in a particular key is to find the relative minor (built from the 66 degree or note in the major scale) and solo using a minor pentatonic scale from that root note. In the key of C major this would yield and Am pentatonic scale. A quick way to find this relative minor pentatonic scale is to find the tonic note or I” degree of the key that you’re in on the freeboard and then go back 3 frets on the same string. From C at the WI fret of the E string for example, if we go back three frets we arrive at the 5”’ fret, A.

Using the relative minor sounds great but won’t outline the sound of the chord progression you’re playing over and as a soloist you want to be able to hear the chord changes in your solo, even if the band aren’t playing any chords behind you. We need another system for outlining the sound of each chord when we play and most people do this by using the chord tones of each chord arranged as an arpeggio.


The problem with arpeggios is that most people learn them as a specific shape on the instrument and when it comes to improvising or writing a solo they’ll just run up and down that shape, finding it hard to be musical. If you teach your brain a large arpeggio shape then your brain will always take the easiest route through that information and you’ll find it hard to manipulate the notes in any meaningful way. If we break each chord down into its constituent intervals and look at how those intervals relate visually to the root note of the chord then we can build up smaller, more manageable and malleable pieces of information that will allow us to improvise or write more freely.

Let’s take the progression C, G, Am and F. Each of those triads has a root, 3’4 and 5th of some description. If we start with the C and find a root note somewhere on the fretboard, we have multiple options as to where we can play the 3d (E) in relation to that root note. If we take the C at the 314 fret of the A string then we could play the 3d at the 214 fret of the D string, the 7th fret of the A string, on the open low E string or even at the 5″ fret of the B string. The point is that each of these 3rds makes a specific visual shape against the root note and after some practice each one can be remembered and catalogued so that every time a major triad comes up you’ll be able to immediately see where all the 3rds are against any given root note.

If you practice doing this from all of the C’s on the fretboard then, when the chord changes to G, you just need to update your root note to G and all of the 3rds will still look the same against this new root note. By learning small pieces of visual information (that will also inform your ears) you will find it much easier to manipulate and improvise with these notes rather than when running up and down a larger shape.

If you now repeat the process but with the 5th of the chord and then for the 711. you will build up a very comprehensive and malleable knowledge of a major triad without relying on large, complex arpeggio shapes and you should be able to see multiple ways to play the same phrase across the fretboard. For a whole progression, such as the one above, you are simple updating your root note reference point from C to G, then A to F whilst keeping track of all the 3’6. Sills and 7ths as you go. Whilst this sounds like a lot of work at first you soon get the hang of it and will find yourself constructing much more interesting solos that really outline the sound of each chord in the progression.

In the TAB for this lesson you’ll find some of these intervals laid out for you for each of the basic chord types. All of these intervals are mapped out from the note C so your job is to map these out for each of the chords for our progression. Learn these intervals visually against their root notes and you’ll be all set for the next issue! Good luck.

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