How To Play A Guitar Solo: Advanced Theory

I would like to follow up a recent post on how to play a guitar solo with more advanced guitar theory on creating a guitar solo.  This may seem foreign to most beginner guitar players, but nonetheless, if you can work your way up to this point and start applying some of these more advanced solo theory techniques, you playing will benefit immensely.  If you aren’t comfortable with the basics of the guitar, I suggest using this as a goal to reach in your solo guitar playing.

Playing guitar solos requires more than just talent!

There are many things that go into being a successful guitar soloist besides talent.  The research I found should give you a new perspective on what it means to play a quality guitar solo.  In this article you will learn about advanced modal guitar theory, secrets to playing guitar beyond talent, and other advanced improvisation techniques.

First will be tips to creating great, practiced guitar parts that will thrive on stage and in the studio.  I found six great lessons here at

Have you ever noticed that very few guitar players are equally adept at both rhythm and leads? A lot of gifted shredders lay down rhythm tracks that sound like leads, while the best rhythm guitarists’ leads sound a lot like rhythms. Obviously both require very different skill sets. Perhaps that goes a long way toward explaining why a lot of bands who play guitar-oriented music, like metal, have two guitar players: one who is good at rhythms; the other, solos. Even jack-of-all-trades players tend to gravitate more to one than the other.

I’ve always been into solos myself.  While I have a history of being the sole guitar player in bands, more often than not, the solos are where I put the vast majority of my efforts. The result was rhythms that were not as strong as they could be. Luckily for me, I got the opportunity to work with one of the best rhythm players in metal, when I collaborated on the Knightfall CD with the Annihilator main man, Jeff Waters. He explained to me exactly what makes for superlative guitar tracks and this advice is great (not to mention essential!) for both rhythm and lead playing. Believe me, there’s a lot more to it that you probably ever imagined!  Today, I’m going to share with you what I learned from a bona fide master.

1. Impeccable Timing 

This is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think about rhythm tracking.  Ever since Les Paul invented multi-tracking some fifty plus years ago, the ability to overdub tracks has elevated the importance of being able to play tightly to a click. That seems like a no brainer, but all too often, people belittle the true amount of work and effort that’s required to be able to play tightly.

I used to play a song to a metronome a couple of times before recording and thought to myself that it sounded great. Had I actually recorded my playing and listened back to it, I would have seen just how uneven my parts were!

Contrast that to Mr. Waters’ obsession of playing everything to a click, including picking and scale exercises. In fact, his motto is: “if you don’t practice to a click, then it doesn’t count as practice.”

2. Clearly Accentuated Picking 

Listen closely to any great player’s tracks and you’ll instantly notice how well how clearly defined every note is. These guys and gals have spent countless hours honing their picking technique until it runs like a well-oiled machine. When they play a passage, they don’t just concentrate on hitting the notes on time, they are thinking about making each note sound even and well defined.  It’s like speaking or, more accurately, singing. Wouldn’t you rather listen to somewhat who clearly enunciates each syllable, than someone who slurs them together like a sloppy drunk?

These players have put a lot of thought into the gauge and material of their picks as both make a lot of difference to your sound. Moreover, they tend to strike the strings at the optimal depth and at an angle that is as flush with the string as possible. Angling the pick a bit might make it easer to pass through the string, but it doesn’t sound as good.

3. String Muting 

Just as proper accentuating of each note is essential to great rhythm tracks, it is equally critical to mute all unwanted string noise from one’s playing. Don’t count on drums hiding minor string noise. It’ll still be there to some degree, if only on some subliminal level.

To the average guitar player, suppressing string noise falls somewhere after timing, which comes after hitting the right notes, on the priorities list. While in a live situation, you can certainly get away with some string noise, it won’t fly on recordings. Especially when dealing with high gain settings, control over feedback on string noise is a prerequisite.

Therefore, you have to train yourself to listen for it.

Common offenders are the fretting hand when switching between chords. The picking hand can also be at fault when your palm doesn’t come down between notes, misses one of the strings, or simply rubs against them while picking. All of these are flaws in technique than need to be worked on. If you can’t eliminate string noise when playing a part, then try changing it. There are a lot of ways to play the same thing on a guitar, so don’t get stuck on only one way.

4. Tuning and Pitch 

Guitarists take it for granted that you have to tune your instrument before recording, but I am constantly shocked at just how nonchalant most people are about tuning. It’s not until they are faced with a professional engineer that they realize what’s actually involved in recording a pro-level CD. Not that, when I say professional engineer, I mean someone who has experience in recording CDs for major labels. Even in home recording situations, musicians always show up with a low end tuner. While those are fine for jamming and playing small bars, they are not adequate for any recording purposes. Strangely enough, even a lot of supposedly pro quality gear has very minimal tuning capabilities.

For recording, you need something that will go well within 2% deviation, which is where most people can detect out-of-tuneness. For that, you need something like a Korg rack tuner. All you need is about $250 to shell out!  If you want to go really precise, nothing beats a strobe tuner.  Some of which can go as high as five to six thousand dollars!

Thanks to the magic of digital recording, you don’t need to spend very much money at all to achieve pitch perfect tuning.  Peterson, who makes the best strobe tuners in the biz, also makes a software version of their coveted strobe tuners called Strobosoft.  It can get to 0.1% precision. That’s up to 30 times better than the average tuner. It’s what I use.

