How To Play Melodic Solos

Use Chord Tones To Flow Along With The Harmony

Once I had a student that desperately wanted to become the best lead guitarist in the world. His name was Stefano Go. Stefano was used to practicing daily, even 10 hours a day, tons of scales and arpeggios up and down the entire fretboard, (obviously he did not have family and kids, but I digress).

Stefano was a committed and diligent student, so the metronome was always switched on, at the proper bpm speed. Day after day, pattern after pattern, scale after scale, his technical skills improved dramatically, and eventually, he found himself playing at the speed of light, with accuracy and control.

Franco Hoe, a popular musician in the area, needed a new lead guitar player for his band, so proposed Stefano an audition. Stefano was pretty confident in his skills, his fingers were strong, agile, and flexible, his picking was incredibly accurate, and he knew by heart all the possible scale and arpeggio patterns.

But the audition did not go well

Franco gave to a crestfallen Stefano a crucial lesson. He told him: "You have to play along with the music, putting attention to what happens to the rest of the band and playing accordingly".

Since then, Stefano always practiced over some backing tracks, splitting his attention in half: on his instrument and on the music in the tracks. No need to say that he's now an awesome player.

How To Play Melodic Solos

This little story is clearly a joke but is useful to demonstrate a fundamental pillar of solo guitar. As Miles Davis said:

"It's not the notes you play, it's the notes you don't play." Miles Davis

The secret for playing great melodic lines is hidden in certain notes.

And what these notes are?

The answer lies in the chords of the songs...

Introducing Chord Tones

Chord tones are simply the notes that compose a chord in the progressions we are playing over. For example, in a C Am G7 chord progression, the chord tones are:

These notes should be your first choice when creating a melodic line over that chord progression because they greatly express the harmonic transitions of the song. In other words, you should ear the progression in the notes of your solo!

To better understand what I mean, please listen to the examples below.

Solo using the C major scale without any note selection

In this first example the solo is built with the notes of the Major Scale; it's somehow nice but it does not blend so well with the chords:

solo using C major scale

Solo using chord tones only

In this second example, the solo is created using only the chord tones. Again, we are using the notes in the C Major Scale, but only a subset of them.

Notice how chords and lead guitar match well in a whole flow.

solo using chord tones

Chord Tones And Triads

Triads, which are a set of 3 notes (root, the third, and fifth intervals), are another way to see chord tones. We already talked a lot about this concept in our guitar triads tutorial; my suggestion is to use them as you would use a scale pattern: memorize and use them as a basis to play your solo.

The great thing about triads is that they are easy to learn, they are linked to the CAGED system, and they actually are the chord tones.

Of course you can then add any note you want depending on your taste, the important thing is to use the notes in the triads as main notes.

5 Shapes of Major Triads

Here below you find a fretboard map of the notes in a major triad, which is formed by the root, major third and perfect fifth.

The root is the note in white. Notice how the single shapes interconnect all along the fretboard.

major guitar triads

5 Shapes of Minor Triads

Minor triads are composed of the root, minor third and perfect fifth.

minor guitar triads

5 Shapes of Diminished Triads

A diminished triad is root, minor third and diminished fifth. It indeed contains a tritone.

diminished guitar triads

5 Shapes of Augmented Triads

An augmented triad is created by stacking a root, major third and augmented fifth.

augmented guitar triads

Seventh Chord Shapes

Now we're going to advance one step further, adding one more note to our triads and playing seventh chord arpeggios.

Four notes arpeggios give access to a richer and interesting set of options. They are the foundation of jazz improvisation but are helpful in many other genres and styles.

We're going to learn the 4 most important types of seventh chords: Major Seventh, Dominant Seventh, Minor Seventh and Half Diminished (sometimes denoted as Ø).

Major Seventh 5 Arpeggio Shapes

A Major Seventh Chord is a major chord with a major seventh.

Major 7th Shape 1

Maj Seventh Guitar Arpeggio Shape 1

Major 7th Shape 2

Maj Seventh Guitar Arpeggio Shape 2

Major 7th Shape 3

Maj Seventh Guitar Arpeggio Shape 3

Major 7th Shape 4

Maj Seventh Guitar Arpeggio Shape 4

Major 7th Shape 5

Maj Seventh Guitar Arpeggio Shape 5

Minor Seventh 5 Arpeggio Shapes

A minor seventh chord is a minor chord with a minor seventh.

