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I – II Improvising Approach

Intro

Learning Jazz improvisation is a colossal task especially for musicians with a non Jazz background. I see a lots of guitarists that are discouraged and don’t see the lights at the end of the tunnel. I can perfectly relate to how they feel. Coming from a non jazz background myself I had to completely re-think how I was approaching music. I have basically fell in every possible traps and have lost a lots of precious time. This method is meant to provide a solid starting point to develop improvisation on traditional jazz, hopefully it will prevent you from falling in the same traps than me.

Why I and II?

In this lesson I will share with you the core of my improvising method. The idea is that there are only 2 main functions in music; there is the ‘Root‘ function and there is the ‘dominant‘ function. Any given chord or chord section can be ‘reduce’ to one of these 2 functions. What we will do when improvising is think of ‘I’ for every Root chord or group of chords and think of ‘II’ for every Dominant chord or group of chords. I am specifying ‘chord or group of chords‘ because what we will want is to simplify those chord progressions to enable more freedom when improvising. This mean that when we will have a group of short duration chords, we will analyze the group as a whole and reduce them to one of these two function.

This Lesson will focus on major keys for now but everything here will be applied to minor keys in a further lesson. Also note that this approach only cover diatonic improvisation. Altered sound which I like to call ‘chromatic harmony’ will also be covered in a further lesson.

Disclaimer! This method is based on chord function and not strictly on chord/scale relation which I think can be a very harmful way to think for beginner jazz improvisers. Although, chord/scale approach is very suited for modern music using non-functional chord progressions, it is not so much suited for traditional jazz. There are various reason for that but the main one is that the chord/scale approach doesn’t take into account the Chords relation to key center.

Analyzing chord progressions

A simple way to analyze chord progressions according to function is simply to think of I III & VI as root chords and II – IV & V as dominant chords. Other chords will be considered embellishments. They usually are short duration chords and do not influence the function, we will ignore these chords when improvising.

Let start with the most common Jazz chord progression; I-VI-II-V. In this progression the I & VI will be treated as root chords and the II & V will be treated as dominant chords. We will think of Cmaj7 (I) for the first 2 bars and we will think of Dm7 (II) for the next 2 bars. Going from one I to II will create the movement needed to get the conversation effect that you want in a jazz solo.

Ex. 1

Simple enough? Now is where it’s starting to get interesting. Next progression include a bunch of diatonic variation on a I-VI-II-V. These variations do not affect the function of the progression which is 2 root bars and 2 dominant bars so lets play the exact same lines over this progression and listen to the result :

Ex. 2

Nice! See how the progression enhance the melody? Now there is a nice interaction between the comping and the solo. A common mistake beginner improvisers would do when improvising over this type of progression is trying to outline every chords. Although it is perfectly fine to outline every of these chords, especially on a very slow piece, this shouldn’t be your ‘go to’ approach. This would limit your possibilities and creativity. The goal is to create an improvising structure and let your ear do the rest. With enough practice, outlining these chords will come naturally by ear.

Let’s now examine another accompaniment variation over a I-VI-II-V. This time using more chromatic harmonies. Again, let’s ear the exact same line but with a bunch of secondary dominants and flat 5 subs.

Ex. 3

Sounds good? Now that we have done our little experiment over a I-VI-II-II progression, Let’s try to apply this to various song sections taken from standard jazz pieces.

From now on, I will only write the chord form I am thinking of when improvising. It will be either major or minor7 chords, major chords being for Root section and Minor7 chords for Dominant sections.

Smoke Gets into your eyes :

‘Smoke gets into your eyes’ is the perfect example of a progression I had a hard time improvising over in the past. I was trying to apply the chord/scale relation concept…. lol. All these changes are again, simple variations over a I-VI-II-V.

When Sunny Gets Blue :

In most jazz compositions some chords or chord passages will belong to other keys than the song home key. These sections need to be analyzed according to their own keys. In this particular example there are 2 passages where we are momentarily in the key of Ab; At bar 2 and at the second half of bar 5. We will think of Bbm7 for each passages which is the II of Ab. Note that the Bø, in bar 5 first half, is simply a b5 substitution for Fmaj7. This substitution appear frequently in Jazz Standard, you can treat it as a Root chord in the home key.

There Will Never Be Another You :

Here’s a complete form of a typical Jazz Standard. There are multiple sections that belong to other keys but if look closer you’ll notice that it is mainly V or II – V chords. You will not see complex chord sequences that are borrowed from other keys very often unless there is a complete modulation. Most of the time borrowed chords will only be II – V from another key.

