Are Guitar Solos Just Scales?

Almost every guitar player wants to know the secret: Which scales will make my solos sound like my favorite player?

Like most guitarists, as a beginner I went through a phase of scouring the Internet for every exotic scale I could find. Despite lacking a solid understanding of the major scale and its modes, I was convinced more scales would mean better solos.

While that way of thinking hampered my progress, it wasn’t completely wrong.

Guitar solos are typically played using notes from one or more scales. A solo will sound like a scale exercise when the notes are frequently played in order. Skilled players develop their ears to anticipate how the notes will sound—and feel—over a given chord.

Since note choice is a key factor that defines a player’s style, knowing your idols’ favorite scales and modes can help you play more like them.

That’s where things can get confusing. Memorizing a scale is not the same thing as understanding it. Otherwise, you could memorize a chart like the one below and compose any kind of music in C major.

Every note in the C Major scale, with the root notes notated with the letter ‘R.’

We all know that memorizing scales doesn’t automatically improve our soloing. That would be like a novelist reading the dictionary from cover to cover in hopes of writing a better novel. It doesn’t work.

But if memorizing scales doesn’t guarantee better solos, what’s the point of learning them at all?

Glad you asked.

Guitar Solos Are Based on Scales

Every guitar solo you have ever heard is rooted in one or more scales.

Whether that’s a diatonic scale (major, minor, etc.) or the pentatonic scale, or something more obscure, everyone from Charlie Christian, to Jimi Hendrix, to Eddie Van Halen, to Joe Satriani, to Tosin Abasi uses scales to build their solos.

The trick to writing your own solos is knowing the scales well enough that you don’t have to think about which scale you’re playing. You must develop your instincts for how a note or riff will sound over a given chord.

Practicing scales is about more than rote memorization. Yes, you need to memorize them so you don’t stop to review a neck diagram in the middle of a face-melting solo. The bigger benefit is ear training.

There Are No Wrong Notes

Despite what you may have heard, there are no wrong notes in the diatonic scale. You can play any of the seven notes over any chord in the scale. Each note will create a different feeling.

Your job as a musician is to develop an opinion about these notes.

To prove this point, music theory provides a new chord name every time we add a note to a chord. The chord names aren’t always pretty. (They get downright ugly if you add notes from outside the key.)

Let’s say you are playing over a chord progression in C major. Here are the harmonies created when you play any natural note (no sharps or flats) over each chord in the key. (Note: It’s OK if you don’t understand the chart.)

NoteCDmEmFGAmBdim
CDm7Em add b13G add 11Bdim add b9
DC add 9Em7F add6Am add 11
EDm add 9F Maj7G add 6Bdim add 11
FC add 11Em add b9G7Am add 6
GDm add 11F add9Am7Bdim add 13
AC add 6Em add 11G add9Bm7b5
BC Maj7Dm add 6F add #11Am9
Any note in the C major scale can be played over any chord in the scale. The chord tones have been omitted because they do not change the harmony.

Every note can be played over every chord. The trick is developing a sense of how each note will react with those chords.

The chart above excludes the chord tones (the notes that form the base chord) from each column. Chord tones always sound good, but they don’t change the harmony.

Chord tones are always a safe choice. You can’t go wrong playing C, E, or G over a C major chord. It might get a little dull after a while, but it will sound good.

The other notes in the scale (non-chord tones) are like adding spices to a recipe. Non-chord tones add tension to the music. Too much tension is just as dull as zero tension. That’s why nobody plays those “spicey” notes exclusively.

Tension and Release

A good solo is built around building tension and releasing that tension. Solos with nothing but chord tones will lack tension. Overdoing the non-chord tones will create a sense of unease that can be hard to listen to.

Playing a predicable sequence of notes, even if they have a decent amount of tension and release, will become dull if the sequence is repeated too many times.

That’s why it’s important to compose solos that don’t sound like a scale exercise. How do you accomplish that?

Exercises

A good way to start thinking about tension and release is to play a scale over a single chord. One way to practice this is to take advantage of the G major triad formed by the open D, G, and B strings.

Simply play each note in the G major scale on the high-E string along with the G major chord. This will give you a sense of how each degree of the scale will sound over a major chord.

Play each note of the G major scale along with the G major chord formed by the open strings.

You can do the same thing with E minor to get a sense of how the notes will sound with a minor chord. The open E, G, and B strings form an E minor chord. Because we’re using the high-E string for the “melody” this exercise incorporates the low-E string to fill out the harmony.

Play each note of the E minor scale with the E minor chord formed by the open strings. The jump from low to high strings makes this a good picking exercise as well.

As you practice these exercises, make sure to listen for notes that feel tense or relaxed. The goal is to develop your own opinion, and to incorporate those sounds into your solos.

There are obviously more than the major and minor scales. When you’re ready, you can adapt the major exercise for the Lydian and Mixolydian modes. The minor exercise can be adapted for the Dorian and Phrygian modes.

Conclusion

Guitar solos are built upon the same musical foundation as all music. To say a guitar solo is “just a scale” is a huge understatement. We’ve only touched on the topic of note choice, which is a massive subject that could take years of study and practice to fully grasp.

There is more to music than knowing which notes to play over a particular chord. A good musician must simultaneously develop a sense of rhythm, dynamics (loud and soft), and an awareness of how music works

This article only touched on a few of the many aspects that make an interesting solo. Hopefully you can take what you learned here and put it to good use.

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