What to play when playing in a particular key
Please post a link if this has been answered elsewhere.
How do I know what to scales to play if all I know is the key of the song and not the specific chord progressions for that song?
Say I know a song is in Em, but I don't know if it is a i - VI - VII, or a i - iv - VII, etc. Can I just play the Em Pentatonic scale over the whole of the song?
No, that generally will not work. You really need to know the progression.
Its not the scales you want, its the chord tones or notes of the active chord. And I know you do not know how the chord progress is laid out in this song -- so what to do. (In my answer I'm going to move to a major key to keep it simple).
Song called out to be Kiss Ole Kate, in G. I've never heard Kiss Ole Kate so I am going to have to assume some stuff.
1) I know the song is to be played in the key of G.I found this a couple of days ago. It pretty well hitch hikes on what I've said above. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcDFszILd_g
Concentrate on the major chords - you know there are some minor chords in the song but are not sure which ones. Ignore them or sub a V. If playing in a major key the major chords are your structure chords, minor chords will be your color and flavor chords. First things first; get the structure going - the movement the chords take from (I) rest to tension (IV) to climax (V) and then back to rest (I). Once you have that in place then bring in the minor chords with their color and flavor. Structure first, color next.
OK what chord tone notes. If jamming I'd rely upon roots notes on beat 1 and 3. Keep it simple.
If playing by myself I'd hunt up some chord charts and then work on having more chord tones in my bass line.
You need more than scales, see scales as your alphabet, see the notes as the letters, see those notes make chords, see those chords as words, see timing, feeling, accents, syncopation etc are your punctuation that ties it all together into a story, the story is what you tell in your playing.
This may give you an idea of what you can do with such information,
The indication of a key can be pretty vague. Songs can modulate away from the starting key several times within one section and even if the root notes of all the chords in a progression are diatonic, the chord qualities can be from outside of the key. Secondary Dominant chords are a perfect example:
This chord progression is VERY C Major:
C - Am7 - Dm7 - G7
This chord progression is still in C Major but the two m7 chords are now dom 7ths:
C - A7 - D7 - G7
These chords give a different flavour to the progression and a stronger pull to the subsequent chords because of the V-I quality. The notes C# and F# (3rds in A7 and D7) are very NON C major but the overall progression is still in C.
This is a very basic example of how you need to be aware of what's going on in the chords before you decide whether or not to play one scale over them.
Playing one scale over a bunch of chords can be used for effect like when we play one riff through a changing progression allowing the chords to take on a different colour. This is similar to using a pedal note through a progression resulting in a bunch of inversions (slash chords). eg. C/G - Am/G - Dm/G - G7
Normally you must have the chord progression of the song, you can't just hit notes willy nilly, even if you hit notes that are on the same scale. To make it sound good, I mean normal good, you need to hit at least one of the notes that are part of the chord, so if you don't know the chords, how do you know what notes you can play?
I recall a performance I went to a few years ago. It was an anniversary party for Paul Reed Smith at the NAMM in Anaheim. A wide range of endorsing guitarists from all over the world showed up to play, including Santana, Al Dimeola... Apparently the guitarists were supposed to send song titles and recordings so the rest of the band could learn the tunes, but not all did. The drummer was Greg Grainger (played with Whitney Houston in her hay-days, and has been the drummer for Acoustic Alchemy for the past 10 years.) The bassist was Gary Grainger (killer bassist, played with Scofield and Chambers and now plays US tours with Acoustic Alchemy). I distinctly remember one guitarist who came on stage. Obviously Gary hadn't received a recording and didn't know the tune. He just stood there and watched and listened to the guitarist play through a verse or verse/chorus, and then he jumped in. From the instant he started playing you couldn't tell he had never played the tune before. But he didn't play until he knew the chord progression...
The bottom line is that you need to know the chords in order to play the song regardless of the key. Knowing the key is just one piece of the puzzle, and not enough to know what to play as the chords change. Also, as stated above, many songs change key, or throw in notes/chords outside of the given key. The blues is a good example. A blues (not jazz blues) in F doesn't have a specific key signature as each chord I-IV-V (a simple blues) are all dominant chords which use a mixolydian mode for each chord. That would change the key signature from a bass playing standpoint for each chord. For every rule in music, there's a style or song that breaks that rule.
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