I am looking to improve in soloing and improvisation. I have learned the CAGED patterns in diatonic scale and their corresponding pentatonic patterns. I have stuck with them for years, but I've plateaued in my soloing abilities. I simply play the diatonic and pentatonic scales and try not to linger on notes that don’t sound good.

My teacher has pointed me to chord-tone soloing. I watched this youtube lesson. The instructor recommends playing the arpeggios over the chord changes for a while, and when the student is comfortable with that, then start working out a solo around those notes.

I don't really know my arpeggios, and I feel that there are a couple of directions that I can go in learning them.

  1. Learn all the notes on the guitar, and when presented with a chord (eg. Am), then play the notes in that chord (A,C,E) wherever I'm at on the fretboard
  2. Pattern approach - Learn the arpeggios by their nashville numbering in whatever position I'm in. For example, for the G position in CAGED (the same position as Pentatonic Minor), learn the positions of the notes for the I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, and vii chords in that position. The benefit of this approach might be that once I learn all of these positions, it will be easy to switch around to different keys.

Here is an example of what I mean by the pattern approach:

3rd (G) position diatonic in CAGED for Cmajor


Notes in Cmaj chord (nashville I)


Notes in Dm chord (nashville ii) - D F A

  • Then Notes in iii, IV, V, vi, vii.
  • Then rinse and repeat on another position in CAGED

What approach would you recommend, or would you recommend something different than what I described?

See also: This question is asking something similar - whether he should learn scales by shapes or learn all the fretboard notes

Meta: my 2nd and 3rd fretboard diagrams were disappearing. Regarding this problem, I asked this question in meta which also gives the solution.

  • 1
    I see three diagrams and your edits show 3. In any event: not being an educator nor learned in musical notation (but having played an instrument for nearly 30 years), I say that I am struggling to see the difference between "knowing all notes" (I'll call it absolute positioning) and your nashville method (call it dynamic positioning). Assuming you are willing to expand "nashville" to include "all possible chords which I know that hang off the root position." The difference is that the absolute method is useless if you use an alternate tuning. Absolute seems like a subset of method 2.
    – horatio
    Aug 1, 2013 at 19:51
  • 3
    As a word of encouragement and caution I will say that good improv requires a large body of knowledge and experience executed without or very nearly without conscious thought. To break out of development plateus, it is helpful to play with people. If you are playing with people and you hit a plateau, it is helpful to play by yourself.
    – horatio
    Aug 1, 2013 at 19:54

6 Answers 6


Personally I'd say the best approach is to begin by learning the notes on the guitar. Learn the notes of the fretboard and you'll have a solid footing. Initially I would have said to simply combine the two methods (since they're really not mutually exclusive), but you seem to be familiar with chord construction, so once you've got the notes down everything will become easier. Improvisation should ideally be similar to having a conversation: you hear something going on around you, and then formulate a response based on what you hear. In the same way that you hold an effective conversation by stringing words together and not getting hung up on individual words and syntax, you want to become familiar enough with your instrument that your hands aren't a concern and your ear is what's guiding your playing.

I think the best way to learn notes on the guitar is working one string at a time initially. I did this when I started learning the instrument and it's really quite quick and effective, and as an added bonus if you start on either of the E strings and memorize the notes, you've learned 1/3 of the notes on the guitar. Once you're comfortable with that, you can begin working on moving across strings. You can even play little games with yourself to reinforce the concepts when you're not with a guitar, randomly thinking "what's the note at the ninth fret of the D string" and so forth. Eventually this is like anything else; repetition will lead to retention.

Once you've got a feel for where all of your notes are and you know how to build your chords (which again it seems you already do), you can start thinking about making music with them as opposed to simply trying to remember what goes where. Start working with some backing tracks (ideally you have other people to play with, but this isn't always a reality) and concentrate on the sound of particular chord tones. You want to really develop your sense of what a third, fifth, etc. is going to sound like so your mind makes choices based on what responds well to the context you're playing in. After that, start working on ways to make the approach interesting: what does it sound like if you move into chord tones through half steps? Work on rhythmic ideas as well -- play some licks that begin on a chord tone, move around a bit while that chord is still playing and then move into the next chord using an approach you like. If you've got a ii-V in C major for example and you're playing over the Dm7-G7, you can begin on an F (the third of Dm7), move around as you see fit, and then on the fourth beat play two eighth notes on E and C to surround a D on the downbeat as the G7 is played.

