Playing over chord changes is a skill that’s crucial for guitarists. However, it can be a confusing subject to tackle given the numerous approaches and techniques that can be called “chord tone soloing”.

Here are five lessons designed to cut through the frustration of learning chord tone soloing, taught by TrueFire’s Jeff McErlain from his course Essentials: Chord Tone Soloing. Jeff will not only teach you this concept, but also take you through playing examples reminiscent of BB King, Peter Green, Eric Clapton, and other blues legends to allow you to apply the subject matter as you learn it.

In the full course, Jeff dives deeper into this subject, giving you 10 progressions to practice and learn to really nail soloing over the changes. Check it out on TrueFire now!

Bird Out: Overview

This is the end progression for the song “Hummingbird” that BB solos over. It’s a very common progression that can offer some cool ways to use chord tone soloing. With all due respect to BB, one of my heroes, he basically plays sparsely and sticks to “BB’s box” – which of course makes perfect sense!

The progression is Bb-F-C7, and that puts us in C Mixolydian (C-D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C), which is the same notes as F major. The magic BB’s box is a mix of Cmaj pentatonic and Fmaj pentatonic scales, which I explain in the video. Spend a lot of time with BB’s box, as it’s an essential scale for blues and blues rock soloing.

Bird Out: Performance

Download the tab, notation, and jam track for this lesson on TrueFire.

I start off this solo grabbing some chord tones to create a cool descending melodic line. The progression is Bb-F-C7, and the first note I play is Bb, which is the root of the Bb chord. I then lower this a half step to A to play the 3rd of the F chord. I’ll move down the scale to play G, which is the 5th of my C chord. Very simple conceptually, extremely effective musically, and a tried and true approach to creating melodies.

I discovered this technique largely by thinking about chord tones, and even though these notes are contained in the C Mixolydian scale, that doesn’t mean we would automatically see the melodic line. It’s only by looking at the notes within each chord that these things become apparent. I cannot stress enough what an epiphany this was for me after many years of playing. Like me, your teachers have been telling you for years to work on triads.

Bird Out: Breakdown

Download the tab, notation, and jam track for this lesson on TrueFire.

Here I start off by just messing with the BB’s box idea – this is an essential fingering/idea that every guitar player should become familiar with. It’s truly the basis of that sweet major blues sound that I love so much in BB and Peter Green. Check out John Mayer and Joe Bonamassa soloing over this one for a cool modern take on the traditional version, which they do so well!

Now once you have a handle on that (got a lifetime?), start adding in one new note at a time. That’s the way to get it done; don’t get overwhelmed, one note at a time is the key. Even if all you do in that week or practice session is get that one note into your playing, you have moved forward.

Highway Key: Performance

Download the tab, notation, and jam track for this lesson on TrueFire.

The parent scale on this tune is the A minor blues scale, so as usual, mess around with that and get comfortable with it on this chord progression. I’m assuming that won’t take much effort on your part, but it’s essential. In the solo, I’ve prepared for you I take a classic approach and pay careful attention to how I outline the three chords in one position around the 10th fret. This position is really magical on the blues, especially when outlining the changes and looking for chord tones. They sit very well on top of each other here and it’s also where many classic solos are performed in the key of A. Obviously, this is instantly transposable to any other key and I highly suggest you do that.

To start, after messing around with the A minor pentatonic scale, try using a major pentatonic scale on the A chord, and when switching to the E7 chord, keep on the major pentatonic scale. When you get to the D7 chord, try hitting either the F sharp note or the C natural, which is not in the A major pentatonic scale, but is in the D7 chord. That’s a particularly strong note between these two and if you get that one, you’re well on your way. Make that the goal of your practice session at first, just getting that one note that’s different that outlines the changes. If you take these baby steps, I can guarantee you the results will be much better than trying to do it all at once.

Greeny: Performance

Download the tab, notation, and jam track for this lesson on TrueFire.

There are many guitar players I would recommend when getting into this “sweeter” blues sound, but the man to start with is BB King. I actually came to BB a little later in my guitar playing career, which seems kind of crazy. Coming from a British blues background with bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin, my main exposure to BB was on TV shows where it was more about his singing, which I always appreciated, but I never thought much of his playing.

To put it simply, I was an idiot. Okay, well maybe not an idiot, I just hadn’t heard the right stuff. So, I highly recommend BB King’s Live at The Regal, Live at Cooke County Jail, and of course, maybe a greatest hits album. But those two live records changed everything for me. I also highly suggest checking out John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers’ album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, one of the most influential guitar records of all time. Even if you don’t know it, it has influenced your playing in some way.

Another guitar player who I gush about all time is Peter Green. A student introduced me to his playing about 15 years ago, and I was shocked that I had no real knowledge of him other than knowing his name. I have to say, he’s probably my single most favorite blues guitar player and I cannot recommend his Fleetwood Mac era music enough. There’s an excellent official release of a bootleg from when he was in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (in which he replaced Clapton). The sound quality is a bit sketchy, but the playing is absolutely astounding. And it was 1967.

If you’re still jonesing for more ways to use chord tone soloing, Jeff McErlain has 10 blues solos ready to learn in Essentials: Chord Tone Soloing on TrueFire. As always, you’ll get the tab, notation, and jam track for each one to help you practice and really nail soloing over the chord changes. Let’s get going!