Again, note that this lesson only cover diatonic improvisation. I will add more lessons on altered dominants in the future, meanwhile you can take a look at my Minor 3rd shift for II – V lesson. Both concepts are pairing really well together.

A couple of quick notes :

  • Root sections are very suited for melodic sequences.
  • You can treat all dominant sections as II – V. Although, if the section doesn’t resolve on his root or a substitution of his root. It is preferable to avoid altered dominant lines or chords.
  • Chromaticism and chromatic targeting can be added anywhere.

This will be a 2 part lesson, in the next part I will cover minor keys and i will take a look at different concepts that you can add on top of this approach. Cheers!

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Lenny’s Guide Tones

Lenny Breau is without any doubt one of the most original jazz guitarist. A lot can be said on his unique playing style but what stand out the most for many people is how he is using guide tones to emulate piano comping. In this lesson series I will break down how he achieve this unique technique. In the first part of this lesson we will look at the voicings he is using.

Basic Shapes

So let’s start with the dominant voicings, all of these shapes can be viewed from two point of view, Bb7 or E7. Try visualize every voicings according to these two roots. I have written four shapes for every string sets, beginning with the basic shape (3rd & 7th) than those with the color tones. Those shapes will constitute the major part of the voicings used in this playing style.

5th & 4th strings:

4th & 3rd strings:

6th & 5th strings:

Here’s the major shapes;

  • 1st bar show the basic voicings (3rd & 7th)
  • 2nd bar show the quartal (69) voicings
  • 3rd bar show alternative shapes Lenny Breau is using sometime

Same for the minor shapes;

  • 1st bar show the basic voicings (3rd & 7th)
  • 2nd bar show the quartal (m11) voicings
  • 3rd bar show alternative shapes Lenny Breau is using sometime

Half diminished shapes are very similar to minor shapes except when adding the 5th as you can see in second bar. Those particular voicings aren’t very finger friendly. Note that, most of the time Lenny is using normal minor 7 shapes or substituting for an altered dominant shape instead of playing half diminished chords.

 

Inside voice leading

The shapes I am about to show are very personal to Lenny Breau. Lenny is using them to create inside voice movement. These voicings can be used very efficiently in a more standard comping situation. You can check how I am using them in my ‘Blues Comping’ lesson.

Bb7:

E7:

Pentatonic

Lenny Breau is sometime deriving shapes from pentatonic scale. Here’s the shapes for the three string sets:

Miscellaneous

Here’s some other shapes Lenny is also using when doing his particular piano comping style.

In the next part of this lesson we will look at many examples in various context; II-V, minor II-V & turns.

 

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Minor 3rd shift for II – V

Here’s a simple but very efficient idea to solo over II – V progressions. It consist of shifting a minor 3rd upward to create the altered dominant sound. In other words, when soloing over a II chord in any positions, you can shift to the equivalent position a minor 3rd upward to get the V(alt) sound. This shift will lead you to a IV minor over V. This will produce a very hype V7sus(b9) sound. This substitution is very common in bebop soloing, Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel… just to name few, are using this idea on a regular basis.This idea will also work for chord melody or comping but it will work best into ‘cadencial’ areas since it will result in a very dense altered sound.

So, one of the coolest thing about this concept is that it work with any version of the II chord. Let say, you move a standard IIm7 a minor 3rd higher, it will result in a V7sus with a b9, #9 and b13.  If you are playing on a melodic minor scale and than move a minor 3rd higher, it will result in a V7sus with a b9 and #9. It will also work on any minor II – V. So, if you are soloing on a IIØ than shift a minor 3rd higher, it will result in a V7 with a b9, #9, b5 and b13.

So to sum up :

IIm7         →  V7sus(b9,#9,#5)

IIm(maj) →  V7sus(b9,#9)

IIØ              V7(b9,#9,b5,#5)

Note that you absolutely don’t need to know or understand the previous section to use this concept. Just move to a position a minor third higher and it will do the trick.

On a personal note; practicing this concept really helped me ear the alterations, not only as colors but as working melodies. Having a familiar frame to solo over really help unlock the melodic ideas.

Let go with some examples! The first series of examples will be motifs transposed note for note a minor 3rd higher. This is a very common way to use this concept.

