Crucial tips to get you playing more musically over chord changes
Learning to play effectively over chord changes is one of the fundamentals of guitar playing that pays off in any style of music. Whether you’re flatpicking bluegrass, shredding metal or swinging jazz lines, playing over chord changes helps your guitar solos become an integrated part of the music versus skating along the top. It also does wonders for eliminating wrong notes and generating interesting and meaningful melodic phrases. And it can be a fantastic tool for composing melodies too.
Jazz guitarists such as Pat Metheny have mastered the ability to solo over complex chord changes with ease. Pictured above is the amazing Ibanez PM200 Pat Metheny Signature Hollowbody at Musician’s Friend Private Reserve
Make the Commitment
The first step is changing your ways. If you’re used to finding the key, then noodling as the chords go by, make a commitment to yourself to play over every chord, or at least understand where it sits in relation to the key of the song. Like anything new, you’ll notice that change is challenging. It’s quite possible to sound worse than you did before when you weren’t thinking about every chord. Stick with your commitment though, and you’ll find that it gets easier very quickly, and soon you’ll be unable not to think of the chord changes when you solo.
Use Chord Tones
The easiest way to play over the chord changes is to arpeggiate them. I think arpeggios get a bad rap simply because players often think they need to play the whole arpeggio and play it in order. This creates a very specific melodic sound that can be useful, but can often sound a bit sterile like an exercise. Instead, try thinking of arpeggios as scales or as a group of available notes that work over a chord. In the video below, I first play arpeggios with notes always in a pattern creating a classical-like sound. Next I look at those same arpeggios as possible note choices for melody (not playing them in any order or rhythm).
Another fantastic way to play over chord changes is to use the chord voicing you play as arpeggios. This works really well when you begin improvising over jazz tunes or see a chord in a song that is either complex (lots of extensions) or totally irrelevant to the key. I tell my guitar students that you should be able to improvise over any chord progression that you can play the chords to. Using chord voicings as arpeggios makes this possible.
Using the same system, treatment or lick over each chord is a common way to make the changes, especially in country, bluegrass and R&B. Many of these licks have been around forever and really bring out the flavor of certain styles of music. Don’t get too worried about why they work but instead spend your time applying them over different chords. Check out the examples in the video below.
Using scales over chords is a more difficult way to play over changes. That’s because there are more things to consider. For instance if I want to play a scale over an Am7 in a song, I need to know if that Am7 is the ii chord in G major, the vi chord in C major, the iii chord in F major and so on. The first step is to find out what key the song is in. Looking at the first chord and the last chord of a song can often provide you this information. As you get more comfortable looking at chord progressions, you’ll begin to see the chords in phrases versus individual entities. Popular examples of this would be I IV V and ii V I. Viewing chords in phrases or progressions can simplify the process of placing scales over chords.
So there you have it. Make the commitment to knowing what you’re playing over and start playing over every chord using arpeggios, systems and scales. You’ll find your solos become more musical and meaningful. Until next time, keep playing!
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Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing several nights a week in the legendary Kansas City jazz scene. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach and has a book and DVD titled Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard. Find Brian on Facebook and twitter.