Playing Changes

Playing the Changes

Using the Modes and Arpeggios to Define the Chord Changes in Guitar Solos

Years ago, a guitarist came to me in search of instruction. It seems his band was really going places, but when it came time to lay down his lead tracks in the studio, the producer opted to have another player from a well-known band come in to play the leads instead of him. He was dismayed, to say the least. He didn’t understand what went wrong, and came to me to see if i could shed some light and maybe help him rectify the problem.

it didn’t take long for me to understand the producer’s choice. This young guy definitely had chops — he had the finger dexterity, speed, and a good vibrato and nice tone. But he wasn’t playing the changes. In fact, he wasn’t even playing remotely close to the changes.

Here I’m going to lay out some of the principles of what “playing the changes” means, and how to do it.

Lead. Don’t Follow.

Lets say you’ve got a rhythm guitarist, a bass player and a drummer. You’ve got guys to tell everyone through what they’re playing what the chord changes are, what the rhythm is. You could choose to just meander some lovely strings of notes above it, which will no doubt add color and interest to the piece you’re playing. Or, you can choose to define the music; to propel it forward. What you play can effectively define the chord changes and rhythms while simultaneously elaborating on it — adding melody, emotion and your own personal meaning to the music. Either way is valid but the second has an advantage or 2, especially in certain situations. When you don’t have the support of your fellow band members, for example, whether for a couple bars or a few minutes, it’s good to be able to carry the tune single-handed. This way you make sure it has a direction and can be followed by your audience.

Use Arpeggios

Ok, that might be misleading. You don’t have to use only arpeggios. But you should know what notes make up every chord in the progression your soloing over. These notes would the 1, 3 and 5 of the mode from which the chord is derived, or with which it’s associated. The Modal Guitarist books list which chords go with which of the 28 modes.

A Simple Example of Using Modes for Chord Changes

Lets say we’ve got a chrod progression like C major – F major — alternating 2 or four measures on each. One way to play over this is to use a mode that contains the arpeggios of both chords. The C Ionian Mode would be one such mode. One could simply stay in that mode and it would be a very safe choice.

Another way to improvise over the progression C maj – F maj would be to switch between C Ionian (over the C chord) and F Ionian (over the F chord. The easiest way to switch back and forth between them would be to play both modes in the same position — for example: C Ionian beginning on the 8th fret, 6th string and F Ionian beginning on the 8th fret, 5th string. If you try improvising over those 2 chords using those 2 modes, you’ll notice that one note changes: the 7 of the C Ionian moves down a 1/2 step to become the 4 of the F Ionian. You’ll also start to notice that the 1 3 5 of F is also the 4 6 and 1 of C Ionian. If we keep that 7th tone of C (a B natural) when we switch, we would have the F Lydian, so we would not be changing keys with each chord change. Sometimes it’s preferable to stay in the same key, amnd sometimes it’s preferable to change.

In a simple blues progression, for example, which contains all dominant 7th chords, like A7, D7 and E7, one would have to change keys as the chords change. One would be hard-pressed to find a single key that contains all the notes needed to form those 3 chords. If you try playing A Mixolydian, D Mixolydian and E Mixolydian over those 3 chords within the same position you’ll again begin to notice the relationships between them, and their differences: the flat 7 of the A mixolydian needs to move up a 1/2 step to become the 3rd of the E chord, and so on. Outlining the arpeggios in your melodic phrases will create the illusion someone is playing the chord changes as you improvise. In fact, someone will be playing the chord changes: you.

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Tips for Better Guitar Technique

Learning Better Guitar Technique

Guitar Fingering Rules

There are 3 main rules when it comes to finding the best fingering for any passage you play on the fretboard of the guitar. I call these the “Rules of Superior Guitar Technique.” They are as follows:

When At All Possible -

1 When you skip a fret, skip a finger.

2 Never use the same finger twice in a row (unless shifting or sliding).

3 Never Shift twice in a row.

Notice i said “when at all possible.” As with any rules, there are always exceptions. There are times when the fingering of a certain melodic pattern necessitates break one or another. But trying always to adhere to these rules will ensure you’ll be choosing the best possible fingerings at all times.

Where did i get these rules? Well, I’ll tell you – after many years of playing through pieces written for the classical guitar, which had had fingering indications written by such guitar greats as Andres Segovia and Julian Bream, and asking myself “now why’d he choose to do it that way?,” i noticed certain recurring techniques, and that in turn led me to formulate these rules.

Guitar Fingering Tips

Take a look at rule #1, above. Skipping a finger is sound practice for a few reasons. You’ll be able to keep track of where your hand is on the neck of the guitar. You’ll save yourself some work when it’s not necessary. But there is on other very important reason: forcing a stretch between the 2nd (middle) and 3rd (ring) fingers can actually cause damage to the hand when done over and over again over a period of time.

