3 Effective Ways To Turn Scales Into Solos

So, you’ve put in the hours, listened to your teachers and learnt all your scales. Your neck is a playground of notes! But when you solo, all that comes out are scales! Sound familiar? Read on …

It is seen as the first step towards soloing prowess - becoming confident in playing all 5 pentatonic positions or the master of your 7 major scale shapes can feel like you have scaled (pun intended!) a significant guitar playing mountain. But where to go next? What happens when the notes are right but nailing a great improvised solo still seems a long way off? Ever feel like those scales are playing you, rather than you are playing the scales? Here are 3 tried and tested ways to pull the music out of those patterns and shapes which you spent so long learning:

1. Take away a finger!

Now, before you start tying a tourniquet and preparing for a dramatic pinky amputation, we are simply talking about not using a particular finger for the duration of your guitar solo.

You see, scales are an essential map of all the safe notes within a key, and we tend to spend so long drilling them with the same fingers that, when it comes to not playing the scale and making music, our fingers take over, muscle memory kicks in and we, well, play the scale. You ever feel that your fingers are just doing the soloing and you aren’t in control? You’re not alone!

So, here’s the task: pick a key and backing track, pick a scale - it could be one position/shape or the full fretboard if you are feeling confident. Next, choose a finger - for arguments sake, let’s go with finger number 1 - Ok, so here’s the challenge: you aren’t allowed to use that finger for the entire duration of the backing track!

Whats the point in this then? Glad you asked! All those scale exercises and practise is time well spent, but can lead to too much reliance on using the same fingers. Limiting which fingers you use will instantly break you out of that habit; suddenly, you can’t play this same old licks over and over (how can you? One of your fingers is missing!). You have to think of something new. And this is where your brain and your ears start to override your fingers - the key to making music on your instrument!

Be warned - this will, not only feel strange, but sound like garbage for the first minute or so! And this is where most people give up! Don’t. Play through this and amazing things will start to happen after a few minutes! You will begin to play melodies that feel as if they are coming from you rather than just your fingers. Thats the goal, right?

2. Play one, leave one

We’ve all heard the sagely advice of ‘It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play!’, or ‘Less is more’ etc, etc. Great words of wisdom, but utterly unhelpful in our situation!

There is truth in the power of creating ‘musical statements’ when soloing, much like speaking or written language - imagine reading this blog without the full stops - you’d be out of breath! It’s the same with any any good guitar solo. I don’t care if you are listening to Dimebag, Larry Carlton, Django or Clapton - something that you will hear every time they improvise is intentional musical statements; like a written sentence, with a full stop at the end.

Great, so how do I do that then? Then chances are, when things start to sound too much like a scale and not a solo, that you are playing continuous reams of notes. Now, we’re not bashing fast licks, fast is good! But never ending streams of scale runs are going to wear thin on both you and the ears of your listener.

Here’s your next task: backing track on. Now, count for a bar and play for a bar. If you aren’t familiar with keeping beats or counting when soloing, then start by simply playing 4 even notes and leaving 4 counts - you will soon get used to the feel of the space you need to fill with your solo.

What’s the point in this then? Rather than simply forcing you to leave space, this encourages you to play licks and phrases which have a definite start and end to them - a fully formed musical statement if you will. You only have one bar (4 beats) to play something good, you are training yourself to make those notes count! Try this for a few backing tracks and, when you return to your regular unrestricted soloing, you will notice a marked difference in the way you use those scales to create music!

3. Send things sideways!

Another great way to engage your creative mind and free yourself from those frustrating scale based noodlings is to arrange the scale on one string only and limit yourself to soloing on just that string for the whole backing track.

Here is everybody’s favourite scale - Am pentatonic, arranged on both the B and G strings as an example.

A minor pentatonic scale on B and G strings

Much like our other examples, this is going to feel really restrictive and, without your favourite ‘go-to’ licks or familiar patterns, it won’t feel comfortable. Don’t expect to create any magical melodies or lines with the first few seconds! Give it a minute or two for the effect to take hold.

Why am I doing this? One of the first things that happens when our fingers take the driving seat during improvisation is that our ability to register and remember the sound of each note as we solo gets left behind. By soloing on a single string we are playing the notes of the scale but without the pre determined fingering. Suddenly, all you have to play with is rhythm, dynamics and melody. Those patterns which kept you boxed in have gone! After a few minutes, you will begin to hear phrases and licks before you play them - Bingo! Thats your brain and your musical ear beginning to take an active part as well as your fingers!

When you return to soloing on all six strings you will be conditioned to play from your ear not just the map of the scale shape.

As you can see, the key to invention is through limitation. These approaches don’t replace your shred exercises or pursuit of flying around the fretboard like a god-like musical gymnast. Think of these ideas more as a compliment to your technique and fretboard knowledge practice.