Unfortunately, using a high-precision tuner is not enough to achieve excellent pitch in your recordings. Alas, the guitar is a very temperamental beast and reacts to its surroundings.  Not only does the temperature and humidity of the room wreak havoc on the pitch, but even your fingers can throw off the pitch by a couple of percents, which is enough to go from extremely in tune to noticeably out of tune!

I’ll never forget how, in my early days of club playing, I would tune my guitar backstage (or in the bathroom, depending on the conditions), only to have it go way out of tune by the end of the first song! I eventually came to realize that the difference in temperature was making the guitar go flat.  At that point I started leaving the guitar on stage and then tuning it shortly before show time so that it would have time to acclimatize to the environment. I would warm up on a second guitar, backstage.

The best way to have your guitar stay in tune while you do your tracking is to begin by warming up the strings using your fingers. Play something or simply rub the strings with your hands. Once you’ve warmed up the strings, give each one of them a good pull. And I mean a good pull, almost hard enough that you try to break them! This is a crucial and necessary step as it will remove any stretching capacity that is left in the strings (you are using brand new strings right?) and helps wrap it as tightly as possible around the tuning peg. The idea is that the string won’t have any room left to fall. Even when you think that the string is taught and ready, a few good pulls will loosen it – and the pitch – way down! Keep doing this until pulling the string no longer has any effect on the pitch.

Now, after you’ve done the stretching and pulling, the enemy is sharpness. Every time that you stop to listen to your takes, the strings immediately start to get cold. And that means re-warming and retuning them.

You may be surprised to learn that in a professional recording session, guitar players spend more time tuning that playing their tracks! That’s one of the reasons that you have to be such a good player to record CDs. You have to be skilled enough to lay down high quality takes within a couple of minutes, which is about as long as you can go without a tuning break.  Because of the volatility of strings, it behooves you to become very quick at tuning. The faster the better!

5. Good Sound 

Your sound has to bring out your ideas and expression, not hamper them. Too many guitar players use distortion as a crutch in an effort to hide weakness in technique. Have I done it? Duh, yeah!

Listen carefully to any great guitarist and you’ll notice that their tone enhances everything that they are doing. It’s no accident. They work hard on it. Even when you think that an artist is using lots of distortion, it is really their playing that is making the sound through aggressive playing (more on that in a moment). Universally, enhancing one’s expression means turning down the gain and bringing out the subtleties in one’s playing. Just be aware that this also makes it easier to hear weaknesses in technique!

6. Play Like You Mean It! 

Closely related to #5 above, great players don’t play a part like the average person.  While the latter simply plays a passage, a true guitar expert will express it. And the way that she or he does that is to play every note with conviction. Most of us tend to concentrate on key notes – the ones that represent the main chord movements or lock in with other instruments. As a result, a lot of less important notes, like passing tones, and so on, will receive less attention, and suffer for it.

This issue goes a lot deeper than focusing on all of the notes and picking harder. The purpose of music is to express yourself, so when you doubt yourself and are unsure of what you’re playing, it will come out. Only by learning to entertain positive thoughts about yourself and realizing that you have just as much right as anyone to be on a stage in the studio, can you bring out your full potential in your playing.  I’m not saying that great artists don’t have issues, because they clearly do, but their playing is not one of them!

Knowing what makes a great rhythm player, or just a great player period, is not sufficient for achieving greatness. That takes dedication, sacrifice, and the ability to accurately gauge your playing. Neither blindly adhering to the belief that you are a great player or a lousy one will advance your cause. Ironically, some of what it takes to be a great guitar player has very little to do with guitar playing per se. But don’t take that as an invitation to go on a self-expanding voyage. You still need to focus a whole lot on guitar!

Beyond major and minor scale options for soloing on the guitar, there is also modal theory.  Modal theory is an advanced scale theory that you can hear in a lot of your favorite songs.  You will find great examples of each mode and chord progressions that are popular within each one.  You can find this introduction to modal theory at 

A Simple Way to Understand Modes for Guitar – Part 4 

Once you’ve narrowed down your choice to the group of major or minor modes, here are some additional ideas & concepts that will help you determine which particular major or minor mode might work best against the song or progression that you’re playing over:


Ionian mode is the same as the Major scale, which we covered at the outset of this article.  In the key of F Major, the “tonal center” or the bass note that would seem to fit against our entire progression would be F.  When this happens, we get Ionian mode.

Here are some examples of songs which sound in Ionian mode for either the entire song or significant sections of the song:  “American Pie” by Don McClean, “Angel Eyes” by Jeff Healy, “Authority Song” by John Mellencamp, “Beast of Burden” by the Rolling Stones, “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, “Bubble Toes” by Jack Johnson, “Call Me Al” by Paul Simon, “Cliffs of Dover” by Eric Johnson, “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls, “Down on the Corner” by CCR, “Drift Away” by Dobie Gray or Uncle Kracker, “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, “Family Tradition” by Hank Williams Jr., “Fool in the Rain” by Led Zeppelin, “Free Falling” by Tom Petty, “Friend of the Devil” by The Grateful Dead, “Glycerine” by Bush, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) by Green Day, “Heaven” by Los Lonely Boys, “Hey Good Lookin” by Hank Williams, “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar, “Island in the Sun” by Weezer, “Jack and Diane” by John Mellencamp, “La Bamba” by Richie Valens or Los Lobos, “Last Kiss” by Pearl Jam, “Let It Be” by the Beatles, “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, “Mama I’m Coming Home” by Ozzy Osbourne, “Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffet, “Never Let You Go” by Third Eye Blind, “Red Red Wine” by UB40, “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash, “Satellite” by Dave Matthews Band, “Sister Golden Hair” by America, “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynard Skynard, “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band, “Under the Boardwalk” by the Drifters, “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, “We Just Disagree” by Billy Dean, “Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton, most of “Your Body Is A Wonderland” by John Mayer, … and countless other songs.