Ex.5

Examples 5 to 8 are using some more colorful II motifs using m(maj) runs and m7(b5) runs.

So, previous examples were motifs transposed note for note but you can use this concept in a more free way by using the shifted position to develop your run. Next examples will consist of runs starting from II, going to V7(alt) using the shifted position to create the altered sound.

Ex.9

Ex.10

In this particular example I am finishing the line with a very idiomatic bebop motif. This concept is not rigid, you can mix it up with other altered ideas.

Ex.11

Note that I am using a 2 on m7(b5) chords. This is very common, most jazz musicians will avoid the b2 on these chords especially when they have a II role.

You don’t need to go too symmetrical too. A good idea is to extend your II run and use the shift only as a tension before resolving to I. Next 2 examples demonstrate this idea.

Ex.12

O.K. so ultimately the goal is to ear this substitution and not really think of it. A good idea to develop this is to play the ‘shifted’ run on the same position. So basically you will not shift. Just think of the minor position starting a minor third higher and play it on the same position. Pay particular attention to the voice leading between the 2 chords in the next 2 examples.

Ex.14

As I said in the introduction, this concept can also work for comping and chord melody. Just note that it will result in some very dense altered sound so using it in the middle of a form isn’t a very good idea. This will work best to end a form or any place you need a strong cadencial sound. Here’s some examples of this concept applied to comping.

Ex.16

Ex.17

This one is using some type of Barney Kessel double stop. It work just fine!

That’s it! I hope you liked that lesson. This minor 3rd shift can be applied in many ways, you can also do many minor 3rd and end up with the whole Pat Martino substitutions concept but I felt It was better to start with this particular one and expand on this idea. I’ll do something for the other minor 3rd substitutions in the future. Cheers!

 

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Block Chord Soloing (Part 2)

Extensions

Now that we’ve looked at the main block chord shapes for major, minor and dominant chords, it is time to add extensions to those chord shapes. Extension are color tones that doesn’t change chord function. These notes will be used on the melody as well as inside the chords. Here’s the extension we are going to add:

  • 6th, 9th & 11th for minor chords
  • 6th & 9th for major chords
  • 9th, 11th & 13th for dominant chords

I suggest that you compare the chord forms used in these exercises with those from the previous lesson and try to identify color tones. The chord forms you will see in these examples will be the forms we will favor over the next ‘block chord’ soloing lessons. I have included as much forms and melodic movement as possible from different famous guitarists.

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Block Chord Soloing

Jazz guitar chord vocabulary can often be seen as a vast and infinite subject…. and it really is!!! But when using the right approach to break down this aspect of jazz guitar it is possible to build a solid vocabulary that can be used to express ideas and ultimately build your own chordal syntax.

In this lesson series I will try to break down ‘chord vocabulary’ into different categories and utilities to help you organize your thoughts and give you tools to get the most out of your actual harmonic knowledge.

First I think it is very important that I demystify some myths about learning chord melody style and chord soloing in general:

  • First, you don’t have to know every chord voicings of every possible chord types to effectively implement jazz chordal works into your playing. In fact, there is no jazz guitarists that know all voicing possibilities and even less… use all the voicing possibilities. Even some of the best jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery or Joe Pass are using the same few voicings 90% of the time.
  • Working musicians are not scientists. Learning jazz guitar vocabulary should not be a mathematical process. Approaching music with a language learning approach will save you countless hours. Although it is important to understand basic music theory like chord construction and intervals, learning by imitation will always be the more efficient learning approach in music.

Now that you know where I stand, you will understand why these lessons will not try to list every voicing possibilities and they will not explain every theorical concepts used. They will be focused on giving you tools to implement this style to your playing. It will be up to you then to expand around these concepts to develop your own sound.

 Block Chords – Introduction

Block chord soloing is a guitar soloing style that have been popularize by Wes Montgomery in the late 50s and 60s. These are voicings that can be moved melodically to create an ‘ensemble’ feel, like a big band arranger would arrange a brass section. Wes Montgomery was using them to create solos similar as those he was doing with his famous octaves. They consist mostly of chord shapes including 4 notes or less, and are played on adjacent strings most of the time with some exceptions on the lower register to avoid the muddiness that would result when having to much staked notes in the lower register. Avoiding 2nd intervals… especially major  2nd, make them relatively easy to play and help keeping the melodic movement clear.

Why starting with block chords…. I don’t know! It’s just the subject I am inspired to start with and I think there is a lot to say about them.

