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Scales for Lead Guitar

First you must identify which key the song you want to play lead to is in. This is done through an understanding of basic harmony.

Here is an example:

The chords of this song are

||Eb |Gm Cm |Fm6 |Bm7 |Gm7 Cm7 |Eb6 |Ab Bb7 Bbsus Bb7 :||
|Ab |Cm Ab |Gm7 Cm |Bsus Bb7 |Ebmaj7 ||      

Without going into a fairly lengthy explanation of harmony here are some essential short cuts to understanding basic harmony.

  1. Chords are built from the major scale. In C, this is C D E F G A B C
  2. They are built thus: take a note, miss one, take one, miss one, take one. So in C you get C + E + G notes. This makes a C chord
  3. Using strictly only the notes of the C scale the chords built on each note of the scale are C Dm Em F G Am and finally Bdim (dim - ignore for now - look at later...)
  4. It’s exactly the same for the other keys - see the Transposition page. To make it easier to understand each scale note is given a number so C is 1 D is 2 E is 3 F is 4 G is 5 A is 6 B is 7. The convention in music is to write these scale degree numbers as roman numerals, i.e., 1 is I, 2 is II, 3 is III, 4 is IV, 5 is V, 6 is VI, 7 is VII.
  5. There are three major chords and three minor chords. The major chords are I, IV and V and the minors II, III and VI
  6. Look at the chords in the example song and perhaps write them alphabetically. So you get Ab Bb7 Bbsus Cm Cm7 Eb Eb6 Ebmaj7 Fm6 Gm Gm7
  7. They can also be sorted into major and minor ie Ab, Bb, Eb, Cm, Fm and Gm
  8. The two alphabetically adjacent pairs of chords are Ab, Bb and Fm, Gm. These will also have adjacent degree numbers ie IV, V and II, III. This should now tell you that the Key chord is Eb. Hopefully :-)

Choosing a scale to use for lead guitar. In the example the key is Eb so the options are:

  1. Eb Major The scale the chords of the song are made from so you couldn’t hit a wrong note
  2. Eb Pentatonic major same criteria - sounds ‘country’.
  3. C natural minor. The relative minor is built on the 6th degree of the scale. So same scale notes just differently phrased.
  4. C pentatonic minor. Made from the minor scale - has blues/rock feel
  5. C blues scale. made from pent. minor plus bluesy note. Distinctively bluesy.
  6. The notes of these scales are:
Major Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb
Pent. Major Eb F G Bb C Eb    
Minor C D Eb F G Ab Bb C
Pent. Minor C Eb F G Bb C    
Blues C Eb F F#/Gb G Bb C  

The above are the building blocks of creating a lead solo. They have to be put together musically using phrasing and dynamics. This is best understood by listening to some good solos by recognized good artists. Several come to mind but you know your own favourites.

Listen and learn.

John Chandler