When soloing, ideally you want the whole fingerboard to be your playground, so you can go anywhere and find lines and riffs that mesh with the song. The question is: how do you reach that level of comfort and familiarity on the neck, especially when venturing away from the old faithful low frets?
For me, the key is using chord shapes. Solos can be built from scales and modes, too, but for the kind of soloing I like to do, where the notes change to reflect the song’s chord progression, shapes are the most useful tool. If, say, you’re playing over a G chord, and you can visualize a G shape in open position as well as at the third, fifth, seventh, and tenth frets, you’ve got a big map of possibilities for what and where to play.
Navigating the guitar by shapes is a common strategy—it’s the basis of the CAGED system, in which you orient yourself by applying the basic open-chord shapes for C, A, G, E, and D played up the neck. A visual system like this just makes sense on an instrument that’s not linear like a piano and not even symmetrically tuned like a mandolin or violin. In this lesson, you’ll see how chord shapes can help you build great-sounding solos—and help you move confidently up and down the neck.
First you need something to solo over, and throughout this lesson I’ll use the same four-bar progression: D–A–Bm–G. This is a common I–V–vi–IV, as heard in the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” Brandi Carlile’s “The Story,” and Dan Bern’s “God Said No.” Ex. 1 shows this progression played in a straightforward rock style. You might record yourself looping this rhythm part for a minute or two, so you can solo over it for the balance of the lesson. (Alternatively, you can play over my Ex. 1 video.)
Now it’s soloing time. In Ex. 2, the solo phrases just use the top three strings in the D, A, Bm, and G open-chord fingerings. In the chord diagrams above the staff (in this example and in all those that follow), you can see the shapes that the phrases are based on. Even though these diagrams show full chord shapes, you don’t have to hold down all the strings; press down only the ones you need in the solo. This example is all arpeggios, played in a repeating syncopated pattern—simple but nice sounding. Solos don’t have to be fast or fancy to be effective!
Ex. 3 takes the basic idea of Ex. 2 a little further, going beyond straight arpeggios to develop a stronger melody. Notice how the phrases transition between chords. As the chord changes from D to A, you move from a D (part of a D chord) to an E note (part of an A chord). With the change from A to Bm, play a C# note over the A chord to a D note over the Bm. And on the change from Bm to G, slide from a B note down to a G on the third string. Just by following the shapes, the solo highlights changes in the harmony.
Now, move up the neck. Look at the chord diagrams in Ex. 4. If you find it useful, think of these chords in terms of the CAGED system: the D chord is an open C shape over a barre at the second fret, and the A is an open G shape, also over the second-fret barre. The Bm and G are familiar barre chord forms that you could think of as open Am and E shapes over a third-fret barre. These four chord shapes are the basis of the solo.
As with Ex. 2, the solo passage in Ex. 4 simply arpeggiates the chords. Use the chord diagrams as your guide for fingering. Notice how the same rhythmic figure of 16th and eighth notes repeats in the first three measures. This is the essence of soloing—you create a pattern and spin out variations, in this case applying the pattern to different chords.
Ex. 5 moves further up the neck: the D and A chords are based at the fifth fret, the Bm at the seventh fret, and the G at the fifth fret. This example adds a few notes that are not part of the underlying chord shapes, but they’re typical chord embellishments: the high B in measure 1 is the sixth of the D chord, the F# in measure 2 is the sixth of the A chord, and the A in measure 4 is the second of a G chord. So essentially you’re adding in notes around the chord shapes. If you know which notes sound good as embellishments with open chord shapes, you can use the same additions when you apply those shapes up the neck.
In Ex. 6, play another solo line based on chord shapes at the seventh fret. Aside from the hammer-ons and pull-offs, the solo stays close to the shapes. In contrast to scale-derived solos that often move by half or whole steps, notice how the chord shapes help you make bigger and more dramatic melodic leaps. All you do is jump from one string in a shape to another.
You can also use shapes in soloing for double stops and chordal riffs. Check out Ex. 7, which opens with a little riff built off a D chord at the tenth fret. In the next measure, on the A, get into position at the ninth fret (by the CAGED system, this is an open C shape) and play a couple of sweet pedal steel–style double stops using hammer-ons. Measure 3 might look complicated until you realize it’s just based off of a Dm shape transported up to the ninth fret. The example ends with a G triad played up at the tenth fret. This kind of chord-based passage sounds great in a solo mixed in with single-note lines.
Try a different type of double stop in Ex. 8. This time, use notes from the chord shape that are separated by one string. These pairs of notes are all a fifth apart, but you don’t need to know that—just follow the shape. Notice that in the measure of A, you switch between two shapes, and you do the same with the G—the chord shapes are helping you move up the neck. In the last measure, slide into the final G chord from the tenth fret to the 12th.
To close out this Weekly Workout, combine ideas from the previous weeks into an eight-bar solo. Start low on the neck on the D, and on the A, use shapes to jump from the second fret to the fifth to the tenth—the shapes show you where your landing points are.
In measure 5, barre the seventh fret with your first finger, as shown in the chord diagram, to play a couple of chordal riffs. Use two A shapes to navigate back down the neck in measure 6, and then outline the Bm in measure 7. Close out the solo with a series of double stops that are simply pieces of the open G chord shape.
This whole approach depends on being able to find chord shapes quickly up the neck. To practice, take any song’s chord progression and figure out how to play it—without a capo—at multiple positions. Then try using notes from those chord shapes in a solo. Work on moving smoothly between positions, and search for the notes around the chord shapes that you can add in. The more you do this, the more of a soloing vocabulary you’ll develop. And wherever you travel on the neck, you’ll find those handy shapes, like little signposts letting you know where you are.
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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