I have played guitar for a while and am confused by this... I know scales up and down the neck quite well, and know the fretboard and notes quite well. When I play lead, I am just now getting to where I express myself without sounding like a scale player. Do this by changing scale forms and move across the neck. Or, play Lydian mode which puts accent across the tune on the I and V chords.

I was looking for some expression ideas and have seen where some suggest playing the lead all in the same key, but pick your notes wisely as the chords change. Then others suggest to change the key of the scale that you are playing as the chords change. I must admit that changing scale key every time a chord changes, even in a simple I-IV-V progression seems fairly difficult. Any thoughts? Should I practice changing scale key with chord changes or should I just play a scale in the key that the song is composed of? Kind of confused on this one...

2 Answers 2


It's dependent on several things. For blues songs, especially if they're 3 chord wonders, then changing for each chord does work well. Of course whatever you do, there will be notes common to 2 of the chords anyway.

Let's say you're IN C, but ON F. In a standard type of song (whatever that is...) You'll still be IN C ON F. So all the C scale notes still fit. The difference is the Bb.So using F Lydian avoids that. So you're still actually playing the C scale notes. Obviously Bb can be, and sometimes is used, but you just need to be careful where it goes. Use of ears here!

In jazz, going with each chord is the way, and that's down to, in a lot of cases, the fact that the chord structure changes offten, and the chords themselves are not diatonic. Thus, IN C, but ON, say, E7#9, the notes from C scale aren't as useful as those from E, with the option of G# and Fx, for example.

It's a useful exercise to be able to switch scales quickly. A simple idea is to play 4 to the bar, and have someone tell you the next chord/key just before the next bar. When that arrives, change to the nearest note in the new key, and then play 3 more, and so on. Might work better slower and 2 bars each at the beginning. Stick to majors initially. It ain't easy, but it's good. You could do the same with arpeggios; this will strengthen the chord shape knowledge. No sliding up several frets to the new bar!

  • 1
    Changing scale with each new chord will more often than not get you into trouble when trying to follow a jazz progression. A more practical approach is to think in "tonal centers". The example of the E7#9 chord in the key of C is actually a good one. That chord would usually be heard as the dominant of Am, so you could very well play the C major scale / A natural minor scale over it. Just the note A becomes an avoid note (and could, but need not, be replaced by a G#).
    – Matt L.
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 9:07

It depends on the chord progression. If the chord progression implies a key change then you'd also change the key of your solo melody. In all other cases, you wouldn't change the key of your melody.

You gave a I-IV-V progression as an example. If you were to use the IV-major scale over the IV chord, you would make that chord sound like a new I chord, and not like the IV chord of the current key. The same is true for the V chord: by playing the V-major scale over it, it wouldn't sound like a dominant chord of the actual key; however, it is usually intended as a dominant chord leading back to the I chord.

Things are different if you have a modal piece like So What by Miles Davis. In the solo section you have D dorian (Dm7) before changing to Eb dorian (Ebm7). The Ebm7 chord does not function in the key of D minor, but it is something new. This means that in your solo you would change scales from D dorian to Eb dorian, simply reflecting what is happening harmonically.

Another different case is the blues. A basic I-IV-V blues is based on dominant seventh chords. There is no single chord scale for those 3 chords. Note that this is different from my first example because there the 3 chords are all from the same major scale with the same root as the I chord (unlike in the blues, only the V chord could be a dominant seventh chord, not the others). In the blues, the chord scale for each of the 3 chords is the mixolydian scale with the respective roots. Nevertheless, it is important and helpful to realize that those 3 mixolydian scales share many common notes. The mixolydian scale of the IV chord is obtained by changing only one single note of the mixolydian scale of the I chord. The same is true for the mixolydian scale of the V chord.

In sum, on order to be able to choose appropriate scales, you need to understand the harmony and the implied key (and, possibly, key changes) of the underlying progression, and you want to reflect all this in your solo. If your solo does not reflect the harmonic function of the current chord (if there is any) then the result will not be very musical.

  • In blues, as likely as not, the minor blues scale notes will be used, and even the major blues scale notes, sometimes along with the Mixolydian.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 8:58
  • 1
    @Tim: That's right, but I was talking about the chord scales of the three dominant chord, and these are the mixolydian scales with the respective roots of the 3 chords. These chord scales do not contain any blue notes. Both blues scales you mentioned are a subset of the mixolydian scale plus one (major blues) or two blue notes (minor blues).
    – Matt L.
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 9:03

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