Insert your custom message here. close ×

Chords in scales

What matters in guitar practice? What should you be working on?

To answer that question, you need to decide what kind of musician you are. Singer-songwriter? Composer. Soloist? Rhythm player? Those are the main identities you get to choose from. You may be one of these one year and something else in another year.

But what does it mean to be these things? How is a singer-songwriter different than a composer? What does a rhythm player need to know that a soloist doesn’t?

It’s important to be clear about these things because it makes it easier to focus on the things you want to focus on. It also gives you information about other things that you may not think to work on.

For instance, rhythm players focus on chords and rhythm. But knowing chords leads at some point to learning about arpeggios, which naturally leads (usually) to learning about scales.The rhythm player moves into the world of the soloist without trying to.

Let’s take a closer look at the rhythm/solo relationship.


Chords in scales

Every chord exists in a scale of some sort. Here’s the ionian mode…


ionian diagram



…and here’s a G major triad.

gmaj triad in ionian


I’m sure that you can find the triad embedded in the scale, but just to make it clear:

gmaj triad embedded


Using this technology requires a perceptual trick: you need to be able to play the chord and see the scale simultaneously, as well as be able to play the scale and see the chord.

To get this happening, you have to practice both until they feel natural. Then put them together by playing one and then playing the other. Simple in concept, not so simple in execution.

Here’s a way to work on it.


Exercise 1

  1. Get a metronome
  2. Put it on a slow speed.
  3. Play the scale one note per beat
  4. When you get to first chord-tone, place your fingers, one by one, on the other chord-tones. Do this in time to the metronome.
  5. When the entire chord is down, go back to the first scale-tone you played (the G on the D string, 5th fret), and play the rest of the scale from there. Do this in time.
  6. Continue this exercise with each chord-tone, always returning to the G on the D string and playing through the rest of the scale.


Exercise 2

  1. Still with a metronome on slow speed, play the scale one note per beat.
  2. When you get to first chord-tone, place your fingers on the first two chord-tones simultaneously, then on the remaining two chord-tones. Always in time.
  3. When the entire chord is down, go back to the G on the D string and play through the rest of the scale. Do this in time.


Exercise 3

  1. Still with the metronome on slow speed, play the scale one note per beat.
  2. When you get to the first chord-tone, play the entire chord, then continue with the scale.
  3. Go back to the G on the D string and play through the rest of the scale. Do this in time.


Chord-tones equal scale-tones

As these exercises make obvious, the chord-tones are part of the scale. A major implication is that you can choose any three or four notes from the scale, play them together and call them a chord. Don’t worry about giving that chord a name; just write it down so you don’t forget it.

Then invent another one. Play those two invented chords as a progression.

Play one chord for two beats, then the scale for two beats. Then play the second chord for two beats, then the scale for two beats. Continue going back and forth between chords and scale in this way. Once you’re used this structure, it will start to be easy to alter it (i.e. chord for one beat, scale for three beats, chord for three beats, scale for one beat, etc).

Eventually, moving between scale and chord becomes natural.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Moving from ionian to dorian

Here’s the dorian mode.

The diagram…


dorian image


…and the notes.


dorian mode


Here are the arpeggios in the B dorian mode starting on the 6th string, 7th fret. This is a bit of a finger exercise. Take it slow.


dorian arp



And here are the A ionian arpeggios from the last post.


A major arpeggios


First, make sure that you’re comfortable playing both. Once your fingers are comfortable playing the arpeggios in each mode, moving between them is a lot easier.


Going between modes

The method for doing this is pretty straight ahead. Just play the first arpeggio of the A Ionian mode, the one that starts on the 6th string, 5th fret. Then move to the first arpeggio of the dorian mode. That takes you from the A major arpeggio to the B minor arpeggio.

