During the years I spent hanging with John Scofield, Peter Bernstein, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Brad Shepik, Stefon Harris, and all of the other musicians I studied and played with... I don't think we ever have a conversation about running diatonic chord scales or shedding our drop chord inversions. That doesn't mean in the right context, with the right music student, they wouldn't have recommend working on those elements. I never asked them and honestly have no idea. What I do know is that this experience opened me up to realize just how many other elements to comping and harmony that ARE worth discussing, thinking about, and practicing in the shed.
During our Thursday lessons, we discuss these other elements. Voice leading, using tension chords to create alternative harmonic pathways through standard chord progressions, translating advanced pianistic voicings onto the fretboard, and other topics that, as a huge harmony nerd, fascinate and inspire me. I hope you'll feel the same way about them and get some great ideas for your own shed time!
In the standard approach to comping and harmonic control, jazz guitarists are often told to focus on two things in their practice time. First, practice drop chord voicings and memorize all of the inversions on all string sets. Second, practice moving chord voicings up and down through diatonic keys to create chord scales.
These two ideas, once practiced, are then meant to translate directly into creative comping ideas by plugging them into jazz standards to create interesting harmonic ideas. We can randomly jump around through inversions of a chord (which is only jumbling up the order of the pitches the ear is hearing, so is only producing the surface level appearance of harmonic movement). Or we can move through a chord scale, carrying the ear through a series of hyper-related, diatonic chords, keeping our ideas firmly within very strict, drab, expected boundaries.
Let’s try something different today. Let’s consider a PURPOSE to inversions beyond jumping around randomly from CMaj7 to CMaj7/E to CMaj7/G to CMaj7/B. Let’s instead think about WHY we might want to use an inversion. Let’s also think about how we can get away from diatonic chord scales and focus instead in insert tension chords that will create a sense of harmonic urge and momentum to through our ideas forward. This will create more of a storytelling effect to the way we use harmony to carry our ideas through a progression and imply a form.
For the sake of keeping things small and manageable today, we’ll focus on a minor ii V i rather than an entire tune. But of course these ideas can be applied to standards and should be once they make sense in this more sterile environment. Let’s focus on a ii V i in D minor. So EØ7 to A7b9 to D-6. But instead of A7b9, we’re going to use the four diminished chords related to A7b9 - Eº7, Gº7, Bbº7, and C#º7. All four of these chords contain the same four pitches and could be said to be inversions of each other. Though for the sake of seeing the potential here, I will name each diminished chord I’m playing based on whichever pitch is in the lowest voice. Just know they’re basically all the same. It’s also worth knowing, if you don’t already, that each of these four chords in an inversion of a rootless A7b9 chord.
A - C# - E - G - Bb
E - G - Bb - Db (C#)
G - Bb - Db (C#) - Fb (E)
Bb - Db (C#) - Fb (E) - Abb (G)
C# - E - G - Bb
Notice all of the fully diminished 7 chords, when viewed enharmonically, contain the four remaining pitches of A7b9 when we remove the A root note.
This means we can sub in any, or all, of these chords in place of A7b9 when moving from the EØ7 to the D-6. Watch the video and check out the notated example to see and hear a few of these potential substitutions and how they can take place within this ii V i. Check out all the additional more advanced techniques being used, like the liquid harmony inner voice movement (both chromatic and diatonic) that I demonstrate getting us from the EØ7 to the Eº7, or the contrary and oblique motion I create by switching between the root 5 and root 6 diminished shell voicings.
Once the first half of the progression makes sense, now let’s look at the last couple of measures. If we play EØ7 for a full measure and A7b9 for a full measure, or the diminished7 chords we’re substituting in its place, then we have two bars of D-6. But that’s a little boring. There’s no movement if we just vamp on one chord. In the right context, that’s a perfectly acceptable way to comp. But sometimes we want to create more movement, something that will draw the listener’s attention and that will propel the soloist forward into the next four bars.
This is where we can use a superimposed diminished7 chord and some inversions.
