Learning scales is hard work; it can seem like endless effort with very little short-term gratification. You don’t have to learn every scale there is to know (leave that to Allan Holdsworth) but if you want to progress with your improvisation skills then at some point you’re going to have to do some serious scale study… Or is there another way?
I remember asking my first guitar teacher about which scales to play over which chords, naively expecting a definitive answer, and he said, ‘Well… Basically you can play any note you like over any chord as long as you mean it, and resolve it’. Bearing this vague but sound advice in mind, sometimes it’s nice to not worry about scales and just play so I came up with two 9-note scales that cover just about any improvisational situation you might find yourself in. For simplicity’s sake let’s say that most chords fall into one of two categories: major or minor (I didn’t bother with a separate scale for 7th chords and their extensions as you can get away with playing either of the following scales over this kind of chord).
The first thing I did was to choose the intervals I most like to play over a major type chord as follows:
1, 2, 3, 4, b5, 5, 6, b7, 7
I then mapped out the scale with the root note on the low E string:
You can of course choose your own intervals but I think that 9 notes in a scale is the absolute limit before venturing into shameless chromaticism. If you run the scale in note order you’ll notice it retains that major sound; the idea here is not to play all the notes in the scale but to choose your notes, safe in the knowledge that they all work over a major chord.
For the minor pattern I chose the following intervals: 1, 2, b3, 4, b5, 5, b6, b7, 7
It’s basically the same as the major scale pattern but we’re using the b3 and the b6 as (for me) these are the characteristic minor scale tones, but again, feel free to come up with your own set of nine notes.
Again, the idea is to purposely pick the notes rather than try to cram them all in at once, especially where you have four semi-tones in a row.
I’ve been playing with concept for a couple of days now and while it does take some getting used to, you can certainly get some interesting results, and it’s great for breaking out of scale patterns. Let me know what you make of it in the comments.
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