Matching Lead Scales With Chord Progressions

Convert To One

Since this is a course in lead guitar playing and not music theory let’s assume that you understand at least a little basic diatonic harmony and music theory. If you don’t know any harmony or theory at all, study my music theory for guitar course at the same time you are taking this one. The diagrams below show you that a musical key is a scale and is associated harmonies as can be seen in our variations of these time-honored classic diagrams:



Tonality is a musical system of organizing pitches into scales, harmonized scales become chords which are then arranged arranged in order of stability or tension. The pitch or chord with the greatest stability is called “One” or the tonic. The most unstable chord is the V (G or G7) which demands resolution back to the tonic. All popular music including rock, blues country and jazz are considered to be tonal. I like to think of tonality as the general overall sound of the key, the flavor of the music. The type of chord sound that really colors the entire progression.

In this lesson we are going to be discussing the major and minor tonalities and using the major and minor scales as vehicles for improvisation over standard Pop and Rock ‘n Roll chord progressions. If you’d like a little more in-depth treatment concerning the subject of tonality, check out my YouTube video..

Convert To One

If a song, or section of a song, uses only chords found in the key of C, that song is said to be ‘in’ the key of C. In that key of C, the I (one) chord is home base, the chord in the key with the most restful and stable sound. That chord of course will accept the C major scale as its melodic counterpart. Listen to the rock style example below:


That is a good example of basic inside tonal playing and improvising, C major chord against a C major scale. Now, duplicate the lead part you just heard, it shouldn’t be too difficult as that line is simply an ascending scale followed by a descending major scale in the key of C as is illustarted just below. All the notes fit nicely and sound good. The ability to make simple scale passages sound good lies at the heart of improvisational ability. I have discussed this principle, called ‘stepwise movement’, or ‘scalewise movement’ in a detailed YouTube video..


There Are More Chords But The Thinking Is The Same.

Just below is another rock type song (chord progression) in the key of C, only this one uses more than just the C chord or the I chord, it also uses the two most important chords in the key other than the C tonic chord: the IV chord, or F and the V chord which is G. The roman numeral names of the chords provide the harmonic analysis.

When we improvise on this progression, we can treat every chord as if it was the one chord, for purposes of soloing all 3 chords in the progression are used as a backdrop for the C major scale, when the band changes chords, you don’t change scales. This is called ‘converting to I’, treating every chord like a I chord and apply the same scale to all chords. For someone knows about music theory, this is textbook stuff.


Listen to each ot the examples a few times and then reproduce them on your guitar, all phrases and passages using scale notes only and adhere to the principle of stepwise movement. If you have any difficulty, keep practicing the scale, with a strong sense of timing, until all of the reveal their personalities to you and seem like old friends. The following example uses that classic rock vibe as a showcase for these important ideas.


Try to reproduce the lines and licks you just heard. Remember each phrase of the solo is the beginning of a scale passage. When that phrase ends, I am returning to the root note and staring over, so stricly speaking I am not religiously adhering to stepwise movement between the phrases. The licks and lines should be easy to play by ear.

Next is a more sophisticated sounding progression, but as long as everyone of those chords is a member of the key of the C the ideas of ‘converting to one’ and using ‘stepwise motion’ are still valid in every possible way.


Play Along Tracks

Use the play along tracks below to play solos similar to the ones I am playing in the preceding tracks. Remember to concentrate on the groove and feel of your solos as well using tasty silences and nice entrances on a regular basis.

I – IV – V Up Tempo Classic Rock

This is a I – IV – V in the key of C based on the rock standard La Bamba.

I – VI – IV – V R&B Ballad

This is a I – VI – IV – V in the key of C based on the rock ballad Stand By Me, except modernized.