First, we resolve the ii V to the D-6. Now as quickly as we resolve to it, we want to get off of it. Leaving the D-6 and replacing it with a chord that we know wants to resolve back to it will create a sort of boomerang effect. A7b9 or it’s related fully diminished chords are perfect for this type of movement. So as soon as we play the D-6 I’m taking you away from it, descending the bass note a half step, and bringing us back to the C#º7 chord. From here I’m going to resolve us back to the D minor chord, but I’m going to let the bass note continue to descend from D down to Db/C# and again down to C. D minor over C gives us a D-7 chord. On the fretboard, the way I voiced it, it as a rootless D-7, so it looks like an F major triad. But I’m thinking of this as i V7 i, or i viiº7 i. Then I’m letting the C note resolve down to the B note, which brings us all the way back to the D-6, but it’s an inversion… D minor over B. You can think of this chord as an inversion of D-6 or as a BØ7. Either way, it creates a really cool, descending chromatic bass melody, it lands us on a strong sounding, stable chord, and it loops us back around nicely to the EØ7 to start the progression over if we’re vamping on the ii V i for an extending period.
Tons of diminished chords, inversions, bass melody, contrary motion, oblique motion… all of these ideas are being used functionally for a reason. They’re serving a purpose. They all add up together to create movement. This movement still follows the basic harmonic structure and form of the ii V i, but it’s much more interesting and exciting. You’re probably not going to see a progression like this written up in the real book, it will likely just say ii V i, but it’s helpful to be able to take the fundamentals of harmonic movement, and playfully put them in even when a sheet of paper doesn’t say it’s okay to.
We can of course take these principles and apply them to more advanced voicings, but you can see that even using basic shell voicings, it’s possible to make something as simple and cliche as a minor ii V i sound pretty hip. But I prefer to start with the most elementary building blocks. If we can’t control these types of ideas when the voicings are simple, we are going to struggle to control them when the voicings are more advanced. Which is why our comping course, Chords For Life, focused almost entirely on shell voicings. Otherwise it’s like trying to benchpress 300 pounds when you can’t even do 10 pushups yet. This is why, while I think chord scales and inversions are great, practicing them in a sterile environment and expecting them to automatically make us a better accompanying when comping on jazz standards is asking more of ourselves than is realistic. We need to focus on the basics first, groove, shell voicings, and form… then we can explore how to create movement. THEN we can start to get fancy with that movement and take advantage of inversions and adding chords in a functional and intentional way.
Check out the notated examples. See if you can play along, then try coming up with some of your own variations on this idea. If you want to learn more about how you can create alternative harmonic pathways by relying on a deeper understanding of how chords like to move, join our Melodic Triads Study Group and check out our comping course.
Either way, have fun with this example…
And happy practicing!
In today’s lesson we’re going to use the famous turnaround from Lady Bird…
(CMaj7 -> EbMaj7 -> AbMaj7 -> DbMaj7)
as a means to practice some Maj7 shell voicing liquid harmony.
Let’s break down what Maj7 shell voicing liquid harmony is.
Maj7 you probably already understand if you’re reading this. Just in case, it’s a four note chord built with the 1, 3, 5, and 7 of a major scale. For example, in the key of C major, the CMaj7 chord would be spelled C-E-G-B.
A shell voicing is a simplified, three note voicing that implies all of the essential basic components of a jazz harmony. Nothing fancy, no extensions, just the basics. It’s usually the 1, 3, and 7. So for CMaj7 it would be C-E-B. No 5th.
Liquid harmony is a term I use for any technique that allows me to create melodic movement in one or more of the notes of a chord voicing while one or more of the other voices stay still. In classical theory we could call this a pedal or oblique motion - or motion where some things are staying still while other things move. This is one of my favorite effects to play with in music.
We’re going to explore the liquid harmony potential of the shell voicing by resolving the major 7th of the chord down to the 6th. Technically we would probably want to think of these as 6 chords now, because we’re treating the 7th as a tension note and the 6th as the resolution. But let’s focus on getting the sound in our ears and the shape of these movements on the fretboard first.
If you look at the first part of our notated example, you’ll see the chord charts where one note (the major 7th) has a white circle, and then on the same string you’ll see another note marked with only the black dot (the 6th). The idea is to play the entire chord using the “white circled” note first and then resolve that note to the “black dot” not on the same string without disturbing the other two pitches. There are two different shapes worth looking at - root 6 (where the root note of the chord is on the 6th string) and root 5 (where the root is on the 5th string).
Play around with each of these two shapes first. Make sure you can see them and pull of the liquid harmony technique before moving forward.
