Question: I have been playing guitar for 30 plus years. I can play the songs that I like. I have talent. But I am stuck. I have to guess at what I want to hear when I am soloing. Sometimes with great pleasure, but mostly with failure. I need to increase my understanding of modes and how to apply them to chord progressions. I primarily solo with pentatonic scales... basically because I haven't learned to break away from my comfort zone. Can you steer me on the right track to learning mode playing and finally understanding theory for soloing over different chord intervals?

Tom Hess's Answer: You have partially answered your own question - It’s time to break away from your comfort and begin learning new modes to use in your guitar playing. A good way to transition into playing new modes is to learn modes that you can easily combine with the ones you are already familiar with. For example, if you are used to the A minor pentatonic scale, learn the A Dorian scale pattern as well (also learn to play it ALL over the guitar - not just in one position). Both of these patterns work well in the key of A minor, and will give you different expressive options as you solo. Don’t worry about learning too many new scale patterns at first, this will only cause you to feel overwhelmed.

That said, simply learning new scale patterns is only a small part of playing better guitar solos. Other important areas you should be working on are guitar phrasing and ear training. By working on these skills, you will develop the ability to play much more creatively as well as hear (in your mind) what you are going to play before you play it:

  • To quickly begin improving your guitar phrasing, simply work on using LESS notes, while making those notes as expressive as possible (using techniques such as bends or vibrato). Watch this guitar solo video to see exactly how this is done.
  • When you improve your aural skills, you will better understand which notes you should be using over certain chords. To get started with this, pay close attention to the way each note in a scale feels as you play it over a certain chord. Read this music theory article (and watch the video within it) about playing guitar with emotion to get a clear explanation for how you can apply this idea into your guitar playing.

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