Note choice basics for synth and keyboard soloing

August 20, 2014
Looking back over the columns I’ve written for the past two and a half years (wow, tempus fugit), I’ve made some assumptions about note choices, scales, modes and the relationship of notes to chords in general. While these concepts have been and are covered in other Keyboard articles, I’d like to share my take on this very important subject. We can then move into analyzing specific players, their solos, and styles of playing. 

Concepts for Soloing

While discussing synth soloing with Adam Holzman for last month’s column he laid out a really good overview on tools for developing a good solo. These include the use of scales, modes, pentatonics, the blues, “cool licks,” outlining the harmony of the song, superimposed triad shapes, and of course, the melody of the tune itself. I’ll be using this as my guide for the range of articles to come.

Before we get into scales, here’s a very important point. The study of scales and modes can lead players to just “run the scales” up and down their instrument. This gets boring quickly and is often done because after practicing them to master the fingering, players all too often fall into “muscle memory” and just run scales when they solo. Avoid that trap, and instead use conscious note choices to make good melodies! 

These are all really types of scales, but you may not be as familiar with the concepts of modes and pentatonic scales. For simplicity, think of all of these as different groupings of notes, each defined by a specific “construct.” They are good resources to find different notes and groupings of notes to play that work well against given types of chords, and key centers. 



Everyone who learns piano learns the major scale (Ex. 1). Seven notes are laid out in the familiar steps: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, and finally a half-step back to the root tone an octave up. It’s important to understand scales in this way, since all other scales and modes can be described by their whole- and half-step constructions. 

Take this further and build seventh chords using only these scale tones and you get the chords shown in Ex.2. It’s common to use Roman numerals to indicate each chord step: capitals for major and dominant sevenths and lower case for minor, half diminished, and fully diminished chords. The reason for using the numbers is so you can discuss the concepts of harmony easily in any key.

We can see that the I chord is a major seventh chord, and the major scale of the same name will work very well over it. The notes from the scale that make up the chord (1, 3, 5, 7) are good tones to land on for downbeats and for longer held notes, and some of the other tones (the sixth, for example) also work well. The fourth doesn’t fit the chord as well, so it is better to use in passing.

The fourth scale tone also creates a major seventh chord (Fmaj7 in this example), and we can still use the major scale based on the root name (C) to create melodies. But now we want to emphasize the tones that make up the chord, so this time we use the fourth (F), sixth (A), root (C) and third (E) of the scale. The other notes of the scale actually all sound good against the chord, with the seventh (B) sounding a bit exotic, but not as odd as the F did against the C major. The way I just described it makes sense when playing a scale starting with the root note, but if you start on a different note—say, the fourth—it’s easier to describe the note choices as they relate to F, rather than C. That’s exactly what most musicians and educators do, which leads us to . . .

Ex. 1. The major scale.


Ex. 2. The scale tone seventh chords.



In the simplest terms, modes are major or minor scales that start and end on another tone rather than the root. Sticking with our IV chord (Fmaj7) we can play from F to F using the notes of the C major scale (all white keys) and see that the construction of the scale is slightly different (Ex.3a).

Comparing that scale to building the major scale starting on F (Ex. 3b), you’ll see that one difference is the fourth step. In the pure major built on the root tone it would be Bb (flat), and in this modal construction the fourth is raised a half-step to B natural. This scale is called the Lydian mode, and works well for major seventh chords when you want a little exotic color.

Moving back to the last major chord from Ex. 2, the fifth step of the scale has a major triad, but the seventh is lowered to form the dominant seventh chord. Looking at the C-based scale going from G to G versus the G major scale (Ex. 4a and 4b), the seventh note of the major scale is lowered by a half-step. That scale is called the Mixolydian mode, and works great for dominant seventh chords.

Ex. 3. The Lydian mode.


Ex. 4. The Mixolydian mode.


Things Begin To Make Sense

We can take those scale tone chords and use the root tone scale for each chord for when you want to play and sound very much “in” the key center (Ex. 5). You’re drawing from the same note pool to play those three chords, but which notes match up to the chord and which create some dissonance or tension is what changes. 

Let me speed up the explanation as it relates to the minor chords that occur when you’re playing in a major-key tonality: the ii, iii, and vi chords (Dm7, Em7, and Am7 in the key of C). The D to D scale using the key of C is called the Dorian mode, and can be thought of as starting a major scale on its second step, or as a major scale with the third and seventh lowered (Ex. 6).

Ex. 5. The I, IV, and V7 chords and their modes.


Ex. 6. The Dorian mode.


 The E to E scale using the key of C is called the Phrygian mode, and can be thought of as starting a major scale on the third tone, or as a major scale with the second, third, sixth and seventh lowered (Ex. 7). Finally, the A to A scale using the key of C is called the Aeolian mode, and can be thought of as starting a major scale on the sixth tone, or as a major scale with the third, sixth, and seventh lowered (Ex. 8). It’s also called the Natural Minor scale. The seventh step scale tone chord is called a half-diminished chord (Bdim7, sometimes notated BØ7), or a minor seventh flat five (Bmin7b5). This seventh tone-to -seventh tone scale is called the Locrian mode (Ex. 9), and can be thought of as a major scale with lowered second, third, fifth, sixth, and seventh. Ex. 10 shows each of these modes applied to the root of C, so you can compare how each changes the steps of the scale. 

Ex. 7. The Phrygian mode.


Ex. 8. The Aeolian mode.


Ex. 9. The Locrian mode.


Ex. 10. All the modes in the key of C (click to enlarge).


Next month we’ll put these these scale/mode concepts in practice with some melodies and licks, and move on to the minor scales and their modes and uses.

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