Once you can do this, we want to be able to move these shapes through all 12 keys to make sure we’re in control of this idea. I recommend working on this using the circle of 5ths. Start on the root 6 GMaj7 up on the 15th fret. Voice lead that to the root 5 CMaj7 on the 15th fret. Drop down two frets and play the root 6 FMaj7 on the 13th fret follow by the root 5 BbMaj7 on the same fret. Continue this pattern all the way down to the 3rd fret, root 6 GMaj7. That’s a full octave. Try starting in different keys and spend some time moving through all 12 keys and around all areas of the fretboard to make sure your eyes, ears, and muscle memory are all working together.
Then let’s apply this to some music.
Obviously we will want to be able to apply this technique to other chord types besides Maj7 to get the most out of it. But to keep things simple, at first, I would recommend picking a progression that uses only Maj7. The turnaround from the great jazz standard Lady Bird is a perfect example.
Before looking at the notated version that I wrote out for you, see if you can spot some good voice leading options for this. Ideally we don’t want to be having huge leaps around the fretboard. ESPECIALLY when using a technique like liquid harmony, as the whole point is to create small, stepwise movement within individual voices that carry our ear forward through the chord shapes. So the smoother we can voice lead the specific voicings we’re playing, the more our harmony will make sense to the ear. If the leaps between our voicings are too large, it will all sound random and disjointed.
Once you try and find some good voice leading options on your own, check out my example. I wrote it in standard notation and tab. It’s great for giving yourself new comping ideas, solo playing, and comping for yourself in a trio.
Give it a shot and let me know if you need any help with it.
Enjoy… And happy practicing!
In yesterday’s lesson we discussed how to use, and improvise over, fully diminished 7 chords when they don’t resolve like an inversion of a 7b9 chord. Specifically playing the Bº7 chord and resolving it down to a Bb-7.
Today we’re exploring some harmonic options that open up when we apply diminished chords to the 12 bar blues… specifically the jazz blues.
If you open up the real book to an Ab blues, you’ll probably see something like this chord progression notated above the melody.
But remember, you don’t HAVE TO play these chords. Yes. You need to be able to play them. Confidently. And with love and admiration for them. But if you can ONLY play them, and don’t have the ability to insert alternative harmonic motion and pathways through the form, eventually you’ll find yourself feeling stuck and bored.
This is why I love exploring ideas like what this comping etude is all about. Taking a diminished chord, and see how we can apply it to a chord progression in a way that still respects and implies the form, but frees us up to move in more unexpected ways.
Download the PDF to checkout the etude I’m playing in the video. It’s very beginner in the sense that I wrote it only using simple, 3-note, shell voicings and only using half notes and whole notes - no advanced voicings or tricky rhythms. But it’s also somewhat advanced because I’m using chords you wouldn’t expect to see in the real book or in iRealb.
These chords are all about create movement. How do we look ahead to a chord that’s coming up in the form, target it, and then put a series of chords before it that will organically lead our ear towards it to carry us through the tune. Like becoming a harmonic storyteller.
Give the etude a shot and then try applying some of the ideas and movements to other standards you know. See what you can find. Check out our course, Chords For Life, for more ideas on how to create more unexpected chord movement in jazz comping.
Have fun… and happy practicing!
Let’s continue looking at the Nica’s Dream vamp. This is the two minMaj7 chords during the first four measures of the chord progression. This can be a fun chord change to vamp on as an intro. But how do we get away from being stuck playing the same two chords back and forth… over and over and over.
In today’s lesson we look at two harmonic strategies for creating some more options and movement inside this chord progression.
The first strategy is what I refer to as liquid harmony. This is when we play a chord voicing but allow one of the notes in the voicing to move while the other notes to remain ringing out. Like taking a block of ice and melting down one part of it, this clunky chord voicing now has a small part of it that is liquid and flows through the chord and into the next chord. In today’s lesson we discuss how to accomplish this using a basic minMaj7 and a basic min6 shell voicing. Click here to read a blog post and learn more about liquid harmony using more advanced harmonies and voicings.
The second strategy we’re talking about here is the idea of insert tension chords. As I explain in-depth inside our Chords For Life course, there are four traditionally accepted types of chord movements - dominant, diminished, chromatic, and diatonic. If you’d like to learn more about understanding chord movement beyond the real book changes, click here and check out my blog post on the 3 things I learned about comping from Peter Bernstein.
Most of jazz guitar education revolves around diatonic chord movement. Take a drop chord and move it up and down, stepwise, through a diatonic key.
