Tag Archives: playing solo over chords

How To Solo Over Chords – Think Like A Pro!

The “Random Phrases” Solo

A big part of why a solo sounds great is the flow. (example 1) But it can be difficult to get that right and very often you feel like you are trying the best you can but there is no flow at all and nothing fits together

The real problem is how you think about your soloing. To fix it, you need to go pretty far back, but once you do, you will not only become much better at making solos sound more natural over the chords, but you will also start to hear the chords better and hear how your favorite Jazz artists also think and hear phrases in the same way, I’ll show you!

A Better Way Of Thinking

I certainly remember finding myself in this situation: Whenever I was practicing at home, trying to play a solo I was so busy keeping up with each chord and figuring out what to play that I could not get anything to make sense. Especially when it came to songs with many chords, which is most Jazz songs.

That was also the question I took to my teacher in Copenhagen: “I know what notes fit, the arpeggios, and the scales but I can’t get it to make sense when I am improvising”, and luckily he had a way to fix that.

Improvising over changes is a bit like walking. – You never think about what you are doing when you walk. You think about where you want to go, not about moving your legs and lifting your feet, or how difficult it is to walk on stairs. – But keep in mind that walking is complicated and we are still trying to create machines that can walk and the best ones are so impressive that they go viral and get millions of views!

That is also how you want to approach your solo: think about where you want to go and get used to playing melodies that go there in a logical way.

Making Soloing Easier

Let’s start by making it a bit more practical, if you have watched my videos before you know that I often say that “in Music context is everything” and here, that is also what I was missing just thinking of each chord.

If you are soloing over chords then you want to play something that first that chord, so you are trying to find interesting melodies with whatever licks, scales, and arpeggios you know. That part all makes sense, and in a way, it only takes one note to fix this! The problem is that you are throwing away the context. It is not just an isolated Dm7, it is a Dm7 that continues to a G7, and when you solo over it then you need to play towards that G7.

I remember being in a Kurt Rosenwinkel masterclass when I was studying, and he talked about how he wanted to play better lines on m7b5 chords so he practiced improvising over a m7(b5) chord for 10 hours only to realize at the jam session the next day that the m7(b5) chord only came by for 1.5 second.

So if you don’t think about where you are going and just try to play something then it sounds like this:

But you want it to flow and sound more like this:

All it takes is that you decide on a note on the G7 that your Dm7 line should end on. You give your Dm7 line a direction by deciding where it needs to go.

This is what is called a target note, and it is an amazing way to create naturally flowing lines, how do you think Bach’s music works. Let’s boil it down to a simple exercise to start hearing it.

Making it REALLY Simple (one note)

To get started with this you want to reduce it to something very simple. Don’t start with a whole song, or 3 or 4 chords with all the chord tones, that way you are too busy trying to choose which note to target on each chord, it’s way too much!

Instead, take one chord change, let’s do Dm7 to G7 and one specific target note in a position that you already know. Let’s say this B (DIAGRAM) I(‘ll talk about choosing target notes in a bit)

So you have this scale which is C major: Diagram, and the two chords are Dm7 (arpeggio) and G7(arpeggio) but for now you only need to think of the G7 as this note.

and then start to practice composing lines on Dm7 that end on that B. Start simple, basic arpeggio or scale:

or something like

and gradually you start to hear how that flow works and you can go a lot further:

Later in the video, Ill break down longer examples like this. Already with these examples, you can hear how this has a natural sound and how it adds that sense of flow to your solos. Hearing the chord change and feeling the time is a huge part of what you want to get into your system, and to get that right then let’s talk a bit about how to choose target notes and I’ll show you some examples of famous soloists playing towards target notes.

What Are The GOOD notes?

The examples you heard until now were made to make it really simple and easy to hear, but in the end any note you can hear as a melody on the chord could be a target note. When it comes to choosing target notes then the recipe for a clear target note could be described as:

  1. A note that was not a chord tone in the previous chord, so in this example on G7 F is not the clearest target note because it is the 3rd of Dm7
  2. A note that is a defining part of the color of the chord. This is a bit vague, but for example, targeting a b9 or a b13 on a dominant will often be very clear in the context

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You can return to this later. Let’s start with the easiest, most common, and clearest target notes: the 3rd of the chord.

For the II V I that would give you this:

And you can play a line like this hitting the target note on beat one of each bar:

As you can tell then they are clear and easy to hear.