Here’s what that looks like. I’ve added a continuation of the dorian mode.


ionian to dorian


The next thing to do is work on moving from A ionian to B dorian, starting on every arpeggio in A ionian. You can also start from any arpeggio in B dorian, and move to A ionian.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Arpeggios in position

You’ll have noticed, from playing the arpeggios in the last post, that each arpeggio type – major, minor and diminished – have their own shapes.

If you play them in the same position – as opposed to along the neck – things change.


Arpeggios in A

Let’s take the arpeggios in the key of A, fifth position. This means we’re using the A major scale, or A ionian. Same thing.


A major arpeggios

As you play this you’ll notice different shapes for the same chord quality. Major and minor triads each have two shapes, even though both shapes start on the root. This makes playing arpeggios in position a bit more difficult, but it makes it easier to use when soloing.


Use both

Both ways are useful, and – good news – they’re complementary.

Once you know your arpeggios in other modes, you can move between them using arpeggios.

In the next post, I’ll show you the arpeggios in the dorian mode. Then we’ll start moving between ionian and dorian.


Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Dissonance, consonance, and arpeggios

At the end of the last post, I started talking about the chromatic scale. I’m going to back up a bit and expand the idea of single notes as non chord-tones, and talk about non chord-tones as part of arpeggios.

Think of single notes as being letters and arpeggios as being words. A phrase, then, is two or more arpeggios played in a sequence.


Creating tension on G major

So let’s take a single chord: a G major triad. Its chord-tones are: G, B, and D. Obviously, the G major arpeggio works, but what about all the other arpeggios in the key of G? Let’s take a look.


  • The A minor arpeggio has an A, a C, and an E. No chord tones, so we’ll label that as tense.
  • The B minor arpeggio has a B, a D, and an F#. This one is way more consonant with two chord-tones form the G major triad, and the 7th of a G major 7 chord.
  • The C major arpeggio has C, E, and G. Two non chord tones and the root of the G major triad. More consonant than the A minor triad, but less consonant than the B minor.
  • The D major triad: D, F#, A. One chord tone and the 7th of G major 7.
  • E minor triad: E, G, and B. Consonant like the B minor triad – two chord-tones and one non chord tone.
  • Finally, the F# diminished triad, which has F#, A, and C. this is probably the most dissonant triad of the key when played against the G major.


The takeaway is that you can plot the amount of tension you want to produce against a single chord. And yes, there is almost always more than one chord in any song. This means things can get complex pretty fast.


 The joy of work

It’s a lot of work to learn how to use arpeggios like this, but the payoff is enormous in terms of technique and ear training. Make it enjoyable (and not overwhelming), by just learning the arpeggios in the key of G for now and then playing them over a recorded G major chord.


Here’s are  the arpeggios in G major in sequence:


g maj arpeggio

I’ve put these all on the same two strings to make it a bit easier to play. This way you can get the tension/resolution sound in your ear faster. I’ll talk about playing them all in the same position in the next post.

I’ll also talk about not playing them in sequence like this. It gets old fast.

As a technical exercise, see if you jump randomly from chord to chord smoothly (i.e. Gmaj to Cmaj to F#dim to Dmaj, etc.). Go as slow as you need.

As an ear exercise, repeat one of the more consonant arpeggios at least five times. Then play one of the more dissonant ones. Then reverse the process. Repeat a dissonant arpeggio five times, and follow it with a consonant one.




Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Non chord tones

Playing nothing but arpeggios can sound unnatural. There’s lack of fluidity and a surplus of predictability if you play nothing but chord-tones.

Let’s mix it up with non chord-tones. Non chord-tones are simply the notes in the scale that aren’t in the chord.


Using non chord-tones

To keep it clear, I’ll just use a C major chord.


C non chord tones

That’s a bit more fluid. I’ve inserted the non chord-tone F between C and E, and between E and G. Then between G and C, I’ve inserted to non chord-tones in a row – A and D.