Minor 7th Shape 1

Minor Seventh Guitar Arpeggio Shape 1

Minor 7th Shape 2

Minor Seventh Guitar Arpeggio Shape 2

Minor 7th Shape 3

Minor Seventh Guitar Arpeggio Shape 3

Minor 7th Shape 4

Minor Seventh Guitar Arpeggio Shape 4

Minor 7th Shape 5

Minor Seventh Guitar Arpeggio Shape 5

Dominant Seventh 5 Arpeggio Shapes

A dominant seventh chord is a major chord with a minor seventh.

Dominant 7th Shape 1

Dominant 7th Shape Guitar Arpeggio Shape 1

Dominant 7th Shape 2

Dominant 7th Shape Guitar Arpeggio Shape 2

Dominant 7th Shape 3

Dominant 7th Shape Guitar Arpeggio Shape 3

Dominant 7th Shape 4

Dominant 7th Shape Guitar Arpeggio Shape 4

Dominant 7th Shape 5

Dominant 7th Shape Guitar Arpeggio Shape 5

Half-Diminished 5 Arpeggio Shapes

And half-diminished chord is composed of a diminished triad (root, minor third and diminished fifth) and a minor seventh. It's also denoted as m7(b5) or Ø.

Flat 5th Minor 7th Shape 1

Flat 5th Minor 7th Guitar Arpeggio Shape 1

Flat 5th Minor 7th Shape 2

Flat 5th Minor 7th Guitar Arpeggio Shape 2

Flat 5th Minor 7th Shape 3

Flat 5th Minor 7th Guitar Arpeggio Shape 3

Flat 5th Minor 7th Shape 4

Flat 5th Minor 7th Guitar Arpeggio Shape 4

Flat 5th Minor 7th Shape 5

Flat 5th Minor 7th Guitar Arpeggio Shape 5

Exercises To Internalize The Use Of Chord Tones

At this point is crucial to internalize the concepts we have talked about so far, developing muscle memory and ear awareness.

You should practice triads and seventh arpeggios until they'll become second nature. Probably you already did this work with scales, memorizing the 5 modal shapes of the major scale.

Now it's time of arpeggios; they are more difficult because they require more strings crossing, but once you master them the outcome will surprise you.

We will be following the Circle of Fifths as chord sequence to practice over; this allows us to experiment with all the roots:

C - G - D - A - E - B - F# - Db - Ab - Eb - Bb - F - C

Exercise 1: Ascending Octaves

Select a fretboard area that spans 4/5 frets, and play one octave arpeggio starting from each root of the circle of fifths.

You want to stay in the selected fretboard area without shifting your left hand, so you will be forced to play all the different shapes shown above, putting attention in finding the root (the white note) in the fretboard area you are working on.

Practice this exercise across all the fretboard (frets 0-5, then 5-9, then 9-12, and so forth)

Practice this exercise for all the triads and seventh chord qualities.

chord tones arpeggios exercise 1

Exercise 2 - Ascending Full Arpeggios

Like Exercise 1, but now you play the arpeggio starting from the lowest string, not from the string on which you have the root of the shape.

Basically, you search the first note of the arpeggio that is placed on the 6th string, inside the selected fretboard area.

Or, putting in another perspective, you choose the shape that fits the selected fretboard area with the given root.

chord tones arpeggios exercise 1

Exercise 3 - Ascending and Descending Full Arpeggio

Finally, you play the arpeggio ascending to the highest string, and descending to the lowest string.


Apart from these exercises (which are just a suggestion and not a strict regime set in stone), you should practice your arpeggios on any chord progression you know, applying the corresponding arpeggio to the chords of the progressions.

Backing Tracks to Download for Free

Here below you find some backing tracks in mp3 format that you can use for your practice. They are at 60 BPM speed and the chords are: C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, Db, Ab, Eb, Bb, F and back to C:

backing tracks circle of fifths

Download them for free by clicking on the links above.


Practice Tool: Chord Progression Generator With Guitar Fretboard

To help students practice chord tones soloing, I've created a chord progression generator that shows the notes in the chords on a guitar fretboard. This is a great visual help to know where the notes to play are. Give it a try here.

chord progression generator

How To Play Melodic Solos Using Chord Tones | Conclusions

Ok, is this so simple? Do I have only to play arpeggios instead of scales, and my solos will turn to masterpieces?

I'm sorry but chord tones are awesome, but not enough.

They are surely a great starting point that you can use immediately, but to create really interesting lines you should also pay attention to approach notes and target notes.

Not all chord tones have the same effects over a chord progression, so you should select them carefully.

Also, chromatic passages and chord extensions play a huge role in lead guitar solos, especially in jazz.

These will be the topics for another tutorial on melodic guitar solos; in the meantime be sure to practice the exercises listed above, they will be the foundation for more complex approaches.

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