I put this movement type last in my Chords For Life course as I think it requires the most investment of time and energy upfront for the least amount of payoff. A great movement type to learn, absolutely. But I recommend starting with the other three as they are much easier to master on the fretboard and can be applied in just about every situation and sound so hip.
Check out the video to see some of the different chord movements I came up with while exploring this simple progression on live video. Nothing predetermined or figured out. Just spontaneous harmonic play.
If you’re not familiar with the opening few chords from Nica’s Dream, grab a copy of the PDF below to see these two chords written out.
Keep those chords moving...
And happy practicing!
What does it take to comp jazz guitar like a pro?
If I had to boil it down I would say the most fundamental skills to develop are (1) the ability to groove - having a strong sense of time mixed with a strong sense of feel, (2) the ability to understand how chords can move - giving the ability to use chords functionally to create harmonic momentum through the form of jazz standards without relying 100% on the real book changes, (3) some cool voicings to spice things up, and (4) knowledge of tunes, standard chord progressions, and form.
In today’s lesson we’re focusing on number 2… the ability understand how chords can move, and how we can take advantage of that movement potential to create momentum and alternate harmonic pathways through the form of “tired, old” standards. Since the minor blues is one of the simplest and most basic forms for classic jazz standards, that’s the context we’re going to work inside of.
I wrote a comping etude to help you get started. It borrows ideas from our lessons on Blue In Green Chromatic Comping and a Cool Diminished Trick For Comping. Download the PDF to give it a shot and check out the video where I break down all of the additional chord movement that’s happening inside this very basic chord progression to show you where all of these chords came from and how I’m able to use them to express the minor blues without losing the overall form.
And Happy Practicing
One of the first “tricks” most guitar players learn when getting to know the symmetry of diminished chords is moving the standard drop 2 voicing up and down the fretboard three frets at a time.
This is a cool sound to get to know, and extremely helpful for learning to understand how diminished chords are constructed and can move since it shows us the relationship of minor 3rds to these chords work.
However, if we pay attention and listen… this can sound pretty flat and two dimensional. Everything is moving perfectly in parallel with everything else and all of the intervals remain unchanged and exactly the same.
To spice this up without adding anything complicated, let’s try this.
Get rid of the drop voicings and let’s stick with basic, three-note shell voicings. It will make this idea easier and it will help accentuate the oblique and contrary motion we’re going to create to break apart all of this parallel movement found in the standard diminished runs.
Grab a copy of the PDF and move across the fretboard using the voicings I’m showing. As you ascend you’ll find each voice moves with a completely different set of rules. The top voice moves up a minor 3rd, then stays the same, then moves up a minor 3rd, then stays the same, etc. The middle voice stays the same, then moves up a minor 3rd, etc. And the lower voice moves DOWN a minor 3rd, then leaps up a tritone, then down a minor 3rd, up a tritone, etc.
If you notated this out for a three piece horn section you would hear each horn playing a completely different line. But when added together, we would hear these notes combined to create the sensation of moving through all of the inversions of a basic fully diminished 7 chord.
We can add some chromatic or some diatonic passing notes in any of these lines to create something more dense sounding with inner voice movement. This will REALLY bring out the separate lives of each of the voices we’re hearing. Check out the video to hear me play some examples of this idea being applied to this set of chord voicings.
We can also resolve at any point during this octave run up or down to any inversion of any type of C major or minor chord, Eb major or minor, Gb major or minor, or A major or A minor. They all work because these diminished shapes are all inversions of each other and can be used as a Bº7, Dº7, Fº7, or Ab/G#º7.
Try this movement out. Then try resolving to a major or minor tonic. Then try applying this into a ii V I where you use these diminished shapes in place of the V chord. Then try applying it to whatever standards you’re working on at the moment. See if you can get some comping ideas happening with it, or us it for your solo or trio playing by playing this in between some of your single note phrases.
Polytonality is when we use multiple keys, or tonalities, simultaneously in music. Quartal harmony is when we build chords using 4ths (usually allowing for perfect and augmented 4ths), a la McCoy Tyner.
In today’s lesson we are going to combine these two concepts to get some comping, solo guitar, and trio playing ideas happening.
One of the biggest things that sets the melodic triads approach apart from traditional jazz guitar pedagogy is that we’re borrowing from the physicality of the piano player who has two hands to create sound with. A great pianist can play a simple sound in their left hand (like a CMaj7 shell voicing) and a simple sound in their right hand (like a B major triad) and when done simultaneously (polytonality) will create an incredible rich, colorful, complex sound. What I would call a CMaj7#11#9.
