Learning to Solo With Pentatonic Scales

Discussion in 'Guitar Lessons' started by Stoli, May 4, 2017.

  1. Stoli

    Stoli Senior Member

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    I am a relatively new player having spent about a year and a half with the guitar. I have learned basic chords and can strum relatively easy songs with cowboy and a barre chord here and there so I have learned to do a little. I just work with songs that I like. I play almost everyday and usually spend an hour minimum and when I have time, much more. I am an older dude and I think it probably took me this long to get to where a motivated kid would have got in six months or less. I took a guitar class at the local community college last Spring and was exposed to some music theory and sort of understand the relationship of scales to chords but do not claim to understand it in depth. Guitar is a challenging hobby to me that I enjoy and I have no illusions of ever being great at this. I probably struggle with the ear part of music more than any other aspect.

    I have watched several videos and read several articles and thread discussions about learning to work with scales and how to use them with music (mostly backing tracks for me). I like mostly blues/blues rock type stuff. I have been following the Justin Guitar advice to learn one or two positions of the minor pentatonic scale and learn to use that before moving on. I do not spend a lot of time just running up and down that scale as I know the shape for two positions and just work with those, know how to move them for keys, etc. So far, I just try to play with those two shapes plus a few nearby notes that I can get to easily that I know are notes in the scale. I know enough that you can play say the G Minor on the 3rd-6th frets and move it to the 15th-18th frets and do that with any key. I do not have all of the fret-board memorized. I can navigate E and A shapes from learning the notes of the low E and A strings pretty well and can find the high E notes OK. I am still getting there on the D, G, and B strings.

    It sounds like there are different approaches that you can take to this. I have read about "chasing the chords" where you move from say A to D to E with each chord change. I have read that you stay in say the A minor pentatonic for songs in A minor or C major and just learn where all the notes are or the positions and work with that and do likewise for the other keys. I have read other things that say you just have to "feel" it.

    Most of what I do is try to adjust the timing to whatever piece and key I am playing with to use parts of licks or riffs that I have learned and just make up other stuff while playing with tracks in the context of the key. Sometimes it sounds OK and sometimes not. Sometimes I get something that seems to sound good and then cannot remember what I did a day or two later.

    Some questions.

    1. I get that you can use say the A minor pentatonic scale with songs in Am or C, use E minor with songs in Em or G, etc. Some of the tracks that I use (blues/blues rock) offer suggestions of scales to use and in most cases if the track is in a major key it will suggest using the minor pentatonic and the major pentatonic for that particular key. For example, a simple track using some combination of a I, IV, V in the key of D major means you can use the D minor scale and the D major scale (B minor scale with a different root). For minor key tracks I generally see suggestions to just use the minor key and not the corresponding major key scale from the circle of fifths. I have also seen keys using all or mostly 7th chords and those tend to suggest just using the minor scales for that particular key. I would think you should be able to use the major scale that corresponds as well but do not see it suggested. So, I guess my question is what are the rules or the rule of thumb to use in terms of what scales keys to use with with chords in a given progression?

    2. With some of the licks or riffs that I have learned I will sometimes see one or two notes that do not match the five note pentatonic. I try them anyway just sort of assuming that the artist knew a lot more than me and was guessing they were just using a six or seven note scale that I have yet to pursue. I have read about "passing notes" and thought that was a possibility as well. They usually sound at least OK and sometimes sort of stand out but that may be because I getting used to hearing sequences. I often see other scale suggestions that I have yet to learn. For the time being I am trying to use the KISS principle.

    3. When you make your own stuff up, is there a method to that? Sometimes it works and sometimes not so much.

    Would appreciate any wisdom. There are so many things that you can try to learn with guitar and directions to go. Being able to play and improvise lead type playing on backing tracks was one of my big goals when I started and would like to get better at it. I have a whole bunch of other things to work on with this such as timing/phrasing, bends, slides, hammer-ons, vibrato, etc. and try to practice all that within playing with backing tracks. I wish I had someone to play with that knew more than I did as I think that would help a great deal. I wanted to put some work and energy into this for a while as I think it is one of the funner aspects of playing.
     