Advanced Theory:  In the key of F major starting on the first degree – or F Ionian scale … our chord progression viewing it as relating to F major would be I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, and vii°.  So a F Ionian chordal progression (remember we’re in the key of F) would feature the following chords:  F, Gm, Am, Bb, C7 or C, Dm, Edim (or Em), F … So if you’re in a song where F is the I chord, and you see/hear these other chords in this relationship to each other: I Major, ii minor, iii minor, IV Major, V7 Dom 7 (or Major), vi minor, vii diminished (or substituted minor) — think F Ionian! … The most reliable indicators of Ionian mode are the Major I, IV & V chords, particularly if the V is a Dominant 7 or V7 chord, and/or ALL, or at least the vast majority of the chords, are diatonic chords built on the major scale of the I chord.


By playing against our sample progressions, certain ideas immediately pop out … if you hear a i to IV change, the Dorian mode, or the second mode, fits – you can take a natural minor scale based on the i and simply raise the sixth degree of the scale (i.e., play a major 6th instead of the typical minor 6th or b6 normally found in the natural minor scale). The reason this works is that you’re adjusting the scale to accommodate the major third necessary to create the IV chord.  (You might also think of this movement as a common ii – V progression for the key on which the Dorian mode is constructed, i.e., you’d play the Dorian mode from the root of the ii chord). Dorian mode also works well over songs that have a i to bVII change – because the minor i chord is treated as the ii chord of the modal key and the bVII chord is treated as the I chord of the modal key. The appearance of a minor v chord, particularly against a Major IV chord, can also be characteristic of this mode. And the minor vi half step up to Major bVII distinguishes it from Aeolian. Dorian mode is frequently used in folk, rock, blues & jazz music.

To hear & recognize the sound of the Dorian mode, listen for example to “Oye Como Va” by Santana, “Whipping Post” by the Allman Brothers, “Horse With No Name” by America, the traditional folk classic “Scarborough Fair”, “Another Brick in the Wall – part II” by Pink Floyd, “Badge” by Cream, “Evil Ways” by Santana, “Fly Like An Eagle” by the Steve Miller Band, “Godzilla” by Blue Oyster Cult, “Brick House” by the Commodores, “Golgi Apparatus” by Phish, “Le Freak” by Chic, “Riders on the Storm” by the Doors, “Walking on the Sun” by Smash Mouth, “Who Will Save Your Soul” by Jewel, “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles, or even to the verse section in “Moondance” by Van Morrison, or the solo section to “Light My Fire” by the Doors, or the solo section of “Your Body Is A Wonderland” by John Mayer).

Advanced Theory: In the key of F major starting on the second degree – or G Dorian scale … our chord progression viewing it as relating to F major would be ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii°, and I (and in chord progressions and songs constructed in all modes except Ionian or Locrian, the diatonic diminished chord is almost always skipped or another chord is substituted in it’s place in the progression*). So a G Dorian chordal progression (remember we’re in the key of F) would feature the following chords: Gm, Am, Bb, C, Dm (or D)**, (Em), F … So if you’re in a song where Gm is the i chord, and you see/hear these other chords in this relationship to each other: i minor, ii minor, bIII Major, IV Major, v minor (or sometimes V or V7 Major)**, vi minor* (or viDim)*, bVII Major — think G Dorian! … The most reliable indicators of Dorian mode are the Major IV and Major bVII chords in a minor i song or progression.

(*Note – since a diminished chord is built on a minor 3rd (or b3) and a b5, often you will often find a chord substituted at the spot in the diatonic modal progression where the diminished chord would otherwise appear – this could be a minor (since the diminished features a minor 3rd), or sometimes Major, built on the diminished root, or sometimes even a Major built 1/2 step below the diminished root – as frequently occurs where a bVII Major chord is substituted for the vii(Dim) chord in an Ionian Mode progression. **It is common even in songs built on minor keys or modes for a Major V or V7 to be substituted, although a minor v is reliable indicator that the song or progression is in a minor mode. Please also note that the chords that I’ve included in parenthesis simply refer to common substitutions that occur in progressions otherwise written in this mode, but that these substituted chords don’t purely fit the diatonic chords or notes of the major scale on which the mode is constructed. They are included because it’s helpful to recognize these common substitutions and not let their presence fool you into thinking that the song is not otherwise constructed in this mode. … Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that any time a chord is substituted for any one of the pure diatonic chords of the Major key on which the mode being employed is actually constructed, you can and might actually need to adjust your primary chosen modal scale, or even find and use a different modal scale, to pick up and include those chord tones/notes of the substituted chord which are not in the diatonic major scale on which the primary diatonic modal progression is constructed. If you find this idea confusing, there’s a specific example further clarifying this adjustment process & how to apply it at the very end of this article).


