How to use chord tones to get better at improvising

Last updated on January 23rd, 2024


If you want to dive deeper into learning to improvise over chord progressions, using chord tones is one effective approach to make your playing stand out.

In short, chord tones are the notes that define the structure of a chord such as with the root, 3rd, 5th, or 7th. By using chord tones, you can complement the chord changes more effectively in your solos.

Before we get into musical application examples, let’s first go over some essential music theory on chord tones.

What are chord tones?

Chord tones are the notes that determine the quality of a chord. They are often synonymous with scale degrees to refer to notes in relation to the root note.

See the chart below to understand the relationship between intervals and chords.

Chord tones chart

IntervalChord tones
UnisonRoot
minor 2ndflat 2 or b2
Major 2nd2
minor 3rdflat 3rd or b3
Major 3rd3
Perfect 4th4
Augmented 4thsharp 4 or #4
Perfect 5th5
minor 6thflat 6 or b6
Major 6th6
minor 7thflat 7 or b7
Major 7th7
minor 9thflat 9 or b9
Major 9th9
Major 11th11
Augmented 11thsharp 11 or #11
Major 13th13

Chord tones in triad chords

Here are some examples of chord tones for triad chords below.

  • Major chord – 1, 3, and 5. For example, C Major has the chord tones C, E, and G.
  • Minor chord – 1, b3, and 5. For example, C minor has the chord tones C, Eb, and G.
  • Diminished chord – 1, b3, and b5. For example, C diminished has the chord tones C, Eb, and Gb.

Chord tones in 7th chords

Now, here are some examples of chord tones for common 7th chord qualities below.

  • Major 7 chord – 1, 3, 5, and 7. For example, C Major 7 has the chord tones C, E, G, and B.
  • Minor 7 chord – 1, b3, 5, and b7. For example, C minor 7 has the chord tones C, Eb, G, and Bb.
  • Dominant 7 chord – 1, 3, 5, and b7. For example, C 7 has the chord tones C, E, G, and Bb.
  • Minor 7, b5 chord (half diminished) – 1, b3, b5, and b7. For example, C half diminished has the chord tones C, Eb, Gb, and Bb.

If needed, check out how to play these essential 7th chords on guitar.

Take a look at the following sample chord progression and then we’ll go over how to practice and apply using chord tones on your instrument.

Sample chord progression

The chord progression we’ll use for the following examples is D minor 7, G 7, C Major 7, and A minor 7.

sample chord progression

Targeting specific chord tones

The first step is to be able to identify where specific chord tones are on your instrument depending on the chord. We’ll use the sample chord progression to target each chord tone. The charts below include guitar tabs, but these exercises can be applied to other instruments.

Let’s start by targeting the root notes of each chord.

Targeting root notes

Targeting root notes example

Targeting 3rds

Targeting 3rds example

Targeting 5ths

Targeting 5ths example

Targeting 7ths

Targeting 7ths


These are just one way you can play these chord tones. I recommend trying this exercise in different areas of the fretboard to get the most out of this concept.

Even though you won’t be soloing like this, being able to target specific chord tones gives you awareness of where your important notes are over a chord. Now, we’ll take this concept a step further using arpeggios.

Chord tone arpeggios

After you’re able to identify single chord tones, the next step is to play all the chord tones over each chord. This will help you to know the notes for each chord and also apply them to your instrument.

In the following example, we will play each of the chord tones using arpeggios (playing the notes in a chord one by one).

Chord tone arpeggios – ascending

Chord tone arpeggios - ascending example

Chord tone arpeggios – descending

You can also practice the same arpeggios but in descending patterns like this:

Chord tone arpeggios - descending example

Chord tone arpeggios – ascending/descending

You can even change the direction of the arpeggio pattern on every measure. We will start in an ascending pattern and then descend on the following measure like this:

Chord tone arpeggios - ascending/descending example

Lastly, you can also try starting with a descending arpeggio and then ascending on the following measure.

All of the chord tone arpeggio examples were starting on the root note but you can also start these on the 3rd, 5th, and 7th chord tones.

To learn more, check out how to play Major 7 arpeggios, Dominant 7 arpeggios, minor 7 arpeggios or half diminished arpeggios on guitar.

Connecting lines with chord tones

For this next step, we will learn to use chord tones to smoothly connect melodic ideas. We can do this by moving in half steps or using common notes between chords.

For example, here are some common notes between the following chords:

  • D minor 7 and G 7 share the chord tones D and F.
  • G 7 and C Major 7 share the chord tones G and B.
  • C Major 7 and the A minor 7 share the chord tones C, E, and G.

Using chord tones to create smooth voicing leading

The notes used to create smooth movement between similar or close notes between chords are also known as guide tones. Guide tones give you a blueprint for harmonic movement and they serve as a guide for coming up with melodic lines.

Using chord tones to create smooth voicing leading example

Connecting chords using guide tones

We can also connect chords with smooth voicing using guide tones. For this example, we’ll use the same guide tones and add drop 2 chords based on the melody line.


Melody line example using chord tones

Here is an example of using chord tones to create a melody line below.

Melody line example using chord tones example

Combining scale notes and chord tones

Keep in mind that when thinking about some scale notes over 7th chords, it’s common to name them as extended chord tones. Here are some examples:

  • The 2nd scale degree is referred to as the 9th (one degree above the octave).
  • The 4th scale degree is referred to as the 11th.
  • The 6th scale degree is referred to as the 13th.

I’ve written the scale degrees above the melody notes so you can understand their relation to the chord. Root notes are abbreviated to “r”.

Combining scale notes and chord tones example

Practice writing chord tones

To practice this concept, take a song or progression you want to work on and write out the changes. Then, fill in your chord tones or lines and practice playing them on your instrument.

You can practice writing them yourself using a tool like the My Music Composition Notebook which has printable sheet music and simple guides on notation or use software such as Musescore where you can input notes from your computer.

Writing out chord tones boosts your music theory skills by thinking of the notes in any given chord.

I used to have a notebook filled with these kinds of chord tone and scale exercises which I learned to practice from one of my music teachers. I took this concept and then worked out the notes to different progressions and songs I was learning.

Also, this is something helpful that you can work on when you don’t have your instrument with you.

My Music Composition Notebook is meant to help you write down your musical ideas with printable sheet music for different instruments.
This ebook also includes simple guides to understand basic music symbols and concepts such as note names on the staff, time and key signatures, note values, and the circle of 5ths. 
👉 Get it here!


Wrapping up

Learning to think of chord tones over chord progressions is an effective approach to improvising with more clarity. I recommend trying these kinds of exercises over different chord progressions you like and also challenge yourself to play in different key signatures.

As you continue to learn and review chord tones, you will get faster at remembering the notes for each chord. Experiment with applying the concepts we covered here such as targeting specific notes, playing arpeggios, connecting lines with chord tones, and also writing them out.

If you enjoyed this, you may also want to check out:

Get the free guitar practice guide here!

Best,

JG

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