Chord shapes are great tools for expanding the range and flexibility of your guitar solos—in any style. They can help you get your bearings up and down the neck and find phrases and riffs that truly lock in with a song’s chord changes.
In the June 2017 Weekly Workout, I introduced a shapes-based approach to soloing, using the open grips of C, A, G, E, and D moved around the neck—aka the CAGED system—to generate soloing ideas. The lesson’s examples were derived directly from the chord shapes—the solo lines were simply arpeggios or were based on chord tones. That approach works well. When you’re soloing over a C major chord, for instance, you can cover a lot of ground playing the notes of a C chord (C, E, and G) in various combinations and registers.
But of course there are a lot more notes you can use in a solo than just the three or four notes of the chord. In this lesson, you’ll go a step further and explore notes you can add in around the chord shapes to give yourself a wider and more versatile soloing vocabulary.
Throughout this Weekly Workout you’ll be soloing over the same chords: the straightforward eight-bar progression in the key of Am shown in Example 1. In terms of feel, you’re in the ballpark of minor-key blues/jazz tunes like “Summertime” and “St. James Infirmary.” You can play this progression with an alternating bass/strum, as shown; strum downstrokes on each beat in a swing style; or come up with your own picking pattern if you prefer. Record yourself playing through the example a few times so that you can solo over it in the rest of the lesson.
Example 2 applies the shapes approach in the way that was used in the previous lesson. All of the notes in the solo come directly from the chord shapes shown in the diagrams above the staff. So in the first four bars of the solo, play notes found in the open Am, Dm, and E7 shapes. The rest of the example is based on shapes at the fifth fret, except for a quick dip down to the fourth fret for the E in measure 7. If you imagine you’ve got a capo at the fifth fret, you’re using an Em shape for the Am, a G shape for the C, an Am shape for the Dm, and a C shape for the F. That’s the CAGED system in action.
Beginners’ Tip #1
If you play with a pick, use all downstrokes for Example 1 (except for the pairs of eighth notes, as shown).
Now check out the notes that you can add around those open chord shapes. Starting with the Am chord, play Example 3, which climbs from the low E to the high E. Visualize the Am shape as you play, and notice when you’re hitting one of the chord tones (A, E, and C). On the fourth, third, and second strings, for instance, you’re moving chromatically from the open string to the fretted chord tone.
The idea is that when you’re soloing over an Am, or using the Am shape up the neck, you can incorporate any of these notes, ascending or descending or jumping around as you wish. In essence, the example lays out a vocabulary for soloing over the chord. You could arrive at a similar result by thinking in terms of a scale with passing tones added between scale degrees, but here the conceptual map comes from a chord shape.
Try the same thing on a Dm shape in Example 4, an E7 in Example 5, a C in Example 6, and an F in Example 7—these cover all the remaining open chord shapes used in Example 1. Again, notice where the chord tones are, and which notes you are playing around and between them.
Examples 8–11 run through a few other essential open chord shapes, for D, Em, G, and A. You’ll notice that Examples 9 and 10 are similar—they’re built around Em and G, which are related chords that have two notes in common—but not interchangeable. Each one emphasizes the chord shape it’s based on in a slightly different way.
Beginners’ Tip #2
As you play these solos, keep a mental picture of the underlying chord shapes in your mind.
Now that you’ve got a map of notes to use with the various chord shapes, try putting it to work over the Example 1 progression.
The solo in Example 12 stays entirely in open position—all the lines are based on the open chord shapes shown above the staff. Compared with Example 2, which used only chord tones, now you’re playing more chromatically—often moving by half steps up to notes in the chord shape. In jazz, these notes leading up or down to a chord tone are often called approach notes. Think of them as chutes and ladders you can take between the stable platforms of chords.
Even if you’re playing this solo example with no backup, you should be able to hear the chord progression implied by the single notes. To highlight the chords more, emphasize the chord tones within the solo, just by picking them a bit harder than the approach notes.
Beginners’ Tip #3
The last two examples use lots of triplets: three eighth notes played in the space of one beat. Count them as “One-and-a, two-and-a, three-and-a, four-and-a.”
To close out this workout, move up the neck for Example 13. Start at the fifth fret for the first two measures, playing lines based on the Em shape (for Am) and Am shape (for Dm), then head up to the seventh fret. In measure 4, walk up the fourth, third, and second strings successively to outline an A shape, as in Example 11 (moved up to the seventh fret, so it sounds as an E).
In the last four bars, use the shapes to guide you up to and down from the higher regions of the fingerboard, up as far as the 12th fret. On the Dm, use the top of the 10th-fret barre chord shape for a little chordal riff. And in the last measure, play two double-stops derived from the Am chord shape at the 12th fret, sliding quickly off the final notes to add a little punch to the ending of the solo.
Now leave the tab behind and try making up your own solos over this progression. Work with the chord shapes and look for ways to walk up to and down from them. Although you are orienting yourself visually, of course the sound is what matters—so let your ears, not your fingers, be your ultimate guide.
Beginners’ Tip #4
Remember that chord shapes at the 12th fret are the same as open chord shapes—they’re just an octave higher.
Take it to the next level
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As you experiment with adding notes around the chord shapes, don’t be afraid to hit notes that clash a little with the harmony—if you move through them and land on a more consonant note, the momentary dissonance can have a cool effect. In this example, I’m adding in the dissonant D# over an Am chord, G# and F# over the Dm, and C and A# over the E chord but then resolving each time to a chord tone.
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, Acoustic Guitar’s founding editor, is author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter, recently published in an expanded second edition, and the video series Learn Seven Grateful Dead Classics for Acoustic Guitar. jeffreypepperrodgers.com