How Do I Know What Scale Goes With This Chord?

By August 27, 2020 No Comments

By Joshua LeBlanc

Quite often musicians (especially guitar players) will try to figure out what scale they should play over a specific chord. While it is important to know what notes will work over a specific chord it’s also important to understand that there are other aspects to consider when using certain scales. In this article we will discuss what you should understand before picking a specific scale.

Understanding The Basics

It’s first important that you understand how we can derive certain scales to work over specific chords. Let’s take a C major triad for instance. The notes are C, E, and G and because of that we can use scales that have those notes such as C major, C major pentatonic, C lydian, C mixolydian, certain modes of harmonic and melodic minor, as well as the C half/whole diminished scale. So you can see that the issue is because this isn’t a lot of information we end up with too many options. If you are just vamping on a C major triad then you can easily experiment with all of these scales and hear how they sound over this chord. If you wanted to narrow down your options, deciding if it is a Major 7th chord or a Dominant 7th chord (along with any other chord extensions) will help a lot.

Changing Your Viewpoint

When it comes to picking the scale that you are going to use to play over a specific chord, the first thing you need to do is analyze the chords around that chord. For example if my chord progression is C major, A minor and F major then the C major scale will be my best choice. Yes, it is possible that C mixolydian can also be used but because the tonality is around C major (as well as there being no G major chord), C major will sound better overall. This can be tougher when you have things such as secondary dominants or borrowed chords. The best thing to do is to strengthen your theory knowledge to be able to identify these chords. In the short term however, if you come across a chord that doesn’t “fit” in the chord progression just aim to play the notes of the chord over that chord, especially if the chord in question is only there for a beat or two.

Making It Sound Like Music

The hardest thing to do in soloing and improvising is seamlessly transitioning in and out of a key without making it sound mechanical. What I mean is, many guitarists will play what they know, get to the trouble spot, and play some regurgitated lick or phrase and then go back into their solo. While the notes are technically correct, this interrupts your phrasing and musicality. Instead you should take the time to isolate the part of the song that has this chord and try various techniques to start making it more musical. The first thing is if you need to change keys or the scale you’re using, what is the scale that you can use while changing a minimal amount of notes. From there aim to hit chords tones over that chord and use the notes from the “new” scale so that your soloing will sound smooth.


Joshua LeBlanc is the owner and lead instructor at Lafayette School of Guitar specializing in guitar lessons in Lafayette, LA.