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Improvising Over Major Chords 101 - The Improv Loop Episode #5

I hope things are going well for you. This week's Improv Loop episode is about how to start improvising over major chords.

Many guitarists start learning how to improvise over chords by learning a big major scale shape or a big major pentatonic scale shape. That can be too much information to start with, and you can easily fall into just playing up and down scales. Not very musical.

Improvising over major chords is a very thick, extensive, and potentially intimidating topic, but starting with something simple that you already know is a great way to get the ball rolling. The something that you already know for this lesson is the E major bar chord shape. We are going to pick this apart down to its most basic elements and look at how to use it to improvise simple melodies over any major chord. If you don't know with E major bar chord shape yet, you can go to the first module of The Bar Chord Masterclass to learn it.

Before you get started with the main improvisational idea in this video, we need to be sure you know where major chords come from. We are working with a G major chord in this lesson, so let's go with that.

To make a major chord, start with the corresponding major scale and take 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes to create the corresponding major chord. In our example of a G major chord, we would start with a G major scale spelled 1G 2A 3B 4C 5D 6E 7F#. Take the 1, 3, and 5, and you end up with 1G, 3B, and 5D. Those are the notes in a G major chord. We also refer to these notes as the root, 3rd, and 5th of the G major chord.

It's not necessary to be able to spell all the major chords just yet, but you do need to memorize the 1(R) 3 5 formula for building any major chord.

Now we can take a look at the E major bar chord shape and use it to play some leads over any major chord. Play a G major chord using the E major bar chord shape (your bar should be on the 3rd fret). The next step is to realize and memorize where each root note for this chord shape is located. You have one on the 3rd fret of the low E string, one on the 3rd fret of the high E string, and one on the 5th fret of the D string. These notes are important because they are your home base or anchor notes.

Now get rid of the notes on the low E and A strings to play a smaller 4-note shape. A small shape like this is much more manageable than an entire major scale or major pentatonic scale. It's also more customized and pointed for playing over a specific chord.

We've already covered where the two root notes are in this mini shape (5th fret of the D string and 3rd fret of the high E string), but what about the other notes in the shape? Well, those are going to be either the 3rd of the chord or the 5th of the chord. The 3rd is on the 4th fret of the G string with your 2nd finger and the 5th is on the 3rd fret of the B string with your 1st finger.

Seeing this little shape as you play over a G major chord gives you three notes that you know will sound great no matter what. Just play one note at a time, and you will be using a G major arpeggio to play over a G major chord.

The goal is to learn what the root, 3rd, and 5th sound like over the G major chord, intentionally choose what you want to hear, and use this little shape to make it happen.

The best thing about this is that this arpeggio shape is movable. If you want to play over a C major chord, you only need to move the E major bar chord shape up to where the root notes are on a C note. That's the 8th fret for your bar. From there, nothing changes. All of the roots, 3rds, and 5ths are in the same locations relative to your new starting point of C.

This is a pretty simple way of looking at things, but starting with small things like this will allow you to make some great music and not feel overwhelmed. The jam track for this episode moves through two measures of G major, two measures of C major, two measures of D major, and then two more measures of G major. Take your time and work on moving this arpeggio shape to the locations for G major, C major, and D major. Once you feel comfortable with that, you can try playing along to the jam track or your own loop.

We will develop more ideas for playing over major chords in the future. For now, have fun with this and make it your own as you improvise.

If you have any questions, you can leave a comment or email us

Have a great day,


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