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Improvising Over Minor Guitar Chords


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In this tutorial we'll have a look at the guitar scales, arpeggios and substitutions we can use to improvise over minor guitar chords, so we can make our guitar solos more interesting. Unless specified, we take a Dm chord as example.

Here are two backing tracks that you can use with this lesson. The first backing track is a Band in a Box combo playing Dm7, the second one is the same combo playing II V Is in C major.

 

Dm7 Backing Track

II V I in C Major

 

 

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1) The Dorian Scale

The 3 minor diatonic scales (Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian) are the obvious choice for playing over minor chords. Which of the 3 scales you play depends on the harmonic setting and the function of the chords you are playing over.

The Dorian mode is played over II chords, like in a II V I chord progression.

We'll take a 2 5 1 in C major as an example:

 

Dm7 G7 Cmaj7 %
II V I  

 


Over the Dm7 we play the D Dorian scale:

 

D Dorian
Over Dm7
D E F G A B C
1 9 b3 11 5 6 b7

 

Here's the scale chart for D Dorian mode in its root position:

Guitar scales: D Dorian

 

The Dorian scale is also used to play over minor chords in modal tunes, like So What.

 

2) The Phrygian Scale

The Phrygian scale is used to play over minor chords that have the function of a III in a harmony. An example is the 3rd bar of a Rhythm Changes:

 

Cmaj7 Am7 Dm7 G7 Em7 A7 Dm7 G7
I     VI II     V III    VI7 II     V

 


On the Em7 in the 3rd bar we can play the E Phrygian mode. As a side note I want to point out that although you theoretically play the Phrygian mode on the Em7 in a rhythm changes, you don't think about the Phrygian mode, just think C major (did that make sense, if not, give me a shout).

 

E Phrygian Scale
Over Em7
E F G A B C D
1 b9 b3 11 5 b6 b7


The E Phrygian scale in its root position:

Guitar scales: E Phrygian

 

3) The Aeolian Scale

The Aeolian scale (aka relative minor scale) is used to play over minor chords that have a VI function or a I function in minor. An example of a VI is the second chord in a rhythm changes.

 

A Aeolian Mode
Over Am7
A B C D E F G
1 9 b3 11 5 b6 b7


The chart for the A Aeolian scale in root position:

Scale chart A Aeolian


4) D Minor Pentatonic Scale or Blues Scale

It can't get more obvious, very useful, also in a jazz context.

 

D Minor Pentatonic
Over Dm7
D F G A A
1 b3 11 5 b7

 

5) A Minor Pentatonic Scale or Blues Scale

The A minor pentatonic scale sounds very nice over Dm7

 

A Minor Pentatonic
Over Dm7
A C D E G
5 b7 1 9 11

 

6) E minor Pentatonic Scale

The E minor pentatonic works nice if you alternate it with D minor pentatonic (on modal tunes). It creates a tension/release kind of thing (see point 10 on this page)

 

E Minor Pentatonic
Over Dm7
E G A B D
9 11 5 6 1

 

7) D Minor Arpeggio

Surprisingly the Dm7 arpeggio works very well over Dm7. See also: Arpeggio 101

 

8) Fmaj7 Arpeggio

An Fmaj7 arpeggio over Dm adds the 9: nice sound.

 

Fmaj7 Arpeggio
Over Dm7
F A C E
b3 5 b7 9

 

9) Am7 Arpeggio

One step further is Am7, it adds the 11 to the sound.

 

Am7 Arpeggio
Over Dm7
A C E G
5 b7 9 11

 

10) Em7 Arpeggio

Em7 sounds a little more distant over Dm, but works fine if you alternate it with a Dm arpeggio.

D   F   A   C   +   E   G   B   D = D Dorian Scale

Em7 Arpeggio
Over Dm7
E G B D
9 11 6 1

 

11) Dm6 or Bm7b5 Arpeggio

Emphasizing the 6 of a minor chord works nice if the minor chord has a tonic function and not a sub-tonic function (like in a II V). In other words, the minor chord should be the I, not the II. In other words, the minor chord should not be followed by the V (Dm7 should not be followed by G7).

Example of a minor chord with a tonic function:


Dm7         Em7b5    A7
Im7        IIm7b5   V 

 

12) G7 Arpeggio

G7 sounds ok over Dm, especially when it has the tonic function. If you use it in a 2 5 1, you can make the b (6) on Dm7 go to #9 and b9 on G7, to the 5 of Cmaj7.

 

G7 Arpeggio
Over Dm7
G B D F
11 6 1 b3

 

13) The Line Cliché

In tunes where the minor chord spans a couple of bars, like in a minor blues, you can use this little device called the line cliché. This technique is as old as the street and is frequently used by gypsy jazz guitarists. The line cliché is a descending line going chromatically from the 1 of a minor chord to its 6:

1 » 7  » b7 » 6
d » c# » c  » b

 

Line cliché

 

There's another example of the line cliché in this tutorial about Bebop.

 

Do you have more ideas? If you do, let us know here...

 


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