The Phrygian Mode, or the third mode, is uniquely characterized by it’s Spanish sound and flavor, and is thus sometimes also called the Spanish Gypsy scale. It is used most often against a half-step chord change from the minor i chord to the bII chord, or a substituted Major I chord to a bII chord. It resides in and exists because of the half-step between the 3rd & 4th degrees of the major scale. An example would be playing an E Phrygian scale constructed starting on the third scale degree of the C Major scale (or, you could also look at it as an A natural minor scale) over an E to F chord change, which is a very familiar use and a sound we’re all very familiar with. (So a shorthand way to find & play Phrygian mode for any note or chord that you’re on is to simply find the 4th of the note or chord you’re on & play a natural minor scale, but emphasize the Phrygian note – for example, for E Phrygian, play A natural minor – but emphasizing the mode root E … for D Phrygian, play G natural minor – but emphasizing the mode root D, and so on.  Just be careful when substituting the 4th’s related natural minor scale in this way to emphasize the proper root note necessary to make the mode Phrygian). … In the key we’re using in this study – F Major, Phrygian mode could be identified and used over an Am to Bb (or A to Bb) chord change, to-wit: an A Phrygian mode scale.

For a good example of the unique sound of the Phrygian mode, listen to any of these jazz tunes: “Ole” by John Coltrane, “Sketches of Spain” by Miles Davis, or “Bemsha Swing,” by Thelonious Monk.

Advanced Theory: In the key of F major starting on the third degree – or A Phrygian scale … our chord progression viewing it as relating to F major would be iii (or sometimes III), IV, V, vi, vii°, I, ii (and in chord progressions and songs constructed in all modes except Ionian or Locrian, the diatonic diminished chord is almost always skipped or another chord is substituted in it’s place in the progression). So an A Phrygian chordal progression (remember we’re in the key of F) would feature the following chords: Am (or A)Bb, C, Dm, (Em or E), F, Gm (or G) … So if you’re in a song where Am is the i chord, and you see/hear these other chords in this relationship to each other: i minor (or sometimes I Major), 1/2 step up to bII Major, bIII Major, iv minor, v minor (or vDim, or sometimes a V or V7 Major is substituted), bVI Major, bvii minor (or bVII Major, which is a common substitution) — think A Phrygian! … Also, in Phrygian mode, you could even see substitute Major chords for every chord in the progression, even the 4 chord – IV, although even where such Major substitution is done in Phrygian, the iv chord is usually always kept minor. … Remember, the most reliable indicator of the Phrygian mode will be the presence of a 1/2 step move from the i, or I, up to a bII.


The Lydian Mode, or fourth mode, is uniquely characterized by it’s #4 (or augmented 4th). The Lydian mode is often used where the I chord moves to II chord – and both are major. Particularly where the progression moves from the I chord to the II chord and repeats or cycles. (In fact, the presence of a II Major chord and/or movement from the I Major to II Major in the progression will often be the most identifying characteristic of the Lydian mode and distinguishes it from the Ionian mode or Major scale). The Lydian mode is also helpful where there is a 1/2 step change from a major I down to a minor vii chord (i.e. minor chord built on 7th degree of the underlying tonal/modal major scale). In this way, since we are talking about a half-step (one fret) chord change, it is similar to the Phrygian mode and other than the root being a half-step different, the fingerings are fairly identical. If we are in Bb Lydian, these chords would be Bb (I), C (II) and Am (vii). Additionally, a I – II – V (in Bb Lydian, that would be Bb, C, F) progression might also nicely support use of the Lydian mode well. Lydian mode progressions will tend to sound unresolved because of the #4 in the scale, and thus it is helpful to anchor the sound of the mode by using the root note of the mode as a drone/pedal tone or bass note for the other chords in your progression.  For example, if we’re in Bb Lydian (constructed from F major) and the progression is moving from Bb to C and repeating or “cycling,” play the C chord as a Bb/C chord by adding a Bb as a bass note to the C chord to help anchor it to the root note of the mode.  Because of the tendency for your ear to want to resolve to another chord when playing in Lydian, it is usually played against a drone/pedal tone and/or only for sections of a song.

For examples of the unique sound of the Lydian mode in the rock context listen to “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, which features a C Major scale against the F to G cycling progression producing F Lydian mode.  Or you can also listen to, “Hey Jealousy” by the Gin Blossoms, “Flying in a Blue Dream” by Joe Satriani, “Hog Heaven” by Frank Zappa, “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction, “Just Remember I Love You” by Firefall, the intro & verses of “Here Comes My Girl” by Tom Petty, or the intro & verses of “Freewill” by Rush.  Some very recognizable Lydian melodies are the very first few notes of the theme songs from The Simpson’s or The Jetsons cartoon shows, or the song “Maria” from West Side Story.  Even “Oceans” by Pearl Jam may be yet another cool example featuring Lydian mode.

Advanced Theory: In the key of F major starting on the fourth degree – or Bb Lydian scale … our chord progression viewing it as relating to F major would be IV, V, vi, vii°, I, ii, iii (and in chord progressions and songs constructed in all modes except Ionian or Locrian, the diatonic diminished chord is almost always skipped or another chord is substituted in it’s place in the progression). So a Bb Lydian chordal progression (remember we’re in the key of F) would feature the following chords: BbC, Dm, (Eb or Em), F, Gm, Am … So if you’re in a song where Bb is the I chord, and you see/hear these other chords in this relationship to each other: I Major (or Augmented), II Major, iii minor, minor #iv (or #ivDim, both built on the root 1/2 step below the root of the V chord, or a substituted Major IV 1/2 step above the iii – which is more commonly used in this mode), V Major, vi minor, vii minor — think Bb Lydian! … The most reliable indicators of Lydian mode will be Major I and a Major II chord, and almost always, the presence of a minor vii chord 1/2 step below the Major I chord.