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  2. Sin Nombre

    Sin Nombre Senior Member

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    I think you have a good basic foundation for learning to solo blues and blues rock. Of course there is an infinite amount you can learn to flesh out the theory, legato, timing, pacing aspects of soloing. I am not one who can help much with that but there are lots of folks here who can.

    It could help them advise you if you were to post a sample of your soloing so they could hear the things they may think you are doing well as well as the things that need improving. This is a very nonjudgmental sub-forum so you would not need to worry about non-constructive criticism. And just the process of listening to your own efforts can tell you a lot about where you need work.

    Anyway I will be following the thread for my own benefit.

    BTW regarding question #2, the notes you see being used that are not in the the minor pentatonic scale are probably either "blue notes" of the "blues scale" which are a 6th note in the otherwise minor pentatonic scale, or the player is mixing in a note from the major pentatonic scale. Or something else, lots of possibilities, it's a whatever works kind of thing.
     
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  3. spitfire

    spitfire Senior Member

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    While these theoretical concepts about what to play over a chord progression are very important in understanding and can help you in many ways. I strongly believe music really is very much a language.

    Just as we didn't learn to talk by studying grammar, I don't think you can learn to improvise by reading about it. While I think understanding music theory is very important to being a better musician, it only goes so far for improvising. Don't get me wrong, I think it is important and helpful to understand why certain scales or notes work in a progression.

    But, just as with learning to speak, I think the best way is to listen and try to mimic or copy what others are doing. A solo isn't a mechanical thing or an algorithm where if you just grab notes from the right bucket at the right it will make a great solo. That may avoid playing sour notes, but even if the notes came from the correct subset of notes, they have to be played in certain orders to make sense.

    For example, you can't form a coherent sentence just because you randomly combined real words.

    I suggest transcribing solos you like, or even just parts of solos. Things you can play. I.E., not so fast or technically challenging that you can't play it. Transcribe by ear. Don't just use an existing transcription. At least that's how you'll get the most out of this. It's hard work. And in fact, this is where theory helps. For example, you may quickly realize that a solo is based a specific scale. Or you'll understand the chord progression so you'll have some idea which bucket of notes you're likely listening to. Once you know this, you'll figure out other notes more quickly.

    Transcribing yourself will also force you to pick though a solo. You'll start to recognize how sections of a solo are similar and that themes exist in the solo. Or you'll see how a lick was simply played again, but moved right along with the underlying chord. Or the opposite. Same exact lick, but over a different chord.

    A great tool for transcribing, is a program called Transcribe! . It allows you to loop sections of music over and over and slow it way down. It allows you to "see" the music a a waveform and mark sections, measures, even beats. I usually start by listening and just marking beat 1 of each bar as the song plays. Usually best to then figure out the chords being played. Note: These chords are not necessarily guitar chords. For example, you may be listening to a solo with say a piano playing the chords underneath.

    While Transcribe! can make notes guesses and even chord guesses, it's best to use your ears as much as possible. But nothing wrong with using whatever tools you need if you get stuck.

    Once you have learned to play existing solos, you will have started to develop a vocabulary of music phrases (licks). But these will be in your ears and hands and then you'll start to find they will naturally creep into your own improvising. Or sometimes you can make a point to fit a specific lick in. Especially as you are trying to learn it.

    Believe me, after you have played over a lick a hundred times trying to figure out the exact notes, some part of it is going to stick.

    I think all the analysis or theory you are doing is great. I don't want to discourage you from doing that. But in the end, listen, mimic, and then you'll start to develop your own voice.
     
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  4. Stoli

    Stoli Senior Member

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    I used Transcribe until the trial ran out to work on chord changing, trying to figure out strumming patterns, etc. Riff Station works pretty well for play along. I have seen the Transcribe program referenced by lots of folks. The instructor that taught the guitar class that I took used it extensively and he told me that he used it to transcribe new music that he played today. He told me that it took him several years to get to where his ear developed enough to be able to do that. I believe that you are right that being able to pick the notes out by ear would be the ideal. I have tried that a little and my ear is just not there yet to noodle much out. The little riffs and licks I have learned up to now have mostly been from tabs I found online or transcriptions in Guitar World magazine. Often times what is in there is beyond what I am capable of doing at the speed some of it is played at but I usually mess with the transcriptions a little anyway and try to find something I can use. I guess I have had to use the theory because the ear is weak at this point. It seems everything with guitar takes a long time and a lot of practice to sink in for me.

