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Scales and Chord Tones: The Basics

If you are like most guitarists, you enjoy hearing a well played solo that seems to flow perfectly with the rhythm section. And if you’ve ever done any research on these solos you’ve probably learned that they’re derived from scales that fit the same key as the rhythm.

Let’s look at a major scale (Fig. 1):

This is a C Major scale starting from the C on the eighth fret. When we play all of the notes starting from the C we go through all the letter names: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. As anyone who has dabbled in soloing or improvisation knows, this scale is played over a C major chord. With the notes on this scale, we can play over any chord progressions, rhythms, or bass lines in C Major. But if you’re anything like I am, or many other guitarists, you’ve tried playing over these chord progressions in the same key as the peice, but sometimes find yourself hitting notes that still don’t sound pleasant. There’s a simple answer to this, and it has to do with “Chord tones” and “Passing Tones”.

A chord tone, simply put, is a note in the chord being played. For example, a C Major chord has the chord tones C, E, and G. As well as being part of the chord, or the implied chord of the rhythm section, these would also be the obvious choice notes to use in your lead lines. The letters in Figure 2 are the C Major chord tones starting from the eighth fret (Fig. 2):

Unfortunately, this can get quite dull and colourless rather quickly. Suppose a C major chord is being played on one guitar, and the other guitar is playing only the notes in a C Major chord. The C Major chord sound is now emphasised to the listener. This can be good, depending on the sound you are going for, but most of us will want to add some extra tonality, and make use of the other chords the scale has to offer. These notes are called “Passing Tones”.

Passing tones are typically used to chain the chord tones together. This can be done by going up and down the scale, to climb from one chord tone to the next smoothly. The passing tones of a C Major chord in a C major scale would be D, F, A and B, as follows (Fig. 3):

Chord tones and passing tones can be used over any chord progression to make an effective solo. As an example, in the chord progression C Major, F Major, G Major, C Major, we could use notes in the C Major scale to play the chord tones of each chord as it appears, and passing tones after, for a smooth effect. In the C Major the chord tones would be C, E, and G, in the F Major, F, A, and C, and in the G major, G, B, and D. This is visually represented in Figure 4, with black dots being chord tones, and coloured dots being passing tones (Fig. 4):

Using chord tones and passing tones we can seamlessly move from one chord to another, and avoid any odd or dissonant sounding notes during improvisation, for a smoother overall sound.

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About Brad

Brad is a musician, mixing engineer, and solo artist that plays in the metal band Oblivion’s Eye.

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