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How Do I Pick a Guitar Scale to Play? The 3 Key Factors To Consider

How do i pick a guitar scale to play
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If you have started trying to play solos, you have probably hit a point of wondering “How do I pick a guitar scale to play?” Which ones should you use to craft a solo? Today we go over the 3 factors to consider when crafting a solo or improvising.


How Do I Pick A Guitar Scale To Play Over Chords?

Improvising is probably the most coveted skill of all when it comes to playing guitar. If you are able to play lead guitar lines “off the cuff” then you must know what you’re doing, right? Clearly only an advanced guitarist can improvise solos, right?

Well, the answer is yes and no. You do have to know some very basic guitar theory to play solos in an improvised way. But you also have to know the right scale for the chords being played. This can get really complicated if you are using complex chords.

But today, we are going to look at the basics of how to pick a guitar scale to play, depending on the chords and key of the song. This is an important skill to grasp, even if it is on a very basic level. It takes a lot of real-life practice to be able to actually improvise a solo.

But practicing and experimenting doesn’t have to be boring. The only way you get better at leaning how to pick the right scale to play over a chord progression is trial and error. You memorize a scale, and then try to put it to use in a practical way. This can be a lot of fun if you don’t mind putting in the work!

The road to improvising solos, as well as writing your own lead sections, is a little bit of knowledge and a LOT of personal choice. Two guitarists can be given the same scale and chords to play a solo… and they would turn out vastly different. This all comes down to note choice, which is something you have to develop on your own.

Today, we are going to go over the basics that get you to the point of knowing what notes you CAN use. But just because you CAN use all of these notes, doesn’t mean that you HAVE to use every note in a scale.

As a guitarist, one of the key elements of creating captivating melodies and improvisations is selecting the right guitar scale to play. With an array of scales available, it can be overwhelming to determine which one fits a particular musical context.

In this in-depth guide, we will delve into the relationship between keys and notes, and explore how to choose the correct guitar scale based on the chords being played. So, let’s unlock the secrets of scale selection and take your playing to new heights!


Getting Started: Know Your Scales

If you are not familiar with the major, minor, and pentatonic scales then you need to learn those shapes before you start trying to improvise. This is usually the “boring” part of learning guitar. It doesn’t have to be boring though!

To keep things exciting, you can learn scales in a fun way. I like to tell students that just memorizing scales can be very dry content. Instead, you should play the scale to a metronome or drum beat, over the correct chord.

For example, you could record an E major chord and loop it. Set the BPM low, and set the metronome to the same BPM. That way, you are playing scales along to actual music, instead of playing scales by themselves. This has a ton of benefits:

  • You get the “feel” of the scale in the context of actual music
  • You can easily change the BPM higher or lower
  • It gives context to the chord notes in relation to the scale notes

Not everyone learns the same way, and if you prefer to just play the scale alone, that is okay too. I always suggest setting it to music and a metronome since it keeps you on beat. But you can also hear the way the scale works, and hear it in action with chords.


Understanding Keys And Individual Notes

Before diving into scale selection, it’s crucial to understand the relationship between keys and notes. In music theory, a key refers to a specific set of notes that form the foundation of a composition or a section of music. Each key has a root note, also known as the tonic, which serves as the central pitch from which the key is derived.

For example, if a song is in the key of C major, the root note or tonic would be C. The C major scale consists of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. Understanding this relationship between keys and notes is essential when selecting the appropriate scale to play over a particular chord progression.

When it comes to selecting a guitar scale, one crucial aspect to consider is the chord progression being played. The chords in a progression determine the tonality and create the musical backdrop over which you’ll be improvising or creating melodies. By matching the appropriate scale to the chords, you ensure that your guitar lines harmonize with the overall musical context.

It is also important to know how intervals work, since the scales are just one part of the formula. Picking the right scale for a chord progression starts with the key of the chord progression being played. After you know the key you can start to work out the scale pattern, and know which intervals in the scale that can be used.

This can take some trial and error at first, especially if you are trying to play by ear. But there are also some easy “defaults” that you can start with when you are wondering how to pick a scale. Again, we are just going over the easiest way to approach improvising guitar solos and melodies.


1. Using the Major Scale

How Do I pick a guitar scale to play?

The major scale serves as a foundation for many other scales and is a versatile choice for various chord progressions. To match a major scale to a chord progression, start by identifying the key or root note of the progression. For example, if the chords are in the key of G major, the G major scale (G, A, B, C, D, E, F#) would be the go-to choice.

This will work 90% of the time when you are working with a major key. The major scale has several different variants, when you get into modes. But the regular old major scale will work over a major progression almost every time, and the notes you choose to play (the melody) will dictate the impact of your note choices.

A good example of a major scale solo that really uses almost every note available is the first solo “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd. In this song, David is using the major scale in an expressive way, moving from sustained notes to beautiful bends throughout the solo. This is one of the best solos of all time for a reason, and it is a great example of exploring the major scale.

What about if the song is in a minor key? Well, you just shift over to using the harmonic minor scale. The minor scale is sometimes looked at as boring, just like the major scale. But again, the second solo in “Comfortably Numb” is another great example of using the minor scale to its full potential.

This is why “Comfortably Numb” is such a powerful piece of music. It starts in a minor key, and then switches to a major key for the chorus. We get a guitar solo for both parts, and each solo sounds completely different when it comes to feel, and emotion.

When facing a chord progression with minor chords, selecting a scale that matches the tonality is crucial. One popular choice is the natural minor scale, which has a melancholic sound and complements minor chords effectively. For instance, if the chord progression is in A minor, using the A natural minor scale (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) will provide a cohesive tonal framework.