    I am hopeful that my ear can improve over time.

    For example, you can't form a coherent sentence just because you randomly combined real words.

    You said much of what I was trying to get at in this sentence because I very much get the sense that this is what I am doing at times. I have notes but do not know how to sequence the notes and otherwise manipulate them.

    BTW regarding question #2, the notes you see being used that are not in the the minor pentatonic scale are probably either "blue notes" of the "blues scale" which are a 6th note in the otherwise minor pentatonic scale, or the player is mixing in a note from the major pentatonic scale. Or something else, lots of possibilities, it's a whatever works kind of thing.

    You are probably right about the blues scale explaining some of the notes.
     
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  5. huw

    huw V.I.P. Member

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    Just a little disclaimer that I like to add when people mention backing tracks : usually that means "backing tracks I found on the internet". It's worth pointing out that being able to create a backing track & load it onto the internet, and being able to correctly identify the key & scales that it uses are two different skill-sets. Whilst you can find great backing tracks with great information about them, you can also find great backing tracks with (sometimes hopelessly) wrong information about them. "Buyer beware" and all that. (nb - you mention the Justin Guitar site, and that one is very good. I use it with my own students)

    That's good basic knowledge, and a familiar path to a lot of people. You're headed in the right direction, just keep going.

    That's great advice for intermediate players who already have some idea what to play to make certain sounds come out of the guitar, but not so helpful for beginers, IMHO. I liken it to the advice that aspiring writers are given to "write what you know" : it's fine advice for adults who already know the language, but before you get to that point, you go to school, learn the alphabet, learn to spell, learn some basic grammar etc etc. So what I'm saying is, that isn't very practical advice.

    This might seem like splitting hairs, but good habits are best learned early. Use the A minor pentatonic with songs in A minor, yes. But use the C major pentatonic for songs in C major.

    Both those scales use the same notes, so you can think of them as "the same", but try to see them as different, too (sort of like those gestalt pictures of the duck/rabbit). Imagine that Alan, Bert, Charlie, Dave, & Ernie are all in the same school class. For football, all five play in the team, but Alan is captain. For rugby, the same five kids are in the team, but Charlie is captain.

    So the teams are "the same" (because it's the same kids) but "different" (because there are different captains, and the other kids play different positions).

    So A minor pent and C major pent are "the same" (because it's the same five notes) but "different" (because there is a different tonic, and the other notes have different functions.

    (enough about that, that's probably too much already)

    Yes. It's a classic sound. The composite scale is probably the most used "blues rock" sound that there is. You cannot spend too much time on that idea.

    That's true. The main reason is to do with the thirds : the major third of the major pentatonic, and the minor third of the minor pentatonic. In a nutshell, using the minor third against a major chord adds spice, grit, flavour, and some tension. You can bend it up to the major third, or slide up, and that has a "sound" that we recognise and like. But the other way around doesn't work too well : using the major third against a minor chord seems too "out" to most people. I won't say that it can't work, but I will say that it's much harder to make it work.

    The other notes that are in the major pentatonic, but not the minor pentatonic are the 2 and the 6. The 2 (major 2nd above the tonic) can be added in almost all situations, and the 6 (major 6th above the tonic) can be added in most, but not all, situations.

    The main reason that this doesn't get discussed as "combining scales", like you ask, is probably that once you have added 2 & 6 to the min or pentatonic you have the dorian mode, which is a scale in its own right, and doesn't need to be described as a combination of things.

    The best rule of thumb is to reverse engineer : write out the notes from all the chords in the progression, as a scale from the tonic, and see what you get.

    eg ll: Am / / / G / / / F / / / / / / / :ll

    Am = A C E
    G = G B D
    F = F A C

    A sounds like the tonic (ie it sounds like "home") so write it out from A :

    > A B C D E F G A

    There's your scale, play that. Feel free to add any notes that are not in the scale if you can make them fit (eg a chromatic run)

    Other rules of thumb:

    For a major blues you can use the minor pentatonic, or the blues scale, of the tonic (ie blues in A, use A minor pent or A blues) with the simple addition of the one note that is the major third of the A chord - C#. That approach has a "sound" that you should recognise.