(Note – there is also a fairly common & oft-used variation of the Lydian mode which involves not only #4 but also substituting a b7 for the 7 of the scale. Which is used as necessary to accommodate chords requiring this b7 note change, like, for example, where a Major bVII chord is substituted for the minor vii chord.. This common variation is called the Lydian b7 scale: )


The Mixolydian Mode, or the fifth mode, will work over any Dominant 7th chord, since you’re merely flattening the 7th degree of the major scale associated with that chord to accommodate the b7 necessary to the Dom7 chord. Further, mixolydian is often used where the progression moves from a major chord to the major chord a whole step (two frets below it) … for example, where the progression moves from I to bVII to I to bVII and cycles back & forth – you get the idea. It’s also used in folk or country progressions (or rock or blues) where the progression immediately moves from the I chord to the V chord particularly where there is also a IV chord in the progression – this is due to the mode being built on the major key of the V chord and there being a whole-step move down to the IV chord, characteristic of the I to bVII movement of this mode.

For a good example of the unique sound of the mixolydian mode, listen to The Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” which moves from B to A to B to A -or- I bVII I bVII and is played in E Mixolydian – which you might also view as a V to IV progression in E Major.  Other Mixolydian examples include a traditional folk tune “Old Joe Clark,” “No Rain” by Blind Melon, “I’m So Glad” by Cream, the jazz standard “On Broadway” by George Benson, the main riff from “Third Stone From The Sun” by Jimi Hendrix, “1999” by Prince, “Cinnamon Girl” by Neil Young, “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour, “Franklin’s Tower” by the Grateful Dead, “Jessica” by the Allman Brothers Band, “Lowrider” by War, “Free” by Phish, “Get Down Tonight” by KC & the Sunshine Band, “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsman, “Possum Kingdom” by the Toadies, “What I Got” and “Wrong Way” by Sublime, “What I Like About You” by the Romantics, “Dear Prudence” by the Beatles, the intro & verse sections of “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles, or even the verse section of “Tequila” by The Champs.

Advanced Theory: In the key of F major starting on the fifth degree – or C Mixolydian scale … our chord progression viewing it as relating to F major would be V, vi, vii°, I, ii, iii, IV (and in chord progressions and songs constructed in all modes except Ionian or Locrian, the diatonic diminished chord is almost always skipped or another chord is substituted in it’s place in the progression). So a C Mixolydian chordal progression (remember we’re in the key of F) would feature the following chords: C, Dm, (Em or E), F, Gm (or G substitution – more likely), Am,Bb, … So if you’re in a song where C is the I chord, and you see/hear these other chords in this relationship to each other: I Major, ii minor, iii minor (or iiiDim, or even a III Major), IV Major, v minor or V Major (a Major V is almost always substituted in Mixolydian mode!), vi minor, bVII Major — think C Mixolydian! … The most reliable indicator of Mixolydian mode will be the presence of the Major bVII chord a whole-step below the Major I chord, coupled with the presence of a Major IV chord.


The Aeolian Mode, or sixth mode, is the exact same thing as the natural minor scale! For any major scale, find it’s sixth degree, and build a natural minor scale over it (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7) & you get the Aeolian mode. Any song which features a i iv v, like a minor blues or rock progression using the i iv v, can be played in the Aeolian mode. You might also see a V7, or a bIII, bVI, or bVII chord in songs in this mode. Certainly, any song which moves from the minor i to minor iv is most likely in Aeolian mode & will sound good against the natural minor scale.

For a good example of songs featuring the Aeolian Mode, listen to the guitar solo in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” or “Achilles Last Stand,” or any variety of minor blues or rock songs using all minor chords for the i iv & v – note sometimes a Major V or V7 is substituted for songs in this mode, but the minor i to minor iv change will give it away.  You can also listen to these classic songs: “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix, “Black Magic Woman” by Fleetwood Mac or Santana, “Maria, Maria” by Santana, “Building A Mystery” by Sara McLachlan, “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac, “You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi, “Mr. Jones” by the Counting Crows, “Two Step” by the Dave Matthews Band, “Thank You” by Dido, the main riff to “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica, “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne, “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath, “Buddy Holly” and “Hash Pipe” by Weezer, “Last Resort” by Papa Roach, “First Tube” by Phish, “ATWA” by System of a Down, “Schism” by Tool, “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits, “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics or Marilyn Manson, and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit, which uses power chords derived from the Aeolian mode.

