Have you ever spent hours trying to create the perfect solo and still ended up with something that you weren’t happy with? Even after all of the scales and arpeggios, chords, technical exercises and ear training, you still find your solos meandering. If this sounds like a common scenario, ask yourself how well you’re playing to the harmony that you’re soloing over. Anchoring your lead ideas to the underlying harmony with the use of chords tones will immediately improve your solos and drastically reduce the time it takes to compose something satisfying.
Let’s start with some basic chord changes that every musician encounters frequently. To keep this post accessible to most players, I’ll be using diatonic chord progressions. However, just because a progression is diatonic doesn’t mean that you grab the key center scale patterns and start playing with reckless abandon. With a little thought, any lead line can be made unique and meaningful regardless of chord progression.
The following examples are not fancifully recorded. I wanted to show how sound composition and thoughtful note choice can stand on it’s own so the examples are just me playing a melody over simple strummed chords.
Example 1 is a short 2 bar phrase that’s easy to navigate, being a simple i-v-i in A minor. Let’s take a closer look at what makes it work.
- Notice how measure one outlines the A minor chord nicely by starting on the root and hitting the minor third with a bluesy quarter step bend.
- Measure two is outlining E minor by playing the root and minor third for the first two beats before falling to the target note B. This is bent a half step to nail the minor third (C) of the returning A minor chord in the next measure.
Example 2 is an expansion of Example 1. Now that you’re familiar with the concept of hitting chord tones to develop a melody, let’s complete a larger phrase.
- The A minor in measure 3 is dealt with nicely after the B to C bend by jumping up an octave and again targeting the C, this time on the 20th fret.
- It’s important to notice the prominent role that the G on the 15th fret has in the third measure. It is the minor 7th of the chord and even though it’s not in the triad harmony, 7th’s are always a great note to use to add color.
- The lick over F fits like a glove. Starting on the 3rd of the chord, there is a quick slide from the 7th to the root.
- To navigate the G, the 5th (D) is bent and slowly released before walking down into the root of the tonic A minor chord.
A slightly more intricate progression is involved with example 2. I chose a C6 to start as a way of showing that extensions are great melody notes.
- Notice the prominent use of A in the first measure, the sixth of the C chord.
- Once again, note the b7th to root slide on the B minor chord.
- The lick over the Dsus4 is composed of 7ths and 6ths which are arranged to leave out the F#. The F# is the third of the chord so leaving this out helps to accentuate the suspended quality.
- The final E minor chord uses E minor pentatonic/blues that ends on the minor third with a quarter step bend.
Example 4 was written to illustrate a slower melody in which every note is important. When writing a melody such as this, every notes relation to the underlying chord must be analyzed in order to achieve that perfect sing-ability.
- Of special consideration are the melody notes that are extensions of the underlying chord but still glue the line together. For instance, the E on the 5th fret at the end of measure 1 is the 9th of the D major chord but holding it over the bar line, it becomes the b7th of the F# minor.
- The F# over the A chord briefly hints at 6th chord quality, but the bend into the b7th (G) ensures that the line stays pleasing.
- The second time that the D arrives, the melody slides to an A to end the measure. This is the 5th of the D and when held over the bar line it becomes the third of the F# minor.
When you start paying attention to the harmony and really play to the chords, your leads will take on a whole new level of sophistication. Be sure to record yourself playing some chord progressions and create melodies using the chord tones as a map. You’ll find that you generate a lot of ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
“A good solo is like a book. It will start out in a phrase, it will go on in paragraphs, and then it will have a great ending.”
– Steve Vai