    Or try major pentatonic over the I chord, then switch to minor pentatonic over the IV & V chords (eg A major over A, then A minor over D & E). Again, that has a particular "sound" that you should recognise.

    Or use the combined pentatonics trick, but move with each chord (eg mix A major/A minor over the A chord, mix D major/D minor over the D chord, & mix E major/E minor over the E chord)

    Freely mix up all of these ideas to taste (for eg, play one chorus using one method, then switch methods for the next chorus, and so on)

    Eventually, each "sound" will be ingrained, and you won't need to think about what to do to make that sound. At that point you really can "play what you feel".

    Trial & error, my friend. That's how it's always been done. Experience teaches what works, & what you like, so you don't always have to start entirely from scratch, but "learning by doing" is how everybody does it.

    Anyway, looks like I got carried away. You probably don't want anymore from me today!

    Hope some of that helps?

    :cheers:
     
  6. Stoli

    Stoli Senior Member

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    Wow, lots of great stuff here huw. On the backing tracks, I frequently use tracks from "Quistjam." I like his tracks because the sound quality is pretty good, he offers styles that I like, makes really long tracks, and in many cases gives you detailed information about the tracks. Here is an example with the type of info he gives you. You can play with all of his tracks for free on Youtube or his website but I purchased a few of the ones that I liked best so I could get them on an MP3 player and run them through my practice amp. It is just a lot easier to get the sounds and volumes blending to run the track through the amp with my guitar. I have spent hours with his freebies and I think he is pointing you the right way. At least to my ear I think his suggestions are on the right track. I at least try to mess with the BTOMs that are posted here as well.

    https://www.quistorama.com/track/874795/b-b-king-style-blues-backing-track-d?feature_id=212174

    That's great advice for intermediate players who already have some idea what to play to make certain sounds come out of the guitar, but not so helpful for beginers, IMHO. I liken it to the advice that aspiring writers are given to "write what you know" : it's fine advice for adults who already know the language, but before you get to that point, you go to school, learn the alphabet, learn to spell, learn some basic grammar etc etc. So what I'm saying is, that isn't very practical advice.

    Definitely not an intermediate level with this. I just started messing with this a few weeks ago and had spent most of time up until then trying to strum relatively easy songs and I still practice that a great deal as well as there is still much room for improvement. Still trying to learn little riffs and licks and get to where I can play them fast enough and clean without mistakes. I could barely bend to begin with but my hand is getting stronger. Getting the bend to the right note is another story but at least it is a start.


    The best rule of thumb is to reverse engineer : write out the notes from all the chords in the progression, as a scale from the tonic, and see what you get.

    eg ll: Am / / / G / / / F / / / / / / / :ll

    Am = A C E
    G = G B D
    F = F A C

    A sounds like the tonic (ie it sounds like "home") so write it out from A :

    > A B C D E F G A

    There's your scale, play that. Feel free to add any notes that are not in the scale if you can make them fit (eg a chromatic run)

    Other rules of thumb:

    For a major blues you can use the minor pentatonic, or the blues scale, of the tonic (ie blues in A, use A minor pent or A blues) with the simple addition of the one note that is the major third of the A chord - C#. That approach has a "sound" that you should recognise.

    Or try major pentatonic over the I chord, then switch to minor pentatonic over the IV & V chords (eg A major over A, then A minor over D & E). Again, that has a particular "sound" that you should recognise.

    Or use the combined pentatonics trick, but move with each chord (eg mix A major/A minor over the A chord, mix D major/D minor over the D chord, & mix E major/E minor over the E chord)

    Freely mix up all of these ideas to taste (for eg, play one chorus using one method, then switch methods for the next chorus, and so on)

    Eventually, each "sound" will be ingrained, and you won't need to think about what to do to make that sound. At that point you really can "play what you feel".

    This is gold for me and explains in a way that I think I understand much of what I was trying to ask. I am definitely going to go back and analyse the tracks that I use often with the reverse engineering concept. To your point on erroneous information with some tracks, you reverse engineering method of pulling the notes out of the chords sort of gives you a standard to see if things are off. Thank you so much for your explanations. I am going to print your post and put it in my book. I will probably have to study it for some time for all of it to sink in but this is great stuff for me. Is not too much information at all when the information makes sense.
     
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