Moving across strings.

Keep in mind that the side of the hand which is strongest is that side closest to the thumb. Make those fingers the ones that need to reach further whenever fingering two or more notes on different strings, but on the same fret.

Try applying these rules while playing through the Modes For Guitar in the Modal Guitarist books, and while using some melodic patterns while playing through the modes and arpeggios. By doing so, you will train yourself to be able to instinctively choose the correct fingering for any musical passage.

Holding the Guitar

Sounds, simple, right? the fact is, many people conform the way they hold the guitar to where it is, rather than putting the guitar where their hands will find it easiest to reach and play. Try this experiment: while sitting in a chair, without holding the guitar, try placing your hands where it would be easiest to reach the guitar. Take note of where tboth hands are. Then, when you pick up the guitar, move your kness and legs to a position where they’ll keep the guitar in that position – or use a guitar strap – or both.

As a general rule, you’ll find the left hand can more easily reach the fretboard when the headstock of the guitar is at about eye level. The reason for this is simple: holding the hand that high means you’ll have your elbow bent at an acute angle. The more your elbow is bent, the straighter you can keep your wrist. After all, elbows are made for bending, but the wrists are more for twisting the hand, and to much bending at the wrist will impair the fingers’ ability to function optimally.

Another reason for having the headstock that high is that the neck will then be more or less at a 45 degree angle. With the neck of the guitar parallel to the floor you’ll find your wrist is twisted about as far as it’s construction allows. The further from that horizontal angle of holding the guitar, the better.

The Left Hand Thumb

The best place for the left hand thumb is in the center of the back of the guitar neck, behind the fret at which the 2nd finger will play. Often, guitarists put the thumb behind the index finger, which, ironically, needs the least amount of help, since it’s the strongest finger. Placing the thumb on the guitar neck behind the fret at which the 2nd finger plays will allow it apply opposing pressure equally whether squeezing with the index finger (1st finger), or the 4th finger (pinky).

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Beyond Shredding

Beyond Shredding — Think as Fast as You Play

Playing single note passages on the guitar rapidly doesn’t really take much work, but learning to think and hear fast can take a lifetime.

Infinite Speed

We have jets that can break the speed of sound. And a space shuttle can travel many times that — thousands of miles per hour. But when you think about it, the quickest a person could travel between two points is to be in both places at once. Same on the guitar. If you can play two notes at once you’ve already got infinite speed. The trick is to put that to work for you. To play fast isn’t enough of course; one must be able to play a series of notes in an even tempo and in time. Notes played in time often seem faster than those that aren’t steady.

A word about developing speed and proficiency with double picking.

Try taking a mode and taking a very small melodic passage out of it — say, 1 2 3. Play slowly and steadily. Stay Relaxed. Hit the string with the pick down on the 1, up on the 2, down on the 3, up on the 2. Keep repeating it until it’s smooth and flows naturally. Don’t try to get fast. The speed will come.

After you get the hang of playing small groups of notes, you can gradually increase them in length, to 4 or 5 note groups starting on the 1 oof a mode, the 2 of a mode, and so on. And then on to longer groups, of course.

Think Fast

After having practiced the modes and melodic patterns for a while it becomes easy for the guitarist to play strings of notes — riffs — without thinking too much about what they’re playing. Playing without thinking is not a good habit. It cna lead to your improvisation being sterile, without direction. Here are a few exercises to open up your playing, open up your mind, and keeping your ideas fresh and flowing.


A great way to develop your ear as well as your musical "voice" (not your singing voice, but rather, how you express yourself with your instrument), sing each note as you play it. Doing this will improve your phrasing and make it more natural. It will also keep your mind attuned to how what you’re about to play will sound.

The "Starting Point, Ending Point" Rut Lets say you’ve played a four note melodic pattern thousands of times on the guitar. You could play it in your sleep. Now, if you know you’re playing the right mode to match the chords changes of the tune you’re jamming on, and you’ve picked a starting point and an ending point you can put your brain on automatic pilot for the duration of that "run," and then play another in the same fashion, and on and on. Just don’t do it. It becomes too easy to let your mind wander from what’s important: playing meaningful, expressive music. Try this, as a way to keep yourself from falling into a rut when practicing.Start out nice and slow. Practice improvising in a continual stream of notes at first, 8 or 16 notes to a measure. Set these restrictions on the notes you play:

  • Play no more than 3 notes in the same direction (ascending or descending).
  • Play no more than 3 consecutive notes. Skip a note or more in the mode. For example, avoid passages like 1 2 3 4 5. Instead, play 1 2 4 or 1 2 5.