Listening And Analysis

When I was a student at Berkee College of Music one of my favorite courses was call listening and analysis. All of the brilliant and wonderful professors working at that school would take turns sitting on the stage of a huge lecture hall and playing films and recording by various famous and not so famous musicians from every corner of the world. I love sitting and listening and forming opinions about what I was here and thinking about how I could implement all of these amazing new ideas into my own personal style. In a broad sense, that is what we have been doing here in this lesson listening to the sale of major scale passages being played against diatonic chord progressions in a major key. The ability to play scale passages, to gently shuffle the notes of the major scale and make them sound musical, is one of the most important skills you will develop as a guitarist and improviser.

As you work with the material in this lesson, listen to the quality (the musical flavor) of each and every one of the short passages get used to hearing this is the right thing to do the tasty way to do it. Use the YouTube play along tracks to develop the ability to peel off short and long musical passages based entirely on scales. Of course, teach yourself how to use leaps, skips and chord shapes in addition to stepwise movement.

Major vs. Minor

Throughout musical history, (400 years) the major scale and the minor scale have sort of been running the show. These two scales represent the two most important and most used tonalities, types of sounds in our musical world. Each of these scales has its own distinct personality and musical quality. I think of major and minor as the Ying and Yang or chocolate and vanilla in the world of sound. When listening to, evaluating or playing music first decide if the general overall flavor of the song is major or minor. If this is still a little new to you, I have a YouTube video addressing chord quality..


Minor Keys: Convert To One

At the risk of being repetitive I would like to say, the most common approach to lead guitar soloing in the Pop, Rock & Blues context is to select one scale and use this scale for the entire solo – for all the different chords in the solo section. Although an over simplification this approach is certainly a well-used and time honored method. All guitarists have used this concept to learn improvising and many excellent guitarists primarily use this type of thinking while playing lead guitar.

Your next assignment, is to listen to short minor scale based chord progressions which have minor scale passages played over top of them. After listening a few times make sure you can duplicate the solos on your guitar.

Included in the music for the chord progressions you will see the harmonic analysis in green boxes. Once again this is simply telling you that all the chords in the progression belong to the key of C minor, there are no key changes or unusual chords used anywhere, the songs are squarely and firmly in the key of C minor in C minor only.


One Chord Vamp

A one bar hold of the minor tonality. Of course use a C minor scale throughout.


I – IV – I – V Pattern

Using commonplace chord changes to cadence to, resolve to the C minor I chord.


I – Flat VI – Flat VII

This idea has appeared in countless standard sond in one way or another. Of course, the main point of resolution is the C mi chord.


One of the most common cadences in jazz music, all chords remain firmly in the key of C, and all chords accept the C minor scale. the thinking here is the same as it was for the very first one chord vamp example.

Before progressing to the play along tracks, you may want to seriously challenge yourself: work with all the previous example in this lesson until you are playing them perfectly in time with me. All of the tracks have a nice loud count in so it should be fairly easy with a little extra effort.

Play Along Tracks

One of my teachers once said something a little cryptic, “If want to learn how to play convincing lead guitar, you must play convincing lead guitar.” What he meant by that was this: you have to practice playing good leads lines, breaks, and runs, ones that sound good to you, hot ones that make sense. Practicing your soloing is not the same thing as practicing your scales. Back in the days I was studying with him I used things like play along tapes and records to practice my soloing, to put me in a real life playing situation. Today we use backing tracks found in YouTube videos for those same purposes. Just below are two minor key backing tracks based on iconic rock standards. Use them to practice your minor scales, and your ability to play music using minor scale passages.

All ALong The Watchtower Style

Green Onions Style

Point Of Cadence Method

Q: How do I determine which key I am in?

A: All songs, in virtually every style, are based on pleasing combinations of chords called cadences. When a series of two or more chords, or chord progression has reached its natural resting point, it’s point of resolution, it has cadenced, arriving at a point of rest and resolution. In almost every rock, pop, blues, folk or country song the chord at the point of cadence reveals the key of the song. The diagram below brings this concept to life for major key cadences, althought somewhat of an oversimplification, I call this the “Point Of Cadence Method”.



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