Block Chord Basics

So, let’s start with playing some basic block chord voicings. Here is some block chords possibilities for the A minor 7 chord:

ex.1

ex.2

The first example is in a more vertical fashion while the second one is more horizontal. Most of the time; horizontal playing is used on the higher register. Jazz guitar giants like Joe Pass or Barney Kessel use horizontal playing to expand positions playing, we will cover this in future lessons. Here are similar examples for D minor 7:

ex.3

ex.4

Note that this isn’t an exhaustive list of minor 7 block chord possibilities, but put together, these four examples give you a very good starting point to build around. Minor 7 voicings will be the most important voicings to focus on when learning block chord soloing style.

Now for the Maj7 Chord:

ex.5

ex.6

ex.7

ex.8

Same as for the minor 7th shapes, this is far from exhaustive. Also, there are some of these voicings that aren’t played much in real context like the one in the (4th beat-1st bar) in ex.5. The seventh on bass paired with the root on melody aren’t very pleasant to the ear…although, Kenny Burrell is using it sometime, so there are no such kind of rules to follow… just trust your ear!

Finally the natural dominant Chord:

ex.9

ex.10

ex.11

ex.12

Again this isn’t a very exhaustive list, and also, natural dominant voicings aren’t used a lot in post Wes Montgomery ‘block chord’ soloing style. They were used a lot by Charlie Christian thou, but Wes Montgomery push this style to another level. We will see in the next chapter how Wes Montgomery created a more mature jazz sound than his predecessors using chord extensions.

Note that I provided examples for those three chord types with key notes on the 6th string and key notes on the 5th string. 90% of the time, Jazz guitarists will stick to these positions.

Conclusion

So… I know this can looks a lot like a reference work and I said I would not go into that, but to stay with my previous analogy; you need to learn some words before starting making phrases. Although these exercises can look simple, these chord shapes and movements are a very solid foundation to build around. In the next part, we will be looking at adding extension notes to these voicings and building phrases that can be used in real context.

 

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Saxophone Picking

In this lesson I will explain my favorite picking style. It is how I am picking most of the time except when a particular style or sound is needed. This picking style is used by some of the most notable guitarists like Pat Metheny and Mike Stern, although, not necessarily 100% like I am doing but very similar. It consist of putting together different picking techniques together that will imitate horn phrasing, especially saxophone phrasing. Some of the particularities of this picking technique is the frequent uses of hammer-ons and pull-offs. Using these devices emphasis the syncopated feel that Charlie Parker is known for. Sweep picking and slides are also used to imitate saxophone phrasing. These examples are all bebop lines taken from some of my Charlie Parker transcriptions, I have rework the phrasing and notate the picking directions to demonstrate this particular picking style. The main principles we will follow for those exercises are:

  • Down beats will be picked down stroke and up beats will be picked up stroke. The only exception to this rule is at the end of a sweep group of notes, where it’s possible that your picking strokes will be reverted. In this case, use the next up beat to do a pull-offs/hammer-ons/slides to come back on the right picking direction.
  • Tied notes (pull-offs/hammer-ons/slides) will be played from the up beat to the down beat. This mean, most of the tied notes will start with an upstroke than (pull-offs/hammer-ons/slides) to the down beat. You will skip the down stroke, replacing it with the tied note. This will emphasise the syncopated feel of the lines.
  • The tied notes must not be to close one from each other to avoid compromising the ‘tightness’ of the lines. This doesn’t apply to fast bebop ‘double time’ lines where you could go full legato but I didn’t covered these kind of lines right now.

The picking written in those exercise isn’t rigid, you could easily displace some hammer-ons/pull-offs and get a similar result. Note that I have used saxophone lines to demonstrate this picking technique but those ideas can be applied to other jazz guitar lines too. This will also help you gain speed since you will be able to avoid tricky picking segment although speed is not the main focus of this lesson. To get the most out of this lesson, everyone who are interested in bebop lines should take the time to compare the lines with the chord notation.

Ex.1

Ex.2

Ex.3

Ex.4

Ex.5

Ex.6

Ex.7

Ex.8

Ex.9

Ex.10

Ex.11

 

All of these lines are taken directly from some of my Charlie Parker transcriptions. Check out my ‘Charlie Parker Transcription Collection’ for more! It contain 12 solo & head transcriptions of my favorite Charlie Parker tunes, all meticulously arranged for guitar. And more!