So those are the most obvious answers to “How Do I pick a guitar scale to play?”. If you know the patterns for the major and minor scales, then you are ready to start trying to improvise! At first glance, the regular major and minor scales may seem a little “simple” at first. But these scales are the building blocks for every melody ever written.

In fact, if you go through most of the Pink Floyd catalog, you will hear the major and minor scale being used by David Gilmour to great effect. He is a master of crafting melodic solos, and his live improvised leads are always based on simplicity. He mixes the major and minor scale with pentatonic licks all the time! But what if the chord progression is not so simple…


2. Modal Interchange and Borrowed Chords

This is where using the major and minor scale alone can throw you for a loop. Playing over borrowed chords takes a little bit more knowledge. You will have to play a scale that doesn’t necessarily “work” with the chords being played, and you will have to think quickly to add or remove notes from a scale.

This means you have to adjust to a parallel mode. A parallel mode is two scale modes that share the same tonic or key. Like D major, D Minor, D Dorian, D Mixolydian… these are all parallel modes that share the same root note but have added/deleted notes in the chord, which means you need to adjust notes in the scale pattern you pick.

In more complex chord progressions, you may encounter modal interchange or borrowed chords, which introduce different tonalities within a single key. In such cases, adapt your scale selection accordingly.

For example, if a song in the key of C major introduces an E minor chord (borrowed from the parallel C minor key), you can incorporate the C major scale along with the C minor scale (C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb) to create dynamic and evocative melodies.

This happens more often than you may think, and many popular songs use this trick to sound “dramatic”. If your ear is getting used to a “major sound” and then you suddenly throw in some minor scale qualities? That sounds really cool, and can really grab the audience’s ear.

The best, and most popular song that I can think of that uses a modal interchange like this, is probably “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. George Harrison switches between A minor to a surprising A major mode in that song, and you can easily hear how cool this sounds.

There is one more way to answer the question of “how do I pick a guitar scale to play?”. This final section is a much more familiar way to approach a chord change, and something most intermediate guitarists already know…


3. Pentatonic Scales for Versatility

How do I pick a guitar scale to play?
Slash is an absolute master of blending pentatonic scales with minor/major scales.

That’s right, the pentatonic scale is our final answer to “How do I pick a guitar scale to play?”. The thing about the pentatonic scale, is that it is often “looked down on” by guitarists since so many people use it. I am sure you have seen some memes about it online. But this is the trick to using the pentatonic scale in an effective way:

Using the pentatonic scale alone IS boring, but if you use it in conjunction with the other two methods we have mentioned, it can be VERY interesting!

Think about some of the solos that Slash has crafted over the years for a good example. He uses the pentatonic scale often, but his solos are very memorable. His playing has an almost “vocal-like” quality, and this is due to his note choice. So maybe the pentatonic scale isn’t so bad!

Pentatonic scales, with their five-note structure, are incredibly versatile and can be used across various chord progressions. The major pentatonic scale and its relative minor pentatonic scale are particularly popular choices. For example, the A major pentatonic scale (A, B, C#, E, F#) can be employed over a progression in the key of A major or F# minor. This flexibility makes pentatonic scales ideal for beginners and experienced guitarists alike.

Which means that you can combine notes from the pentatonic with the major and minor scales. If you put all of these together, and take modal interchanges over borrowed chords into account, then you actually have a lot of tools in your arsenal! Choosing the “right” notes is up to you as a player.

That’s right, you only REALLY need 3 different types of scales to learn how to improvise at a beginner level. In fact, many famous guitarists ONLY use these three scales to improvise. It really comes down to your expression, and the different licks you can come up with while using these scales.


Wrapping Up…

All of this may seem like an over-simplification of how to pick a scale to play over a chord progression. But it honestly is this easy if you break down some of the biggest and most recognizable solos in popular music. It seems easy to say “mix the pentatonic scale with the major and minor scale”.

But so many guitarists use this technique to great effect. One of my favorite guitarists is Nick Johnston, whom we have covered here several times. He uses his scale knowledge to the maximum potential, but he also crafts simple melodies that act as a “hook” for all of his songs.

You can definitely get more complicated and more complex with solos. But so many of the solos that stick with you forever are based on easy scale patterns that follow the key of the song. Think about the way that Slash plays again, for example. He almost always sticks to the pentatonic box, adding in notes from the major and minor scale to make great harmonies.

Which is something that no one can teach you, since note choice is something that is personal. The way you choose notes to play a solo, and improvise, is what gives your playing a signature sound. That’s why I brought up David Gilmour and Slash, since they both have a recognizable sound without being complicated shredders.

Selecting the right guitar scale to play is an essential skill for any guitarist aiming to create captivating melodies, improvisations, or solos. By understanding the relationship between keys and notes, and harmonizing scales with the chords being played, you can confidently navigate the fretboard and create musical magic.

Remember, when picking a guitar scale, consider the key or root note of the chord progression. Match the scale to the tonality of the chords, utilizing major scales for major chords, minor scales for minor chords, and incorporating pentatonic scales for versatility. All three make the recipe for a good solo. With practice and experimentation, you’ll develop a keen ear for scale/note selection, empowering you to express yourself creatively on the guitar.

So, the next time you ask yourself, “How do I pick a guitar scale to play?” trust your musical instincts, consider the key and chords, and let your fingers guide you through a world of melodic possibilities. Keep exploring, keep experimenting, keep playing, and let the scales ignite your electrifying musical journey!

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