Start To Hear It!

As I already mentioned, a great exercise, which is great for many other things in your playing, is composing lines. I’ll show you some places where you can get some inspiration, but make sure to spend some time composing simple lines that move to the next chord, in the beginning, make it short 4-note melodies taking you from Dm7 to G7 or something similar that is very common.

You can quickly start to use other target notes as well but start with the 3rds. It will help you start to hear those melodies and help you think ahead towards the next chord, both are incredibly important!

But to give you an example of another target note and one that is less clear, here’s an example going to the 5th of G7 which is, of course, the root of Dm7.

And notice how you don’t have to fill up the bars completely all the time as well:

I will get to how you can open up this approach in a bit, but first a few places where you hear this in action.

Pass & Parker’s On Target Too!

The person who is most famous for teaching this is probably Hal Galper, but it is all over Bebop, and if you have the Joe Pass guitar-style book that I also made a video on. That is a great place to hear this in action.

I am going to play this in a way that makes that clear but then it is not really in time:

I think you can hear what I mean even if I am messing up the time by playing it like this! Another place to check out is this part of Charlie Parkers solo on Au Privave where you can also hear the line go from target note to target note:

Don’t Be Square!

This method gives you strong and clear lines but since you always connect with the changes on beats 1 and 3 then it might get a bit boring, but there are ways to open that up as well, and here are a few examples, to make it easy I am sticking with the 3rd as a target note:

So here I am delaying the target note on the Dm7 and the Cmaj7 with chromatic enclosures.`

and I am anticipating the G7 by playing that target note on the 4& It is not set in stone that you have to hit the target note on beat 1 or beat 3, that is just the easiest place to start.

You can start working with these strategies to open up target notes and make it rhythmically more varied and there are more options than these. Making a specific place in the bar a rhythmical target note can be a great approach, so maybe practice hitting target notes on the 4&.

But the best place to start is closer to Bebop, and learning to use chromatic phrases for this. Passing notes and enclosures now also have a much more interesting function where they surprise the listener, and the one you need to check out for this is definitely Barry Harris, I talk about that in this video and his system is so much better than Bebop scales, which I find pretty useless, check it out! I talk about it in the video.

Why Barry Harris’ Approach Is So Much Better Than Bebop Scales!

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The 5 Mistakes You Make Soloing Over Static Chords

Are you just playing notes or are you playing a solo and making music?

Often when solos are on one chord then it becomes painfully clear when a guitarist doesn’t know how to make that sound like music, but let me show you some ways to fix that.

Mistake #1 – Not Listening To The Most Important Guitarist

Let’s start with the worst mistake! Those solos where it is just a bunch of notes strung together, and even if the notes aren’t wrong then this still doesn’t make any sense. It sounds like nervously talking all the time but not saying anything.  (B-roll nervous talking, George or Woody Allen)

One thing you do want to notice in this video is that none of these fixes are about what scales/arpeggios or techniques you use, it is what you do with them, and you can do this equally well with a pentatonic scales or a  Messiaen mode.

The solution is a maybe bit surprising: But there is one guitarist that you have to listen to if you want to solve this problem, that is the only way to fix this! Let me show you.

You want to avoid playing solos that are just unrelated streams of notes, stuff that has no story, and where it is almost random licks after each other.

The goal is to make it into a piece of music, in fact, to tell a story with your solo.

You can compare this to actually telling a story: If your story is an endless stream of words with no breaks and no sentences the the first thing you want to do is to start speaking in sentences. We are not computers, It is easier to process information in chunks.

The way you start doing that is to introduce breaks between your phrases so they have room to breathe. This means that when you play something you need to stop and listen to what you just played. And as you might have realized that the guitarist you have to listen to, is yourself because that is the only way you can make your solo into a story. In the beginning, you can start by playing very short phrases, just to get used to it, so don’t be afraid to play 3 or 4-note phrases like these:

Some of the important skills later in this video are easier to develop if you play short phrases, so that is only going to be helpful.

Once you start to think in phrases and listen to what you are playing, then you can also start to make decisions about what you want to play next, and that is the only way you will be able to connect the phrases and develop your solo, like a story instead of just rambling random licks one after the other.

Mistake #2 – Who Is The Main Character In Your Solo?