As an added challenge, try doing both at the same time — skipping notes, playing larger intervals, and changing direction. Playing Over Changes Challenge yourself by switching modes during improvisation. Try staying in the same position, switching between C Ionian and C Aeolian, for example, playing a continuous stream of 8 notes in each mode before changing. Try to hear in your mind how the differences in the modes will affect their sound as you play them. I hope these thoughts and ideas prove very helpful to you. And don’t forget to pick up copies of the Modal Guitarist series books. I appreciate your support!

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Using the Modes

Modes in Improvisation

Improvisation means making up the music spontaneously. Improvisation can be in a solo, or "ride," where the "lead" instrument is showcased and is making its own musical statement. Improvisation can also be scattered throughout a piece of music, in what are usually called "fills." A good guitarist uses the right mode for the right chord. This is based, not only one the type of chord (major, minor, 7th, and so on) but on the relationship between that chord and what comes before it and after it. For example, the the Ionian mode is a major mode with a major 7th arpeggio. This mode is used for the "one" chord (roman numeral I) of the key. The Lydian Mode is also a major mode with a major seventh arpeggio, but it is the IV chord – it has a subtle but distinctly different sound than the Ionian.

Of course, once you know which modes have the "correct" sound for the piece of music, you may choose to play those "in" notes, or be a little more daring by playing a mode that has some notes which alter the harmonic structure – in other words "out" notes.

Guitar Solos

Guitar Solos, also called "rides," are created by guitarists most often by improvisation. Always remember – the most important thnig is to be musical. Being musical is often not as easy as it sounds. The tempation for the guitar player, or any other musician for that matter, is to show off what they know. After all, that’s the point, isn’t it? Music is a performance art. The real issue is – what makes for good performance? Always try to play what makes sense for the piece you’re playing.

Guitar Solos Using one Mode

The simplest way to use modes in improvisation is to find one mode that fits over every chord in the progression and just stay with that. this is limiting, because only certain combinations of chords will work. More complex progressions always require at least a minimal amount of changing the mode being used as certain chords appear in the progression.

Guitar Solos Using Changing Modes

When you learn to change modes to fit whatever chord comes along you’ll find that a ton of limitations have been lifted. Not only that, but you’ll be able to actually define the chord progression by the notes you use in your solo. The arpeggio, or chord tones, within the mode define the sound of the chords. This means a listener will be able to hear the flow of the chord changes without even having someone playing the chords themselves.

Of course, apply all of the above while practicing modes from the Modal Guitarist Series of books.

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Melodic Patterns on the Guitar

Becoming familiar with any mode or scale on the guitar means knowing how all the notes on the guitar sound and being able to change direction or skip any number of notes easily. Going straight up the sequence of notes and straight down again will only take a player so far. Hopefully he or she will become bored when that becomes easy and want to try some trickier combinations of notes. This is a great place to start, and will lead to becoming a more mature and developed guitar player.

As stated on the home page, I prefer to use numbers to indicate the tones in the modes. There are a few good reasons to use this approach.

Instead of


I use

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1

This way, the player can use the same terms when thinking or playing in any key. He or she will also be able to begin to distinguish the difference between tones; the 3rd tone of the scale should start to sound like a 3rd to them, and so on. Thinking of the tones of the scales in numbers will develop a guitar player’s relative pitch — a musician’s abilty to discern the relationships and distances between notes.

3 Note Ascending Melodic Pattern

Lets just play 3 notes starting from the bottom of the scale: 1 2 3 . That in itself is a 3 note melodic pattern. Now, we can play another, but this time starting on the 2nd tone of the scale: 2 3 4. Playing a series of these 3 note patterns in succession would be like this):

and so on.

After going all the way up the scale, you can practice going back down across the fretboard using a 3 Note Descending Melodic Pattern: 7 6 5 6 5 4 5 4 3 4 3 2 etc.


The Thirds basically come out of the 3 Note Pattern; just play the first and last note of each 3-note group. Like this:

and so on.

Inverted Patterns

Once you can play the ascending and descending 3 Note Patterns and 3rd, you can try inverting the patterns. Instead of 1 2 3, you would play 3 2 1 as the first pattern — each group will be 3 notes, going downward, even though we’re starting each group one note higher. This will give us an Inverted 3 Note Melodic Pattern:

3 2 1 4 3 2 5 4 3 6 5 4 etc.

Inverting the 3rds, we’ll again play the first and last of each group:

3 1 4 2 5 3 6 4 etc.

4 Note Ascending Melodic Pattern

As you can probably imagine at this point, one could also play 5 Note, 6 Note, 7 Note and so on and the associated intervals — 5ths, 6ths, 7ths. As with the 3 Note and thirds, each can be played ascending and descending, and inverted ascending and inverted descending.

