Our job is simple as guitarists. Don’t play bad notes.
I learned this simple truth as the lead guitarist for my Church’s Christmas show a few years back. We worked out this awesome transition from one song directly into the opening melody to “Joy to the World.”
It was my job to play the simple melody – you know the one, you’ve heard it a million times, right?
I had no trouble in rehearsal nailing this. I even worked in a wah-wah pedal for fun. I had this down cold.
So I thought.
Showtime rolled around and the big wah-wah infused melody was coming up. Here we go…
That fourth note was a half step sharp! It sounded terrible. I knew it, my band leader knew it and worst of all everyone in the crowd knew it. It’s not like I flubbed a note in some obscure Barbecue Bob song. Nope.
I dropped the ball on “Joy to the World!” The most familiar song of the season. EVERYONE knew it!
Outwardly, I laughed it off and kept playing. But I was mortified.
How to Avoid Playing Bad Notes
I define bad notes as those notes that sound out of place over a chord.
There’s a ton of music theory to describe when and why these notes sound bad. But, if you use your ears, you know when you’re playing a bad note. And if you can’t spot one, just look at the faces of the folks listening to you play. Like my off note in “Joy to the World,” the cringing faces are a sure-fire way to know you’ve just screwed up!
So much of what we learn on the guitar comes down to that simple statement:
Don’t Play Bad Notes.
Other than dedicating all of your waking hours to mastering your instrument, I don’t think there’s a way to completely avoid playing bad notes. It happens. And it happens to all of us.
My goal in this lesson is to give you a powerful tool to help minimize the bad notes as much as possible. With a bit of useful guitar theory, I’ll help you cut through the dizzying amount of choices on the fretboard and head straight to the target notes. Here’s my 3 step approach:
- Determine the chord you’re playing over
- Find a scale that fits over the chord
- Focus on the target tones
Because I like to start simple and build from there, we’re going to move through these three steps using a very non-bluesy example. Don’t worry, we’ll still keep it interesting.
Determine the Chords of the Progression
Let’s take a look at a plain vanilla G major chord. We’ll have a one chord vamp on the G major chord just to keep things simple.
Have a quick listen to the track to get a feel for the rhythm in your head as we move ahead:
Then, come back to this and jam a little once you’ve got your target tones down!
Determine the Scale to Use
We know this is a G Major chord, given. Our next step is to find the scale that will work over a G Major Chord. There’s no magic here, if you’re playing a G Major chord – guess what scale will work?
Using the G major scale is by no means the only scale that works nicely over the G Major chord. We can explore more options later, but let’s keep our focus on making our solos over G, sound smart.
Here’s the basic G Major scale and it will serve as our starting point for a little improvisation.
G A B C D E F#
Here’s where things get tricky each of the notes in this scale are technically in the Key of G. Heck, they make up the Key of G! But try playing an F# over a G Major chord and you’ll be in for a nasty awakening.
It just doesn’t work. It meets my bad note definition. So, if all of these notes are in the key of G Major, why do some of the notes from the G Major scale sound so terrible?
The short answer is the notes of the scale have different functions in relation to a chord.
A cool way to find the right notes is to find the Target Tones.
Find and Focus on the Target Tones
This is where the fundamentals of chord theory and scale theory come together to help us find sweet notes when we write or improvise lead parts.
To summarize that lesson, major chords are made up of the 1st, 3rd and 5th interval of the relative scale. So we build a G chord from the 1st, 3rd and 5th interval of the G Major scale:
G A B C D E F#
Therefore, a G Major chord is made up of a G, B and a D note. That’s it. And this applies anywhere on the neck. Keep in mind, it only takes these three notes to make a G Major chord and if you’re physically playing more notes than this in a chord, you’re just playing more G’s more B’s or more D’s.
Cool thing is that the 1st, 3rd and 5th (G, B and D) make up our target tones over the G chord in our progression. You’ll want to play other notes from the scale in your lick to keep things interesting, but let these three notes be your focus.
Simply starting and ending on a target note can be a huge leap forward in your playing. You will start strong and end strong and therefore sound like you know what you’re doing!
Target the key notes of each chord when the music is on that chord.
Here’s a very basic example lick that uses several notes from the G Major scale, but really highlights the target tones.
Other than some awesome Bo Diddly and Muddy Waters tunes, we really don’t have many one chord songs. So you’re probably wondering what happens when the chord changes. How do we actually start soloing over an entire progression?
This lesson is quite a lot to internalize so we’ll save those very important topics for a future lesson. Plus, later on we’ll take a look at a more bluesy progression and put this target tone business to the test.
For now, jam over the G Major chord and work out some cool licks of your own that bring out the G – C and D notes.