Notice that there’s a leap of a 4th (C to F) right at the beginning. There’s another one at the end – A to D. From a compositional standpoint, that’s a nice balancing technique. What’s interesting is that the leap from A to D sounds more dramatic, making those 4ths both the same and different.

There are a couple of reasons that the A to D sounds more dramatic.


  1. The leap from C to F isn’t preceded by any closely spaced intervals like everything before the leap from A to D. So no contrast.
  2. The leap from C to F is in a lower register than the leap from A to D. The higher register on an instrument has a more in-your-face quality.



Add rhythm, and it gets better.


c non chord tones rhythm


Every chord-tone

Of course, non chord-tones aren’t just the other notes in the scale. They’re also the other notes outside the scale: C#, D#, F#, and G#. Try playing and resolving those to chord tones.

Here’s the C chromatic scale with the chord tones (CT) marked. Everything else is for creating tension. And tension is always resolved by moving to a chord-tone.


C    C#   D    D#    E    F    F#    G    G#    A     A#     B

CT                    CT              CT                       CT

1                      3               5                         7



Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Targeting inside the scale

All the notes comprising a chord exist in a scale of some sort. For example, each chord in the key of C is built from notes in that key.

Sounds obvious, but let’s unpack it anyway. I’ll start with the scale.

Here’s the notes and the tab…

c major scale


…and here’s the image.

c major scale2



Bear in mind that both of these images represent a two-octave C major scale, which has 15 notes.

That’s important to remember for the following:


  • The 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the scale give you the C major arpeggio (6th string, fret 8), E (5th string, fret 7), and G (5th string, fret 10).
  • The 2nd, 4th, and 6th notes give you a D minor arpeggio: D (6th string, fret 10), F (5th string, fret 8), and A (4th string, fret 7).
  • The 3rd, 5th, and 7th notes give you the E minor arpeggio: E (5th string, fret 7), G (5th string, fret 10), and B (4th string, fret 9).
  • The 4th, 6th, and 8th notes give you an F major arpeggio: F(5th string, fret 8), A (4th string, fret 7), and C (4th string, fret 10).
  • The 5th, 7th, and 9th notes give you a G major arpeggio: G (5th string, fret 10), B(4th string, fret 9), and D (3rd string, fret 7).
  • The 6th, 8th, and 10th notes give you an A minor arpeggio: A (4th string, fret 7), C (4th string, fret 10), and E (3rd string, fret 9).
  • The 7th, 9th, and 11th notes give you a B diminished arpeggio: B (4th string, fret 9), D (3rd string, fret 7), and F (3rd string, fret 10).


Chord-tones in the scale

So the idea here is that when you see a progression with chords in the key of C, you can find the notes of the chord in a scale. Because of this, you can easily slip in other notes in the scale that aren’t part of the chord. This creates more tension, which is easily resolved by moving to a chord-tone.

You get good at this by practicing only the chord-tones first.

Take the following progression:


c major progarp


Play the C major arpeggio a few times, just to get used to it. Now play the A minor arpeggio until you’re comfortable with it. Then play from the C major arpeggio to the A minor arpeggio, treating them as a single unit. Once that’s comfortable, add the D minor arpeggio (play it by itself, then as part of a C – Amin – Dmin unit). Then add the G.

It will probably feel a bit unnatural, jumping from arpeggio to arpeggio (especially from A minor to D minor). All we’re doing here is teaching our fingers where to go for each chord. Don’t expect music yet.



C major to A minor and D minor to G major link up pretty naturally. But A minor to D minor is a problem. You can’t really move naturally from the last note of the A minor arpeggio to the first note of the D minor arpeggio.

Good thing it’s a two –octave scale. You can make a D minor arpeggio starting on the 3rd string:

  • D (3rd string, fret 7), F (3rd string, fret 10), and A (2nd string, fret 10).


a min to d min


That’s the basic strategy: if something doesn’t seem to work, look for alternatives. The specific strategy here is to find another place on the neck to play the D minor arpeggio.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

1 2 3 9