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I have the chord progression Dm9 G13 Cmaj7, and was wondering what the best scale is to solo over these chords. The C major scale works fine, but I can't help but think there is a better scale to use.

  • All of the chords use notes purely from C major. Dm9 =D F A C E, G13 =G B D F E (maybe A, poss. C), Cmaj7 =C E G B. All pretty safe. It sounds glib to say all the notes, but what's wrong with some chromatics? Eb and Gb work from a blues point of view, and Ab works over G. There you are - the chromatic scale! – Tim Dec 24 '18 at 13:15
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    Just as important, although it rarely gets mentioned, is timing and knowing where you are in the bar. Even a simple C major scale, note by note, can be made to sound interesting and good by use of timing. Also don't think 'scale notes' but instead ' available notes', which gets you out of thinking and playing in a scalar manner. And that's before we start on dynamics! – Tim Dec 24 '18 at 15:49
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The progression is C-maj ii-->V7-->I with no out of key tones. So Cmaj would be "the" scale. But are you really just using C maj, up and down?

Referencing my old Jamey Aebersold play along LPs (yes LPs) you would want to use D dorian over the D-9, G mixolydian over the G13, then default to C maj over Cmaj7.

You probably already know the drill that these are all the same scale, or in the same key.

If you are looking to add a little texture to a solo try some extensions. As Tim states in the comment chromatics work. But, which ones? The right ones!

You can start by playing blues over the G13 and walking into D dorian, etc. Another device is to end on a C maj phrase that uses Lydian instead of Ionian. Sounds like a mistake but the dim 5th (aug 4th) sound very nice when used correctly.

Personally I think that the "fit a scale over a chord or progression" approach is not very creative. You can use any and every scale over any chord you need to create motifs and pattern that accentuate certain notes (perhaps 3rd and 7th on strong beats, common advice) but decorate your lines with anything. I tend to think in terms of leading tones and use voice leading to tell me how to walk (or run) into those key notes.

Why not end a phrase on C blues over that progression.

  • I can never get my head around 'use D Dorian over Dm, G Mixolydian over G,' etc. Short of 'homing' in on each root - which isn't particularly necessary - we don't always use C when 'in C ionian'. At the end of the day, it's exactly the same pool of notes for each! What am I missing? My students (eventually) know that they can use any note in any key, anywhere in their playing. It's just being clued up enough to know what won't fit!! +1 anyway! – Tim Dec 24 '18 at 15:19
  • @Tim, I agree. When I first worked through the JA series I just didn't get it. I was just providing some standard pieces of info prior to my preferred approach. I think for beginners, who might not even have the ears or muscle memory yet, playing in a mode that matches a chord naturally places chord tones on strong beats when playing standard sequences. But that isn't much of a solo. It helps acclimate the ear to what's going on. I personally think rich chord movement and multi voice harmonies say more. It's just one of many ways to start building lines. – ggcg Dec 24 '18 at 15:32
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I think it would be better to look at soloing a bit differently. Consider this: when you play a note on a strong beat, it is perceived as a chord tone, implying a chord.

As far as I see, your idea about what you're doing is something like this.

HOW (NOT) TO SOLO OVER A CHORD PROGRESSION

  • (Step 1. Get predefined chord progression as "input")
  • Step 2. Figure out a scale that fits over the chords.
  • Step 3. Select notes from the scale

This has some problems. The biggest problem is, nothing is said about HOW you select the notes in Step 3. Another problem is, your solo is going to be somewhat restricted, unless you picked the chromatic scale in Step 2. In which case, Step 3 will be even more mysterious, and in order for your solo to make any sense, there just has to be some hidden models and guidelines that are not mentioned. Even if you picked something like C major for the example chord progression (which would be the "right" choice), you'll HAVE to have some other guidelines and models, or otherwise you're playing random notes from the scale. Remember, whatever you play on a strong beat, will be perceived as a chord tone, so if you pick random notes, you will be implying random chords. And that might be nonsensical, chaotic, or sometimes even in disagreement with the chord progression you were given, even if you stick to the "right" scale.

In my opinion, it's those other models and guidelines that you should be interested in, not just a scale (let alone, one single scale).

The C major scale in your example is of course something you'll have to know. That chord progression is probably from a tune that's in C major, and that's a palette of the least unexpected notes. Playing any of the "black keys" would be unexpected.

The other models and guidelines you'll want to see in your mind on top of your keyboard or guitar fretboard are chords and the individual notes in the chords. Each chord is a twist in the plot of the figurative theatrical play that is music. You take the given progression and you do one or both of the following alternatives.

  • Alternative A: Emphasize some of the already existing chords' notes in a meaningful way, taking into account the role of each individual note in the chords like 1st, 3rd, 7th, etc. (meaning that you must be familiar with the function of each chord note) and other aspects like voice leading and general ascending/descending motion. Add passing tones, and make the emphasized chord tones land on strong beats. Rhythm and harmony go together!

  • Alternative B: Imagine a new set of chords, and play that new set of chords like in alternative A above, but now you emphasize the notes of your own imagined chords and add passing tones etc. to them. To make your own chords, either modify the existing chords by adding or changing tensions, or play completely different chords altogether. How well this succeeds depends on what the other instruments are playing. If they don't play much, good for you, because you'll be able to play very different chords.