 

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Bb Blues Comping

Hey there! Why not talk about comping… the way too often forgotten of our practice sessions. The coolest thing about comping is that it might get you a job if you are good at it! Although I have no idea what I am talking about since I never got any jobs for my comping abilities, but that’s what everyone say so it might have some truth into it.

So for this lesson I decided to go upside down and to show you the result first… I am tired of writing text… I WANT TO PLAY! Just kidding, but in fact there is so much to say on this subject that I thought it would be great to have an example to refer to and avoid that all the ideas and concept become too abstract.

That is why; I will not explain any substitution or re-harmonization concepts here. What I would like is that you pay attention to the voice leading between chord changes, the melody  and the rhythm. You will notice that:

  • The voice leading is more accentuated in chord changes than when moving shapes of the same chord.
  • The melody come from a variety of melodic material; chord tones, minor blues pentatonic, passing tones…
  • the rhythm is varying between syncopated chords and ‘on beat’ chords. Long sustain, long rest…. etc

Those three points are the foundation of a good comping, the rest is ‘gravy’. In the next lesson(s) I will go through all the concepts I have used in this little comping etude. Enjoy!

 

 

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Backward Chromatic Targeting (Part 4) – Bebop Solo on Cherokee

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Backward Chromatic Targeting (Part 3)

Hey there! In this lesson we are going to take a look at a very efficient strategy of using these patterns. It will consist of chaining multiple targeting patterns. Patterns will overlapped one with each other, creating some complex chromatic sounding passage. Just note before continuing that these examples will lead to a position shifting so it is very important to have a good amount of positions that you are comfortable with, to fully implement this concept into your playing.

First 3 examples are Am7 lines; two short one and one longer:

ex. 1 & 2

 

First example is very interesting. Backward targeting is happening in the 1st bar, starting on the 7th position, targeting tricks are leading us to the 5th positions in the 2nd bar. There is 2 backward targeting chained in this line. First we are targeting the Bb (C-B-A to Bb) and then the A (Bb-G-G# to A).

Note that it isn’t important to analyze every notes in those targeting patterns. Just try to recognize the patterns that I have outlined and identify it according to the patterns we seen in part 1. Once you will have gone through those examples, the goal will be to implement this concept by ear.

2nd example is more common, you will see this line played a lot by modern guitarists. It is based on successive half tone approach from below; (F to Gb, E to F, D# to E)

 

ex. 3

 

Then we have this longer examples. Notice that I am not chaining three bars of targeting tricks to avoid sounding too chromatic. My goal with those examples was just to give a little chromatic twist to some very diatonic lines. In a more modern context it would be nice to contrast between fully diatonic lines or pentatonic lines and some highly chromatic lines by chaining a lot of chromatic targeting. Listen to Micheal Brecker to hear what I just said in action.

 

The next three examples are for Gmaj7, same as for the Am7; two short examples and one longer. Not much more to say, look for the targeting sequences and the position shifting.

ex. 4 & 5

 

Notice that at the end of 2nd bar in 2nd examples; I am using a chromatic targeting sequence but played in standard position playing. Being comfortable with both approach is important if you want to achieve melodic freedom.

ex. 6

 

And finally, example 7, 8 & 9 are based on II – V – I progression in G

ex. 7

 

ex. 8

 

ex. 9

 

Backward chromatic targeting really shines on II – V – I progression. Chromatic targeting give an altered twist to the sound but without having to actually think of altered chords.

And that’s it!

Here are the 3 backing tracks I have worked with to record those examples, in case you would like to try them or just noodle around with those ideas (they might be a little short though)

Am7:

 

Gmaj7:

 

Am7 – D7 – Gmaj7:

 

 

These examples are just scratching the surface of the possibilities that this concept can offer. They are very bebop oriented but this idea can be applied to many phrasing style. I strongly suggest you to try to incorporate these patterns to your own phrasing style, whether you have a more pentatonic phrasing (Pat Metheny), scale phrasing (Allan Holdsworth) or country phrasing… no kidding this concept is often used by Brent Mason and it work wonderfully in a country context. In fact, these patterns will work almost everywhere.

Next part I will be doing a whole solo on ‘Cherokee’ to demonstrate those ideas but trying to balance it not to end up with a too chromatic sounding solo. Maybe in the future I’ll add a section with phrasing examples in different styles using backward chromatic approaches… Cheers!

 

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