Many, many years ago, while perusing the pages of a guitar magazine, there was an article with various pro players offering various tips to improve one’s playing.
One that stood out for me was a tip from the great Steve Morse (of the Dixie Dregs and Deep Purple), who had a tip about soloing over changes. Basically (and I’m really paraphrasing here) people often think that when they change chords, they need to change where they play on the neck to accommodate the chord. In reality, all the notes they need are right under their fingers already.
So, how do we get used to that concept? Let’s dive in.
What is a position?
For those unfamiliar with the term, a position on the neck refers to the relationship between your fingers and the frets they’re under. The easiest way to consider it is how the four fingers of the fretting hand fall under a group of four frets on the neck. For instance, if your first finger falls under the fifth fret, and you’re playing in that general area between the fifth and eighth frets (with a note sometimes falling on the fourth and ninth frets, depending on what’s being played), you’re in the fifth position.
Here’s an example of an A major scale in fifth position:
Chords, chords and more chords!
When approaching soloing, most great players and improvisers will play over the changes, meaning they will focus on the notes of each chord, rather than using one general scale to play over everything. Some players may opt to change positions when the chords change to build lines, such as in this example:
What Morse was getting at was that rather than moving positions when changing chords, you have all the notes you need in any given position to play all the chords while staying in the same spot on the neck.
The technical nitty-gritty
Let's take a look at this idea. To get our brains going, here is a C chromatic scale in fifth position, stretching only one octave:
The chromatic scale (any one of them) contains all 12 notes found in music. Because of this, we should be able to play chord tones for every chord in that one position. Here is an example using the 7th chords of the C major scale (and please note that for the next few examples, the root note of each chord will be in parentheses):
As you can see, you can play all seven chords (eight if you include the octave) without moving your hand beyond that octave. Let’s take it a step further and play some major 7th chords around the circle of fifths:
Again, these chords, found in 12 different keys, can be played within the same section of the neck without jumping around when the chord changes.
Let’s do one more set of diatonic chords in C major, only this time using all six strings on the guitar, again staying in fifth position (note that the timing may seem a bit odd; the point is to get all four notes of each chord under your fingers as much as possible):
Putting it together
If we revisit the small four-bar solo at the beginning of this piece, the lines change positions based on the chords being played. Let’s now see how a short solo over the changes can be done while staying in the same position:
Here, the same notes have been used, as well as the same phrasing (when possible). The only thing that changes is the octave range.
Why practice this?
Working out phrases and lines over changes while staying in the same position is a great way to develop a couple of skills:
You learn how to connect chords more easily. Part of the fun is trying to get one chord to the next seamlessly. It’s easy when you can just hop up and down the neck, but a bit more challenging here. With a little work, you’ll be able to connect the dots.
It helps your knowledge of theory and how to apply it. You’ll be working out many different ways to play triads (at the very least), information that can also be applied anywhere else on the neck. Just remember where the roots are found for an easy reference point.
It helps you be more creative. Like it or not, staying in the same position means that you’re limited to about two octaves + a major 3rd’s worth of notes at your disposal, and not the full range of the neck. Having that limitation makes you try to come up with creative ways to keep your lines interesting and musical with a limited number of notes.
So go have some fun with this and challenge yourself to stay in one spot on the neck to play over changes! There’s lots to learn that will add that extra bit of awesomeness to your playing (and make other players bow before you and your abilities!)
By Kevin Daoust - instagram.com/kevindaoust.gtr
Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.