Advanced Theory: In the key of F major starting on the sixth degree – or D Aeolian scale … our chord progression would be vi, vii°, I, ii, iii, IV, V (and in chord progressions and songs constructed in all modes except Ionian or Locrian, the diatonic diminished chord is almost always skipped or another chord is substituted in it’s place in the progression, although in blues songs in this mode you will sometimes see a ii° chord). So D Aeolian chordal progression (remember we’re in the key of F) would feature the following chords: Dm, (Em or E), F, Gm, Am (or A), BbC, … So if you’re in a song where Dm is the i chord, and you see/hear these other chords in this relationship to each other: i minor, ii minor (or iiDim, or even a II Major), bIII Major, iv minor, v minor (sometimes the V Major or V7 Dominant is substituted), bVI Major, bVII Major — think D Aeolian! …The most reliable indicators of Aeolian mode will be the presence of both a Major bVI and Major bVII below the minor i chord, & a particularly tell-tale identifying giveaway will be the presence of a minor iv chord.


Finally, the Locrian Mode, or seventh mode, will be immediately identified by the presence of a diminished chord at the root or heart of the progression. This mode is based on the root of the diminished chord. Consequently, it has a very exotic sound. Some might describe it as a Japanese or even Hindu type flavor. This mode is not generally used for song construction, but there are rare examples. You will most likely encounter it for a short passage or progression, or more often when it is used to emphasize a diminished chord.

Frankly, there just aren’t many songs in Western music written entirely in the Locrian mode, but if you’re a masochist, you could listen to the march from Three Fantastic Dances by Dmitri Shostakovich, which is one of the rare examples of a whole piece written in mainly Locrian mode.  You will hear this mode used over diminished chords & diminished jazz progressions.

Advanced Theory: In the key of F major starting on the seventh degree – or E Locrian scale … our chord progression would be vii°, I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi. So E Locrian chordal progression (remember we’re in the key of F) would feature the following chords: E(dim), F, Gm, Am, Bb, C, Dm, … So if you’re in a song where E(dim) is the i° chord, and you see/hear these other chords in this relationship to each other: i(dim), 1/2 step up to bII Major, biii minor, iv minor, bV Major, bVI Major, bvii minor — think E Locrian! … The most reliable indicator of Locrian mode will be a diminished i chord and/or the very noticeable diminished sound of the song or progression.

(Advanced Diminished Theory Note — there is one more 7th degree root mode mode which is commonly used in jazz – the “Super-Locrian Mode.” A Locrian scale has everything flattened but the root 1 & the 4th. The formula is 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7. However, the Super Locrian mode scale, goes one more, and also flattens the 4th: 1 b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 b7. The Super Locrian is also called the jazz scale, or altered scale, or diminished whole tone scale. Super Locrian is the “offical” name of the 7th mode of the melodic minor scale. It is called the altered scale because it contains the most important jazz alterations (b5, #5, b9, #9) used with altered dominant chords. Since it has all those alterations, it is frequently used over altered dominants, hence it’s shortened name – the Altered scale. A quick look at the way it lines up will give you an idea of why it is also referred to as the diminished whole tone scale.

As my friend bassist Kelly Tomlinson, who majored in music theory, describes: In standard four-part harmony, the vii7 chord is half diminished if it stays in the key, and it usually does, unless it’s being used as a pivot chord to change keys. Then it’s a fully diminished chord that utilizes the flat submediant (i.e. a b4). That diminished chord utilizing a flat submediant (b4) built on the major 7th degree of the original key/scale can then become the leading tone into a substitute V7 of the new key built on the major 2nd degree of the original key/scale – i.e., the 5th degree of the new key/scale – and resolve nicely to change keys in the middle of the song down a minor third, or up a minor third if the process is reversed moving from the V7 chord of the original key/scale to a diminished chord built on the 2nd degree of the original key/scale to the I or i of the new key/scale. This process of using the diminished chord to change keys up or down a minor third works over both Major or minor keys. Consequently, when soloing over diminished chords of all varieties, rather than concentrate on the Locrian modal scale, which has a tritone as its own tonic and dominant rendering it atonal, it’s just best to know where to end up next! All the theory in the world won’t save that trainwreck!)

Final Thought:  Practical Tips on When & How to Combine Modes

In deciding which mode to use, you should always start with the scale or mode which best fits and includes all of, or at least the most, notes from the chords in the song or progression and which best suits the mood of the song or the mood you’re trying to create. You might first start by remembering that one of the three Major modes – Ionian, Lydian & Mixolydian – will likely work better as a choice to play over an entire Major key progression or song, whereas one of the three minor modes – Aeolian, Dorian & Phrygian – will likely work better as a choice to play over an entire minor key progression or song.  The reality, however, is that unless you’re dealing with a fairly simple chord progression or one which exclusively uses diatonic chords all built only from the notes of one underlying key, then you are going to have to make adjustments as necessary to pick up chord tones which are “outside” the notes/tones of the modal scale you initially choose. You might simply adjust your modal scale to pick up any outside notes over the outside chord when it appears in your progression or by choosing to play a different mode, or arpeggio, which better fits the outside chord when it comes up. And remember you can always bend up to chord tones, or use chromatic notes to walk or slide up or down into any chord or scale tones, to make things even more interesting. There are many times, like in using both minor and major pentatonic scales together over a blues progression, where you may want to combine modal scales.* This article is designed merely to give you a good idea how & where to start.