If we stick to the idea of a solo being a story, then it can be very useful to have phrases that tie the entire solo together. Imagine watching Harry Potter, but in this version, there is no main character, so we keep shifting from person to person,  First Harry Potter is the main character then it’s all about Snape, before it is about Filch, and then Dobby  In that Movie the underlying plot is gone, and it would probably wouldn’t be a great movie to watch. You want to try to also have phrases that are the main character and that develop in your solo. Maybe not for te whole solo but sections of it. Those phrases are the transforming main character just like Harry Potter goes from being a boy living under a staircase to becoming a wizard.


What I am describing here is motivic development, because you can stick to a motif as a main character for a bit and then create a longer story by developing that, but you do need to get a few things right with your motif.

Don’t just repeat a melody, that is the same as just looping a scene in the movie. It’s tricky to get to work.

It needs to develop , otherwise, it gets boring, so practice making variations of the phrase, take away notes, add notes, switch from long to short notes and so on

And again, notice, how I am not using any special scales or sounds, it is about the melodies you play, not about which scale you are using.

But you do want to be aware that you need to make it recognizable. If you vary it too much then the effect is completely gone and nobody will hear how the solo phrases fit together.

Some great examples of motifs and motivic development that you probably already know are Beethoven

Those are great to start hearing motivic development being used in a very clear way, but you also want to listen for it in Jazz, and luckily almost any Jazz soloist will do, but Wes Montgomery is amazing at using motivic development and repeating phrases in his solos, both on changes and on more static chords EXAMPLE? , but once you start listening then you can hear that it is everywhere!

The first step in learning this is really to start to recognize it in the music you listen to, so start by listening.

There is another very important part of motivic development that people leave out..

Mistake #3 – Is Rhythm Important?

The most under-used tool to make solos interesting is probably rhythm. Rhythm can be a creative element that you can use in many ways:

  1. Play in the groove or over it
  2. Create contrast between phrases using different subdivisions
  3. Rhythmic displacement is also one of the best ways to develop motifs,

Phrase in the groove

Phrase over the groove

Subdivision for Motivic Development

Rhythmic Displacement is also a great way to develop motifs

in fact, for motivic development, it is one of the most powerful things to work with, and also something that you hear used in famous songs like fascinating rhythm:

An easy way to use this is to take a group of notes that don’t fit in the meter, so for 4/4 you can use 6,5 or 3 note groupings, and repeat them to create a motif that is shifting on top of the meter and in that way it becomes a more interesting phrase.

Mistake #4 – The Other Connection

There is another way to connect phrases than thinking of motivic development, and this is also a great way to get used to listening to yourself, I am, of course, talking about: Call-Response.

The concept here is to play a phrase and then think of what might be a good answer to that phrase.  My favorite example of this is the opening of Mozart’s  “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”

But you can try this out rubato as well

When you work on this then try to have a contrast between the different phrases. Play a more legato slow-moving phrase and then answer it with a faster more distinct phrase, or change the register between high and low.

Mistake #5 – Is It Boring?

When you solo on a single chord you can’t rely on the harmony of a song or chord progression to give your solo a form, a beginning, and an end, which is a lot easier when you are soloing on a song form. What becomes especially difficult is often that after some time then the notes become bland and it all sounds the same.

One way to surprise the listener can then be to find ways to use the notes in the scale that are the most exciting. I am using a m7 chord groove in this video so here notes the 9th and especially the 13th are good:

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But you can also create tension by leaving the harmony or changing it to creates dissonance.  Going outside the harmony and then resolving that dissonance creates development in your solo. One fairly easy way to do that is to shift out of the harmony by moving a half step:

and here I am just changing chords from Am7 to Abm7 in the middle of the line, in fact I do that twice,  and that give me a section of the phrase that is very dissonant which then resolves back into the Am7 chord. This is often referred toas Side-slipping, because you are taking a step outside and then move back home. You can do a lot of things with other chords, I have a video on that for m7 chords that I’ll link to in the description. Another approach that you can use is to re-interpret the chord and move to a sound that in the context is more dissonant and therefore more interesting. Like using A diminished over the Am7, even if that doesn’t really fit the chord.

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You want to start developing these skills, and once you do then you will quickly start to hear the improvement, especially if you also spend some time listening to soloists and hear how they are using call-response, motivic development, but there are other great phrasing techniques that you want to develop especially if you are getting into Jazz, and in this video I cover how you can learn some great lessons from the playing of Wes Montgomery and George Benson that will make you sound a lot better, on static chords but also on more moving harmony.

Why They Sound Better Than You Every Time!

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