One big hurdle often encountered by guitarists who are learning to improvise, especially within the rock and blues genres, is to create coherent sounding melodies that don’t end up sounding like plain noodling. A frequent cause of this problem is the lack of associating these scale ideas with the other elements in the music, such as counter-melodies, rhythms, and harmony.
This lesson will talk about how to tie in your soloing to the underlying harmony and not to be slavishly tied to one scale throughout the course of the solo.
As an example, let’s take a look at the chord progression for “House of the Rising Sun”. The chord progression goes something like Am, C, D, F, Am, C, E, Am, C, D, F, Am, E, Am, E. Without getting too deep into the theory, an experienced guitarist might look at that and say “I’ll improvise using the A minor scale, since the song is in the that key.” The A natural minor scale is comprised of the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, G. This is a fair deduction but we run into some issues when we arrive at certain chords.
The first problem area you might notice is the D chord. The D chord contains the notes D, F# and A. Where did that F natural go? We’ve temporarily altered this note from the original natural minor scale to become an F#. In other words, we’ve raised it by a semi-tone. Try improvising over this chord with the F natural versus the F#. Which sounds better to you? Probably the F#. This is how we can begin to acknowledge the underlying harmony in our lead lines. If a chord modifies a note in the given scale, then you should modify the scale to match the chord. The result is an A Dorian mode: A, B, C, D, E, F#, G.
Later on we encounter a similar situation on the E chord. If you observe the E chord you’ll notice there is a G# contained in it. G# doesn’t belong in the original scale of A natural minor. If we replace the G natural with a G# we end up with A harmonic minor instead.
Now the tricky part is making these modifications as you’re improvising, and that’s where practice comes in. Start with a familiar position for this scale then map out where the F will be changed to an F# and a G to a G#. When the chords change, change the scale tones to match. Start slow and deliberate. It’ll be the easiest if you focus on improvising near those notes without trying to cram in too many improvisational ideas. Once you start to get a hang of it, increase the tempo gradually and it will start to come out more naturally in your solos. It also doesn’t hurt to learn some licks and compose some phrases that incorporates these harmonic changes.
If you can do this, you’ll be amazed at how much more cohesive your solos will sound will the accompanying chords!