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 two, 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.

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, and 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.