Spicing Up Scales with Chords

When we look at a scale, we tend to see its use for single notes only.
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When we look at a scale, we tend to see its use for single notes only. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It is also possible to stack the notes of a scale to make chords. Remember, a chord is many single notes played together at a time. However, due to the dimensions of the guitar, notes not only go from left to right, but also north to south, which can make it seem a little overwhelming at first, but don’t let that scare you. Being able to breeze through a bunch of complex chords at breakneck speed like a great jazz guitarist is a daunting task, but we can all get comfortable with some simple two- and three-note voicings.

It is essential as guitarists that we learn our scales, not only in one-position shapes but also as one big scale that covers the entire fretboard. Instead of looking at a scale one note at a time, let’s try viewing it on two or three strings, with the goal of seeing many notes of the scale at once. Check out Fig. 1. I have outlined a C major scale in two-note groupings of major and minor thirds on the top two strings. All of these dyads fit into the key of C and work over its related chords: Cmaj7, Dm7, Em7, Fmaj7, G7, Am7, and Bm7b5 (not forgetting their extensions: Cmaj9, Dm11, Em9, Fmaj9#11, G9, Am11, etc). When we do this, we are using the sounds of the key’s related “modes.” These sweet-sounding mini-grips are the building blocks of pop and rock harmony (although they can be used in many other styles as well) so get to know them. Obviously, once you can do this in the key of C it’s crucial to be able to transpose these moves to every other key, which means you will have to really know them. We’re using two-string examples here, but it is possible to stack as many notes as you want. Just remember to rely on your ears! Six notes together do not always work well on the guitar, both physically and aurally. Get these simple shapes under your fingers, and practice them up and down the neck.

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Now check out Ex. 1, which uses the thirds we built from the C major scale. The chord progression, which is found in hundreds of popular tunes, is diatonic to the key of C major so our thirds work perfectly over it. Although all the thirds work, it is important to be mindful of each chord and choose a dyad that complements the underlying chord. You will notice that in each measure we land on a third that highlights tones from the underlying chord. Once you do so, you can generally jump up or down two positions in the chord scale and get other chord tones: a C and an E and then an E and a G for a Cmaj (or Am7), for example. It will sound less melodic if you were to start on a third that does not include chord tones of the underlying harmony, although this might be desirable in certain styles to bring out a hipper sound.

What we did with two-note dyads we can do with three-note chords or triads. In the following diagrams and examples, I have taken a blues in A and from each chord of the I-IV-V progression—A7, D7, and E7—I have built a series of chords from each tonal center’s related Mixolydian mode (A Mixolydian, D Mixolydian, and E Mixolydian), which you can see in Fig. 2. I’ve stacked notes on the D, G, and B strings, and altered them to fit the scale shape as they move along the strings.

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After you have a sense of what these shapes look like on the fretboard from Fig. 2, memorize them in the notation and tab as well, in Examples 2, 3, and 4. I suggest you learn each scale’s chords separately to begin with and, once you feel comfortable with them, practice each chord scale over its respective root. Any blues backing track in A will be a great training ground for these new shapes and sounds. Play them up and down to really get a handle on the fingerings, but then don’t be afraid to apply the “up two, back one” or “every other chord” concepts to get good at jumping around.

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Ex. 5 is a cool-sounding sample piece of how these shapes can be used in the context of a 12-bar blues progression. This is more like a set vamp to use over the blues as an alternative to the typical riff-based blues we guitarists are so used to (and sick of playing). One of the hippest things you can do over a blues, especially if you have a lot of blues tunes to play on a gig, is to take at least one solo that is entirely composed of chords. It gives the audience a nice interlude, builds dynamics, and will hold your interest as well. Win/win! And remember: Once you have learned the chords well, you can freely improvise using them, mixing up the rhythm and articulation—sliding into or out of the chord, letting some ring while chopping others, adding vibrato, etc. Then, when you go back to some of your tried-and-true single-note blues licks, they will sound fresh and new. It’s exactly by combining these new concepts with the things you’re already comfortable with that you expand your style, so get your brain, ear, and fingers used to these shapes and start putting them to good use!

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For some amazing and inspiring examples of this concept, check out some of the killer comping work of Robben Ford, Kirk Fletcher, Larry Carlton, and Duke Robillard.

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