(* Advanced Theory Note on Combining Modes — Let’s take a typical Dorian progression with a minor i chord and a Major IV chord, like Gm to C.  While using a G Dorian modal scale will work over both modes, sometimes it’s even more pleasing to use the G Aeolian mode over the Gm half of the progression emphasizing the b6 of the G natural minor scale, but switching to G Dorian mode (i.e. raising the 6th) over the C (IV) chord to emphasize the Major 3rd of the C chord.  If the progression moves to a Dm for the v chord, G Dorian will continue to work, but so would G Aeolian, since both of those modes also contain all of the notes of Dm (D F A) in their scale.  Another way to look at it is that diatonic chords of G Dorian and G Aeolian modes contain a minor v chord (Dm). … If instead, the V chord is D Major, neither the diatonic G Dorian or G Aeolian modes fit since D contains an F# in it’s construction [D F# A].  Well, we could just use an D Ionian modal scale – D Major scale – over the D chord, but that takes our minor sounding progression and temporarily makes it sound Major and, in this case, not in a good way!  So instead we might try to find a minor sounding mode that also works.  A Aeolian contains an F or b6, not an F# 6, so that won’t work particularly well.  However, an A Dorian scale would raise that 6th from minor b6 to Major 6 and catch the F#, but it also contains a b7 (G), which is the root note of both our G Aeolian and G Dorian modal scales that we have found to be very pleasing and better fit the “mood” of our progression.  [And here's another helpful hint: as in our example, it's actually a very common technique to simply move the very same type same modal scale being used over the 4 chord up a whole-step when playing over the 5 chord - particularly where both chords are Major;  as in our example, moving G Dorian over the IV chord up to play A Dorian over the V chord].

Another example of a very common combination of modes is to mix and match licks from C Mixolydian (built from our F Major scale) with C Dorian (built from a Bb Major scale) over a I  bVII  IV progression in C, i.e., C Bb F.  The reason this works is that both of these modal scales, despite being constructed from different parent Major scales, contain all of the triad notes for all three of those chords.  Combining Mixolydian and Dorian modes constructed from the same root note in this way works well over any I  bVII  IV, or I  IV  bVII, progression.

Finally, since you can use mixolydian mode over any Dom7 chord, it works particularly well to spice up a standard 1 4 5 blues progression which uses all Dom 7 chords – e.g., F7 (I), Bb7 (IV), and C7 (V).  We would play F mixolydian over the F7 chord (the fifth mode constructed in Bb Major), Bb mixolydian over the Bb7 chord (the fifth mode constructed in Eb Major), and C mixolydian over the C7 chord (the fifth mode constructed in F Major).  So we play the mixolydian mode starting on the root note of the chord over each of our Dominant 7 chords to emphasize the b7 note in the chord.  Try it on your blues, you’ll like it!

Remember, the point here is that in choosing which modes to use when combining modes, it’s usually best try to pick ones that either both contain all the notes from all the chords in the progression, or where that’s not possible, and it becomes necessary to choose a different mode to accommodate an “outside” chord tone/note, try to select a mode to play over the “outside” chord which at least creates the same “mood” over the progression being played, e.g., that keeps the same overall all minor, or all Major, modality of the song or progression,… unless you’re purposefully trying to add a tasteful and pleasant sounding touch of Major over an otherwise minor song or progression, or vice-versa, … purposefully incorporating a blues note or an “outside” note to add pleasing color or to create chromatic or other tension to resolve back into a chord tone or to create/follow the unique melody of the song, … or purposefully changing the overall minor v. Major modality entirely to support a new key change or new progression intentionally written to create a completely different mood – as sometimes done in a bridge or chorus, or underneath a solo to make it more interesting.)

I hope this explanation was fairly easy to understand & helpful. Maybe it will inspire you to start spicing up your improvisation and soloing by starting to include modal concepts into your playing or help you more quickly identify which modes might work over the chord progressions being thrown at you on stage. Anyway, have fun, practice hard, & perform like a pro!

Lastly, I found an interview with Trey Anastasio from the band Phish on his solo techniques.  He offers a very interesting perspective on solo technique for the guitar.  You will find this interview at

In this classic interview, Andy Aledort talks to Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio about the magic behind his improv techniques.

“Musical inspiration can come from just about anywhere,” says Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. “For me, so much inspiration comes from the rhythms of the natural sounds in the air. Walking out in the country, you’ll hear certain sounds — a train, a boat, or maybe a horse walking on the road — and each of these sounds has a rhythm. If your mind is open, the simple rhythms of those sounds can inspire you and spark new musical ideas.”

Anastasio, holding court in a Mayflower Hotel suite high above the streets of New York City, has come to discuss Phish’s latest release, Farmhouse (Elektra), the band’s 11th album. Though Phish is rarely on MTV and resides somewhere well outside the Top 40 radio charts, the group has sold close to five million albums worldwide, with five of those certified Gold, and one, A Live One, certified Platinum.

For years now, Phish has been riding the crest of a wave that erupted with the band’s welcome embrace from the “Deadhead” counterculture. Today, that once-insular musical scene has blossomed into a massive “jam band” revolution, paving the way for a cross-pollination of musical styles, sounds and genres. In many ways, Phish was the movement’s prototypical band.

“In Phish, we’ve dropped the concept of musical style and accepted all music as a global mass of sound,” says Anastasio. “We operate from two opposing philosophies: one is that you should lock yourself in a room from birth, and write music with zero influence from the outside world; the other is that you should listen to everything, to the point of being able to faithfully recreate the Beatles’ White Album, as we did before a show a while back. As odd as it sounds, we try to draw from both philosophies simultaneously.”

