By Pete Madsen

Have you ever improvised using a tried-and-true scale—only to hit a note that just doesn’t sound right once a chord change comes along? Here’s a remedy for this common problem: By targeting the notes of a given tune’s chord progression, you can create solos that sound more copacetic. In this lesson, you’ll learn how to use improvisational ideas based on both triads and seventh chords on the I, IV, and V (A, D, and E) in the key of A major. You’ll finish things off with a full chorus of a 12-bar blues—one of the most common forms in popular music—making it possible for you to transfer these concepts to a variety of situations.

Week One

The most important thing to consider when improvising on chords is how to break down common shapes into cohesive musical phrases. Now, you’ll do just that with those I, IV, and V chords. Ex. 1—focusing on the I chord—depicts A and A7 grips, which you’ll use as the foundations for a couple of licks. These chord shapes are based on an E-shaped barre chord but include just the top four strings. Ex. 2 treats your first-chord grip to arpeggios and hammer-ons to create a cool-sounding lick. This hammer-on is a classic blues device that slips from the minor third to the major third. Ex. 3 is similar to Ex. 2, but it ends on the flatted seventh, G, for a more soulful sound.

Ex. 4 shows voicings for the IV chord: a D triad and a D7 chord (omitting the fifth). The triad is put to use in a double-stop lick in Ex. 5; in a classic pattern, the root and third (D and F#) are slid into from a half-step below, three times, before ending with a double stop of the third and fifth (A). Ex. 6 uses the D7 chord voicing combined with the D major triad in a triplet pull-off lick. Pick it however you like, but I find the pattern shown in the notation to be most effective.

And don’t forget the V chord. Ex. 7 shows E and E7 voicings. These chords are put to action and bridged via an open-string double stop in Ex. 8.   

AG278 WW Ex 1 and 2Week Two

Since the I chord often takes up the first four measures of a 12-bar blues, it’s a good idea to have some longer licks under your belt. Ex. 9 depicts a new A7 voicing, based on a D shape. The lick in Ex. 10 starts off with this new A7 voicing, played as an arpeggio, yielding to double stops. In the second bar, a descending chromatic line (C# C B) sets you up for the major-minor move you’ll recognize from Ex. 2 and 3.

You probably already know the basic A and A7 chords diagrammed in Ex. 11, but the double stops in Ex. 12 will show how to form these “cowboy chords” into something new. The first part of this phrase bounces on and off the A chord using open strings. In the second part, you’ll grab the flatted seventh (G) and descend though the sixth (F#) and back down to the fifth (E). Then you’ll jump up to the A shape from Ex. 1 and play just the second and third strings in a descending chromatic lick that resolves to your original chord from this lick.

Week Three

Now, look at a couple of chord transitions.
Ex. 13 travels between two different A-type chords on the way to a D7. In the interest of efficiency, note that when you get to the A7 chord, your second finger is on string 3, fret 9, and it can then be slid up to the 11th fret for the D7 chord that caps off the lick.

Ex. 14 represents the last four measures of a 12-bar blues, containing all three chords: the I, the IV, and the V. For the E7 and D7 chords you’ll use the same grip—an abbreviated G7 shape. This puts you in close proximity to the chord shape of your first exercises for A, so you can take advantage and play a simple single-string chromatic run to end on an E note.

AG278 WW Ex 3 and 4Week Four

In Ex. 15, play a 12-bar solo combining triad and seventh-chord phrases with minor-pentatonic (in the key of A: A C D E G) lines.

The first phrase contains a sliding triplet that transitions to a familiar “blues box” pentatonic lick. In the third measure, repeat the first part of the phrase and tack on another box-pattern hammer-on triplet that ends with a whole-step bend.

As you transition to the D chord in the fourth measure, look for the closest chord voicing and play a lick similar to Ex. 6. Back at the A chord, in measure 7, play a lick from the previous examples that moves from an E-shape partial A chord to a D7-shape partial A7.

For the E7 chord in measure 9, bounce back and forth between E7 and Eb7. Then, it’s down to the D7 descending lick. Finally, play a turnaround (a phrase, usually one or two bars, that directs you back to the beginning of a progression) with double stops to reference the chord changes: A A7 D Dm A E7. The indicated chord grips should be familiar to you.

Some final words of advice: When you’re improvising, try to track the chord changes and use the grips you already know as templates for creating licks. It can be as simple as moving between two strings or playing a note adjacent to the chord tone.

With a little experimentation, you can come up with dozens of excellent new ideas. 

Pete Madsen is a San Francisco Bay Area-based author, instructor, and performing guitarist. Learn more at