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Building Phrases That Target Chord Tones

 

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Improvisation in a Major Key

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Now you know what notes you can use to improvise. The next step is, "What do you do with them?"

You can play scale notes linearly (a, b, c-sharp, d, e, f-sharp, g-sharp, ...) or in leaps (a, c-sharp, e, ...). You can play them in 1/4 notes or 1/8th notes, or a combination of any rhythm you can think of. However, the first best rule to start with is to target chord tones. This means to be aware of what chord is happening at any given time during the progression in order to target or approach playing over that chord with individual notes of that particular chord.

1. When the A major chord is happening, then play and emphasize notes from the A major scale (1st, 3rd, 5th) that form the A major chord (a, c-sharp, e).
2. When the D major chord is happening, then play and emphasize notes from the A major scale (4th, 6th, 1st) that form the D major chord (d, f-sharp, a).
3. When the E major chord is happening, then play and emphasize notes from the A major scale (5th, 7th, 2nd) that form the E major chord (e, g-sharp, b).

By targeting chord tones we are using the concept of Functional Harmony.

1. A major chord (a, c-sharp, e) is the Tonic or I (one) chord of the key of A major.
2. D major chord (d, f-sharp, a) is the Sub-dominant or IV (four) chord of the key of A major.
3. E major chord (e, g-sharp, b) Dominant or V (five) chord of the key of A major.

So, obviously we play notes from the A major scale while the A major chord is happening. But what might not be so obvious is that you want to emphasize the chord tones (a, c-sharp, and e) because those are the notes of the A major chord. Likewise when the D major chord is happening, you still play notes from the A major scale but emphasize the chord tones of the D major chord (d, f-sharp, a). Again, when the E major chord is happening, you still play notes from the A major scale but emphasize the chord tones of the E major chord (e, g-sharp, b); and the note "d" if you are implying an E7.

In order to emphasize the chord tones you can use several strategies.

1. Play chord tones on only the strong beats of the measure, beats 1 and 3.
2. Play chord tones on all the downbeats of the measure, beats 1, 2, 3 and 4.
3. Start scale runs or licks on chord tones that reflect which chord is happening at the time in the progression.
4. End scale runs or licks on chord tones that reflect which chord is happening at the time in the progression.

These strategies will make your single note melody, solo lead lines sound integrated with the chords as they happen, and thus with the overall chord progression. This is as opposed to what it frequently sounds like when a beginner is trying to improvise: sounding as if they are at odds with the chords or fighting "against" them even if and when they are using the right scale or key!

The basic melodic pattern in this lesson are only a beginning and basic way to use these strategies. But we all have to start somewhere! Notice that each pattern uses the same phrasing. We start with the root note of the chord, we go up and down the scale 5 notes in 1/8th notes and this conveniently lands on the chord tones on the downbeats. And each phrase does this for each chord in turn. This give gives us an immediately convenient way to unify or integrate these two phrases. We are building a similar sound pattern, or musical phrase, just changing the notes in order to suit the chord progression.

Notice that we'll play the phrase over the E chord in two different places in order to give our melody some variety at the end of each phrase.

Remember that you can use all the notes of the A major scale. Just emphasize the chord tones of the chord that is currently happening. When the chord progression moves to the next chord, then change your emphasizing to reflect that next chord. You can even use all the chromatic notes in between the scale notes. This technique has it's own unique problems, challenges and rewards. For now, let's just say you can do it as long as you are targeting and emphasizing chord tones!

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