For example, in your example progression, assuming that it repeats and after the Cmaj7 comes another Dm9, you might want to do a V - I motion to go to the Dm9 by playing something like a A7#5 before the Dm9. It might not work that well if the backing band plays the Cmaj7 very strongly. But then you could do an A7#5#9 which only clashes a bit with the B in the Cmaj7. (I sometimes take advantage of the fact that guitarists often mute their strings during the last 1/8th before a chord change, or at the end of every bar for rhythmic reasons, leaving room for the keyboard player or soloist to do some nice out-of-scale or otherwise clashing notes leading to the next chord, without having to really orchestrate it)

For a safer set of chords, you could pick e.g. any diatonic triad on top of the Dm9, like Em, F, G, Am, etc.

Anyway. In any case, do not play a scale. Play chords!

So. All in all, our "algorithm" becomes like this:

HOW TO REALLY SOLO OVER A CHORD PROGRESSION

  • (Step 1. Get predefined chord progression as "input")
  • Step 2. Figure out a scale that fits over the chords, if you can. There may be more than one scale, if the chord progression has modulations. Anyway, you'll be using this for basic reference only. It's much more important to keep track of where the tonal center is, and where you're moving it with your chord tricks.
  • Step 3. Based on information from steps 1-2, generate a new set of chords that performs the same essential functions as the original. (functions like melody support, starts and ends properly etc) but make it better or at least different. Make your chords have some voice leading. These are your IMPROVISED IMAGINED CHORDS for this solo. Your improvised imagined chords may even change the (imagined) key and the (imagined) scale!
  • Step 4. Play your improvised imagined chords (not necessarily all their notes of course) so that you emphasize chord tones on strong beats, and add other notes, passing tones, etc.

When you play a note, any note, you have to have a chord in mind. When you play a note on a strong beat, it is perceived as a chord tone anyway, whether you know about that stuff or not. Scales are secondary. Chords rule, scales obey! You soloist, be the chord master and rule them all. :)

You'll find lots of information about playing chord tones and imagining alternative chords on the web, if you search for it. Don't search for scales, unless you're overweight. I think the cause of the scale nonsense problem is partly that people, particularly guitarists, have an assumption that they need to play a scale and everything will be fine. Then they Google for "how to find the right scale" or "modes" or basically anything related to scales. And guess what - that's what they get, because search engines are programmed to give you what you asked for! The problem is just that you're asking the wrong question. (end of rant)

Note that the "algorithm" above doesn't say anything about phrasing, or what the "strong beat" can be. And perhaps most importantly, how to develop these skills to a fluent level. Based on anecdotal empirical evidence of one person, my recipe for developing the skills is: play by ear. (1) Play melodies by ear, (2) play accompanying chords to the melodies by ear, (3) play different accompanying chords by ear, and (4) play both melodies and chords together by ear. For guitarists, the last part is probably more challenging than for keyboard players, but you'll just have to know where the notes of your solo's chords (either the written chords, or your different imagined chords) are on your instrument. The more instinctively and immediately you see the chord notes, the better. For non-chordal instruments like brass and woodwinds, I think the learning curve might be somewhere between piano and guitar, because the instrument itself provides a less severe layer of obfuscation.

  • Thanks I really appreciate your advice. I've never really thought of it in that way. I'll keep that in mind when soloing going forward – Deps Dec 24 '18 at 20:38
  • @Deps When you play a note on a strong beat, it is perceived as a chord tone anyway, whether you know about that stuff or not. So you'll be playing chords anyway, either random chords, or controlled and tasteful chords. Think about how bad it would sound, if the backing band played random chords or if they didn't know what chords they play. But that's what you'll be doing if you "play a scale". – piiperi Dec 24 '18 at 21:19
  • yeah that makes a lot of sense. Thank you!! – Deps Dec 24 '18 at 21:38
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If you feel it should all be one scale, I guess it has to be C major (re-designate it as D dorian and G mixolydian if you feel it makes any difference). But why must it all be one scale? Try Db over the G7 - it will come out as a juicy 'dominant 7 (plus_everything)' :-)

But do try to be melodic, not just play scales. What's the tune of the song you're playing? Use the melodic and rhythmic elements of it in your solo. Or maybe even just play the tune! Audiences LIKE tunes, beautifully played and sung. They aren't really that interested in your facility at playing scales.

  • Yeah Im trying to be melodic in my solos and not just playing random notes of the scales – Deps Dec 24 '18 at 15:14
  • @Deps, I'd recommend a motif or lick based approach. Write a small collection of your own phrases (short 4 note riffs) and learn how to move then through each chord, changing phrasing etc. – ggcg Dec 24 '18 at 15:34
  • @Laurence "If you feel it should all be one scale" ... I don't think it was an informed decision from the OP's part. ;) I wrote a lengthy answer where I try to explain what's wrong with the whole question and the scales/modes approach that particularly guitarists seem to be using. – piiperi Dec 24 '18 at 21:39
  • "I wrote a lengthy answer" Mine was considerably shorter, but said much the same thing! – Laurence Payne Dec 24 '18 at 23:06

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