These are just some basic things to work with. Once you have the notes of the fretboard down, the majority of this comes down to just playing as much as possible. As I mentioned before, playing with others is ideal, but when that's not a possibility you can certainly work on this in your own time. When you have the basic language of the instrument under your fingers, then you'll be able to simply play based on what you hear without having to worry about "what doesn't sound good" or where your next chord tone is located. You'll find certain techniques and melodic gestures you like to use, and begin developing your own voice as you play.

  • Before I saw this answer, I was leaning to the pattern approach. This and the other answers have convinced me to work on learning the notes. Thanks for your help! Aug 2, 2013 at 15:00

Different people have different preferences when it comes to thinking of notes absolutely or relatively.

  • Some people like to think of A major as A, C#, E
  • Others like to think of A major as A, A + 4 semitones, A + 7 semitones.
  • Others like to think of A major as "root note", "next string, -1 fret", "next string, -3 frets"

Of course, on a standard tuning, the third one breaks down when you hit the B/G strings, so you have to adapt the pattern when you reach those strings.

Since you're already familiar with pentatonic and diatonic scales, think about how you approach those - as absolutes or as relatives. What works for you with scales will work with other systems.


If you know your scales and know your chords, then arpeggios, whether just two notes or all six (or more if you tap) should come easily. The chord shape gives you most, if not all , of an arpeggio. So you can form a barre chord and play individual strings or just play separate notes from a chord shape, albeit fretting each note individually.

Knowing that the main chords (major and minor) are made up using 1-3-5 of the scale gives you arpeggios to play with.Think where you may play 1-3-5- of a scale, and just use those notes.Bear in mind this is a fact for only full maj. and min. It doesn't work for pentatonics or blues scales.

There is no need to learn all the notes on the guitar to do this. Think about it - to play,say, 1-3-5-6-3 notes in C, you may start on 6string, 8 fret, but the pattern for playing the same thing in say, A, will be exactly the same, except starting on 6string, 5 fret.Knowing the notes won't help. Having said that, there's nothing wrong with knowing them - it's just academic for this exercise.If you're thinking "I'm now playing an Eb, and my next note will be an F " then it's right back to the drawing board !

The 6th / 7th / 9th etc. chords will turn into arpeggios too, but you will have to swap from one shape to another on the way sometimes. This is not a bad move in any case, as you can extend them, both ways, as you need.


In my experience, knowing the notes on your fretboard will allow you greater freedom and creativity when improvising. Until you reach that goal (I'm still working toward it) I have found arpeggio patterns to be the fastest route to more creative soloing. For practice, try just making a chord with your left hand and picking one note at a time in different sequences with your right. Arpeggio patterns are valuable for crossing instruments too. You can play a sophisticated-sounding bass line using the same left hand pattern as on the corresponding strings of a guitar. They work on a six-string banjo too! Combine the scale patterns you already know with arpeggio patterns for even more creative freedom.


What I have found helpful is transcribing a solo you really like, either yourself, or finding a very accurate tab or book. Then for each note of the solo write down the interval in relation to the chord being played. This way you can see how the different intervals sound over a chord and how they can be used. A certain player may lead in and out of a solo by playing an arpeggio (only notes that make up the chord) and then add color to the solo by playing 6ths and 4ths. Do this with 5 very different songs and it will really help your ear with knowing how the notes in your tool box can be used to create a certain sound.


If you can fret a chord in almost any position using almost any string set, then you already know your arpeggios. I think this is what your teacher is trying to get at: Stop thinking in scales and start thinking in chords. A number of jazz players such as Carol Kaye and Joe Pass think in this way. Chord tones are strong note choices compared to scalar runs. Make strong choices to make strong solos.

So what I would do is identify the scale degree of each note in the arpeggios that you can play; you can probably already do this if you know the CAGED system. Then learn the notes in the scales that connect each chord tone. You probably can already do this if you know the CAGED system.

Once you can play solos using only chord tones, then bring the connecting scale notes in again. You'll probably find that your solos have improved.

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