Enjoying a brief respite before heading out on a huge summer tour, Anastasio took some time out to give Guitar World an exclusive guitar lesson. In it, he details the intricacies of Phish’s more complex music and provides a broad overview of his approach to music and the guitar.

GUITAR WORLD: What fueled your initial interest in music?

TREY ANASTASIO: The first three albums I ever owned were Diana Ross Presents The Jackson Five, the first Led Zeppelin album and The Best of Cream. Led Zeppelin was a huge influence for me. I was obsessed with them; I had every album, and I memorized them all. Actually, I played the drums from a very young age; I was probably about 5 years old. I played on and off, but I always had a drum set in my room.

When did you first pick up the guitar?

When I was in the eleventh grade. I had always played the drums in the bands I was in, and in high school I switched to the guitar. Two years later, I started Phish. When I first started to play the guitar, I took some classical lessons and learned to play the Bach Chorales and the basics of fingerstyle. But I moved on to the electric right after that.

The influence of Bach’s fugues is apparent on songs like “You Enjoy Myself,” in which the melody is based on a progression of baroque-sounding chordal arpeggios.

The sound of Bach’s music has always appealed to me. The use of arpeggios in “You Enjoy Myself” is definitely influenced by Bach. Back in 1995, one of the things we liked to do was have everyone play in a different time signature at the same time: I’d play eleven beats, Fish [Jon Fishman, drums] would play seven beats, and Mike [Gordon, bassist] would play five beats, and this would cycle a few times until we all met on the downbeat of “1″ again.

Did you work that out through experimentation, or was it written out?

Things like this were written out on paper. A lot of our stuff was scored back then.

Is it difficult to perform these long, complicated instrumental passages live?

The secret is, you can’t think about it. Whenever we come to a hard passage, I try to think about anything but that particular lick. I’ll look out into the audience or do something to distract my mind. I’ll never fuck up if I don’t think about it!

The layering of different time signatures is a technique used by Captain Beefheart, who seems to have had an influence on your music.

Oh, he’s great. “Tropical Hot Dog Night,” from Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), is one of the five best songs ever written! Captain Beefheart’s big claim was that he was influenced by no one—he used to say that he was completely free-floating in the world. If he was influenced at all it was by visual artists, because he was a sculptor.

In Phish, we like the idea of dropping the whole concept of musical style and just accepting all music as a global mass of sound. It’s too late for us to go the Captain Beefheart route though [laughs], so we’ll cover anything.

Did the progressive rock and jazz/fusion of the early Seventies influence your music?

Oh, yeah, I love progressive rock. I’m a big fan of Robert Fripp [guitarist and founder of Sixties/Seventies progressive rock masters King Crimson—GW Ed.], and I still love a lot of his stuff. I was especially into his work with Brian Eno, on albums such as Another Green World, and I was really into King Crimson’s Larks Tongues in Aspic, which is one of my all-time favorite albums. I like Red, too. Then there’s the stuff he did later for his Discipline Records label. The “patterny” thing that Fripp is known for had a big influence on me.

Are you a fan of jazz/fusion guitarists, like John McLaughlin, for instance?

The record that I listened to the most that featured McLaughlin’s guitar playing was Miles Davis’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1970). I love his playing on that record. I used to listen to it all the time, and I worked out some of the guitar parts that he plays on that record.

Are there any other guitarists that have had a big influence on you?

There are so many, probably just about anyone you’d ask me about. Pat Metheny is one. Jerry Garcia has been a huge influence for me.

In the development of your own style, did you work out any of Garcia’s solos?

I worked out a whole bunch of his solos. From listening to Jerry, I learned a lot about getting around the neck using different scale shapes and patterns. The first thing I picked up from him was the many different ways of “walking around” scales diatonically [staying within the tonal structure of a specific scale—GW Ed.]. If we use a G major scale in the 10th position [FIGURE 1A], we can play the scale in groups of fours, ascending and descending [FIGURE 1B]. You can recognize that sound as a “Jerry” thing right away.

Once you get a handle on that pattern, you realize that there are zillions of other patterns you can do, and you begin to work them all out. Another good one is to ascend in groups of four, but start from a lower scale degree each time. [FIGURE 1C] There’s also this variation [FIGURE 1D] that utilizes a descending progression of diatonic thirds, in which the first three notes of each beat are thirds apart [either one and one half or two whole steps]. This pattern creates a melody reminiscent of “If I Only Had a Brain,” from The Wizard of Oz. 

I would take riffs I learned from other guitar players and use them as doors into new ideas. By investigating the playing of guitar players I loved, I discovered the methods they used for creating improvised lines. Once you find a particular pattern, try transposing it to diminished scale, or to each of the minor modes, and so on. Then start moving those patterns all over the neck, studying them in every position.

For example, I transposed a melodic pattern similar to the last one I showed you [FIGURE 1D] to the chromatic scale and came up with this [FIGURE 1E]. This pattern was devised by first moving up a minor third [one and a half steps], and then down a half step, down a minor third and down another half step. This pattern is played repeatedly, with each group of four notes starting one whole step lower than the previous group.

As you can probably tell, a lot goes into building a successful guitar solo.  There are so many different perspectives on good solo technique and all should be considered.  As Trey Anastasio revealed in this interview, it’s important to have guitarist influences that will help shape your own playing.  And, if you are just starting out on guitar remember that even if the technical information in this article seems foreign to you, consider it a goal to work toward.

Have fun and stay tuned!


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