Using scales in your solos - a diagram showing all of the major scale modes
The dreaded modes!

Whether you know them or not you will always be using scales in your solos. Some argue that it’s better to know the sound and feel of them than to learn them by wrote. Did Keef know he was playing a harmonic minor scale when he wrote the Paint it Black riff? Did his heroes, those old blues men with their homemade guitars know they were playing pentatonic scales? Probably not so there’s clearly a lot to be said for the ear method – just playing whatever sounds good. 

But there’s also a lot to be said for knowing why things sound good and how to summon up that sound and feel whenever you want it. For example instead of learning a favourite guitarist’s riff or solo note for note, you could learn the scale they used and build something unique out of it.

My friend and I both massive fans of Ritchie Blackmore’s playing took totally different approaches to playing scales. I’m not sure which was better. I think probably a mix of both. Said friend once said that Ritchie was just playing blues scales with a few extra notes thrown in. I knew that he was actually playing scales like Harmonic and Natural minor as well as blues scales and the exotic “snake charmer scale”.

 I’d learned all those scales from books (no internet back then) and had plastered diagrams of their patterns all over my bedroom walls. My friend could play lots of Ritchie things very impressively at parties, but I could improvise using the scales involved. 

Getting The Sound Of Scales In Your Head

using scales in your solos - a diagram of a guitar neck showing a Lydian mode pattern

No prizes for guessing which was more popular at a drunken knees up! But then guess which one of us ended up playing in a local covers band? Who formed an original band, played all over Europe, supported one of our favourite bands on tour and came within a hair’s breadth of signing a record deal. Horses for courses. 

Using scales in your solos effectively – not just cycling through them – is about understanding what makes them unique. Basically that comes down to two things: The intervals between the notes and the chords or root notes they are played over. It can all get quite confusing as you get into modes and advanced musical theory but those two things are a good start. 

Most guitarists will learn the five note blues or pentatonic scale first. They’ll usually learn it as a pattern across the neck from a root note on the bottom E to the same note 2 octaves higher on the top E. Then they’ll learn the additional “blues note” making a six note scale. The next step is to learn that pattern where it repeats elsewhere on the fretboard. Many a famous and successful player has parlayed that knowledge alone into the musical history books. 

Some will go further and learn different scales in the same way – patterns that repeat all over the neck. They’ll learn the CAGED system which uses the repeated shapes of chords across the neck and how they relate to the scales they are formed from. So far this is enough to have been the basis  for 90% or more of every pop and rock song ever written and most guitar solos. But there’s a lot more.

Opening Things Up

When players like Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen exploded onto the popular rock scene they as Ritchie had done a generation before, brought theory based, virtuoso playing from classical and jazz  to the mainstream. 

What they were doing was based on mixing showmanship with deep knowledge of musical theory as related to the guitar. So instead of “seeing” a few patterns on the fretboard, they could see EVERYTHING! This takes a vast amount of practice – 12 hours per day kind of practice – so its not for everyone. But we can all learn and improve by taking a leaf or two from their books. 

Leaf number one in the book of using scales in your solos is to step away from rigid patterns and positions to some extent and start thinking of them as scales. Instead of focussing on patterns in 3 or 4 places on the neck and moving from one to the next this develops a more fluid approach. A great way to do this is to look for patterns (scales) in different places. Find them on one, two, three, four and five strings as well as six. 

Some Cool Resources

This opens up a load of possibilities even with just your pentatonic scales and caged system. You can work on a chord by chord basis within a song for example. You could say, using a two string pentatonic pattern, arrive at the next chord shape higher up the neck where you’d then be in place to do a fast legato phrase on the next. Maybe a little modal lick played off a chord shape would sound nice on a rhythm part. This approach offers a lot of versatility and freedom of choice and the more you do it the better it gets. Sprinkle in your slides, bends, hammers ons and pull offs  and you’ll be a very tasty player indeed. 

Two great Youtube channels that I’ve found very helpful on this stuff are listed below. They will be a lot of help in using scales in your solos and with theory in general.

Rick Beato – Amazing guitarist and producer whose channel features a ton of music theory lessons, interviews and reviews. Rick also sells advanced theory courses via his website 

Brian Kelly – Guitarist who offers lots of easy to understand tutorials on scales, modes and more.


I'm Dave Menzies a digital entrepreneur, photographer and guitarist. I live on the Argyll coast of Scotland. My partner and I write, record and produce our own music and videos in our home studio. I love to help individuals discover the lifestyle freedom offered by the digital world and guitarists to develop their own style.