The 4 Note Patterns are put together the same way as the 3 Note Patterns. Each group is 4 notes long and each successive group starts one note higher:

1 2 3 4 2 3 4 5 3 4 5 6 4 5 6 7 etc.

And from these, by only playing the first and last note of each group, we get the 4ths:

1 4 2 5 3 6 4 7 etc.

More Complicated Patterns

Once you’ve mastered groups and intervals from 3 Note and 3rds up to 10 Note and 10ths, there are many, much more complicated patterns to practice. You can make up your own, or if you like, I’d recommend Slonimsky’s "Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns" as further reading. And don’t forget to pick up copies of the Modal Guitarist series books. I appreciate your support!

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Anatomy of a Mode

The Lydian Dominant Mode

Lets take a look at one of my favorites, the Lydian Dominant, and see what makes it tick…

ionian and lydian dominant modes


The Lydian Dominant is one of the modes that are derived from the Melodic Minor Scale. The notes in the C Lydian Dominant are as follows:

C D E F# G A Bb C

Compare this to the C major scale, or C Ionian mode:


If we use the numbers, with C Ionian being 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1, then you’ll notice the Lydian Dominant has a sharp (#) 4 and a flat (b) 7. There are a few ways this affects what can be played:

  • the melodies that come out of it will sound different compared to those that can be played in the more common natural modes
  • The extended arpeggio will give us a bit of an unusual chord — a dominant 7 #11 chord
  • The notes in it can tend to lead into unexpected chords (when it’s time to change chords)

Ok, to understand a little better what I’m talking about here, maybe we should take a minute to talk about musical colors first..

The Colors of Music

Ever notice how children’s toys are in bright primary colors, red blue, yellow, some green, maybe purple? When we’re young we can identify the big contrasts between colors like blue and yellow, but the more subtle alterations of color aren’t so easy to pick up. There are a myriad of color tones that can be made by mixing the simple colors, and when touches oof the most opposite colors are employed the most complex tones can be created. Music works much the same way. The very harmonious basic combinations of C and c (1 and the higher 1 in the C major scale, for example) or C and G are really easy to deal with. A combination like C and G is also so generic it can be part of a major or a minor chord.

Take a 1 and 5 and add the 3 into it, and we now have the basic triad notes — a simple major scale, if the Ionian is used. The 3 is what changes to determine whether a mode is major or minor. The 1, 3, and 5 played in any combination or from any octave will create voicings of a major chord. If the mode contains a 1, b3 and 5 then the chord formed will be minor.

Add the 7 into the mix, and we’ve got twice as many possibilites. 1 3 5 and 7 form a major 7th arpeggio (an arpeggio is just the chord tones played one at a time). 135 and b7 form a dominant 7th arpeggio.

Extended Arpeggios

As I said earlier, the Lydian Dominant gives us a dominant7 #11 chord. As you can see, the notes in the modes go from 1 to 7, and then 1 again. From C to c (the next higher "c") the distance is an octave, symbol 8ve. So, 1 = 8. By this reasoning 2 = 9, 4 = 11, and 6 = 13. When someone says "play a C major 9 chord" they’re really saying "play the 1 3 5 7 and 9 (or 1 3 5 7 2) of an Ionian mode. In this way the arpeggio can be extended all the way to a 13th chord — 1 3 5 7 9 11 13 or 1 3 5 7 2 4 6 — which is actually 1 2 3 4 5 6 7!

Now, remember what i said about colors? Red and green are complete opposites. Mix a little red with a bunch of green and you’ll get a greyed down green. the more red into that green, the greyer it’ll get. Well, a major 3 and a b7 are complete opposites — a tritone apart. They’d be at 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock on the circle of fifths (more on that in coming pages). This creates tension — a little musical grey, if you will. It makes the chord sound restless, as if it’s looking for a resolution.

In a dominant 7 #11 chord the same kind of tension happens when we play the 1 and the #11 (#4) together. We’re adding even more red to the green, so to speak. The greyer, or more complex, a chord becomes, the more directions it can lead in. And it can begin to sound like other chords, or be substituted with another chord. In fact, you could sneak a song into a whole different key in mid-song. The listener will hear the tension and it will translate to drama, emotion, dynamics.

Use the diagrams for playing the Ionian and Lydian Dominant Modes. Play through each of them from bottom to top, and then try switching back and forth between them using the following melodic patterns, to get an idea of how they sound alike, and how they sound different.

1 3 5 3 1

1 3 4 5 4 3 1

1 3 4 5 7 3 1

1 3 5 4 7 4 5 3 1

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