My friend Bill asked me yesterday about guitar lessons, and we talked about a few things he was hoping to learn. One of the things that came out was he was hoping to play “major scale” because he had recently jammed with some friends, and they were playing songs where minor pentatonic scale lead playing did not fit. I was working on a bigger lesson this week, because I haven’t made in entry in toooo long… but this made for a great subject to share.
Scales relate to chords; chords relate to scales. Chord progression is important.
We’re looking at three chord major songs. Country, folk, southern rock, hymns, campfire songs, you name it. A lot of songs are made up of three major chords and in one key. I’m going to take some easy steps to improvising a seven note scale over major keys for players used to plugging in a five note scale into one key and having all the notes sound… okay.
I’ve seen this point usually being the one where you get a major scale, a fingering for it, and a song… Okay, go… Not sounding that great? Just keep doing it ’til you sound like… (one of a thousand monkeys typing out Shakespeare…) Continuous semi-random trial and error does not work for many people. Running scales does not work for many people. If you’ve encountered this, keep hope that there are many ways to learn things. I’m hoping that this lesson combining visual learning and spending time listening to each pitch will help a few folks that haven’t succeeded by the most common route.
For this lesson I’m going to make some assumptions, I will do something that many of you have seen a million times before, and then I hope to show you one way to make improvising with all seven notes way less random, and hopefully build a foundation block for playing over changes.
Assumptions: You know what a I, IV, and V chord is in a given key. You know the five “box” shapes of pentatonic minor up and down the neck.
You may have seen this before: Take any “box” shape and play it over the I chord. Familiar sound. Now play it three frets down over the same chord. You are now playing a pentatonic major scale.
Now: spend a bit of time playing around with it to get it in your ear if this is unfamiliar. Now try playing over three chords; I – IV -V. Any three chord pattern or song that you like, record yourself playing chords, however best you like to improvise melodic ideas. You may find some nice new ideas, but really, this scale works best just over that I chord, right?
OK, let’s take a second and look at the major scale. I’ll show you the closed pattern that has the root on the sixth string under your second finger. People familiar with the CAGED system will call this the E scale pattern. Let’s do this at Position II on your neck, which will make the root of the scale, and the key, G major.
Let’s switch to the pentatonic major in the same position. You’ll see it as one of the familiar box shapes, and you’ll see that these notes are all from the major scale. Play this. Record yourself playing this one chord and play each note individually. See which ones feel “stable” and which feel “tense”.
Here is where we get into progression. This is the scale in the same position for the IV, in the key of G major – C. C is under your second finger on the fifth string for this scale. This is a different shape, but still a familiar one.
Now remember when we just started doing chords and you learned how to switch between the G and C chords? Now do it with these scales. Record yourself playing the chords or use a metronome or any other method available, but be sure to practice slowly and really get this down. When the chords change, which notes are common? For the common ones, how does the feeling change for “stable” vs. “tense”. If you’ve never shifted melodic ideas to match the chord changes before, this is a first step in “playing the changes”.
We also have a pentatonic for the V chord. Now the root is under your fourth finger on the fifth string in this familiar box. Okay, lets do the same thing we were doing earlier between the I chord and V chord now to get them under your fingers and in your ear. Now the IV and V.
One more crazy idea before letting you loose on some songs. On many of these types of songs you’ll see a V7. (in this particular key, D7) This is a pentatonic dominant scale.
You’ll see it’s the same box other than one note, and it hits that defining 7th. This is one that not a lot of guitar players think of.
Now, I can hear in my mind Bill saying “Well you showed me a bunch of pentatonics, CD, but I’m still waiting to improvise with the major scale.” OK, we’re playing a progression of three chords, let’s stack up all three scales for the progression, showing all of the melodic content we’ve been improvising with:
Does the last shape look familiar? It’s where we started:
You’re playing a major scale. Now you’re aware of the prime notes according to the chord progression. When you’re completely comfortable with where the fat notes are in each chord, you can now experiment adding those half steps in more scalar melodies with confidence.
Play some songs now with friends, or record yourself, or do any of the “band in the the box” type music programs, but play over song changes. Amazing Grace, Camptown Races, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Stir It Up… lots of songs in many genres to choose from. Work out the melodies from the songs as well as making your own. The more time spent, the more your ears and fingers will guide each other.