What we’re doing in this lesson is building on yesterday’s melodic triads for our basic ii V I biiiº chord progression.
The left hand of our “piano player” starts with our basic 1-3-7 shell voicings and then mutates into quartal shell voicings.
And our “piano player’s” right hand is playing slash chords. These will be four note voicings constructed by taking the melodic triad and placing one of the chord tones from the basic chord underneath it. We’re attempting to avoid the basic guitar approach and so we aren’t going to automatically choose the root note of each chord to put under the melodic triad. For the D-7 chord we’re using an E major melodic triad and we’re going to use the F note (the minor 3rd of the D-7 chord) as our fourth note. So our right hand voicing for the D-7 chord is E/F. For the G7 we’re using a basic root structure triad, so our slash chord will be G/F. For CMaj7 our melodic triad is B major, so the slash chord is B/E (E being the major 3rd of CMaj7). Finally, for the Ebº7 chord we’re going to play D/Eb… using the chord’s root note for the bottom voice.
See if you can find these voicings on the fretboard or grab a copy of the PDF to see these right hand voicings written out in tab and standard notation.
Either of these structure (the left hand harmonic structure or the right hand melodic structure) can be used alone to imply the sound of this progression. But combining them together and learning to see them as one entity with two sides - like a coin with a heads side and a tails side - really frees us up to create some wonderful ideas. We can play either one separately, we can combine them for more aggressive and dense sounds, we can comp for our single note lines, we can develop incredibly complex sounding arrangements for larger ensembles with horn sections… there are so many ways to apply this idea.
But regardless of how we use it, it creates a really hip, modern way of bringing a basic ii V I biiiº progression to life.
Give it a shot!
Following up on our lesson #9 from 1/21/21 where we created and destroyed the humble ii V I using dominant chord movement, in today’s lesson we are going to destroy the changes to Autumn Leaves applying dominant chord movement to the form. Be careful with this stuff. There’s a respectful way to “destroy” a tune, and an egotistical way to do it. We don’t want to just destroy because we think that idea is cool. It’s probably not going to sound good, and if you’re playing with other musicians it probably means you’re not listening to them or paying attention, and you’re likely to annoy some people. We want to breath fresh life into the tune at the right moments to animate it and make it feel alive and modern and honest.
For today’s lesson we are using dominant chord movement to accomplish this. This is straight out of our Chords For Life course. The idea is that dominants can behave as V7 chords that resolve to a resolution chord (which doesn’t always have to be the tonic, it could be any other chord in the progression which we feel like targeting) or we could use the tritone sub and use it as a bII7. We can also add a ii-7 chord before any of these dominants to create additional movement and non-diatonic choices for when we’re comping or playing solo guitar and chord melody.
By applying this concept to the changes of Autumn Leaves we can see an enormous amount of freedom open up. The idea of a V7 chord resolving to a tonic I or i chord seems to simple and elementary, but my goal in today’s lesson was to show why the simple and elementary ideas are EXACTLY where we want to look to find all of the cool hidden gems in our vocabulary. We don’t need 10,000 advanced, PhD level concepts. We need one simple concept, and then the patience to explore what happens when we apply it to a tune. In this way it gives our mind, ears, heart, and fingers a chance to truly internalize this little concept and learn to become creative with it. And in that creativity, that spontaneous application, we can discover a sense of freedom that it difficult to find when chasing after more challenging ideas.
So keep things simple. Stick with basic shell voicings. Focus on dominant chord movement. Pick a standard you’ve played 1000 times before. Break it down to just the A section. Minimize everything to the simplest place, and then goof around and be childlike. Use your curiosity and your imagination to lead you… and keep your ears wide open to hear what’s happening. The more you PRACTICE like this, the more naturally these types of ideas will simply flow out of you when you’re playing tunes with people.
Give it a shot and see what happens!
Most books, courses, and lessons regarding jazz guitar comping are about drop chords, inversions, hip voicings, or harmonizing scales into chord scales. These are all fine things to work on to master the fretboard, diatonic keys, and cool voicings. But they don’t necessarily help us tell compelling, creative harmonic stories when comping on a standard. Which is why in our course Chords For Life I prefer to focus on keeping our voicings very simply, using only root position shell voicings, and to delve into understanding how chords want to move. In other words, how can we use different types of chords at different moments to create the feeling of harmonic tension and resolution to move us through the form of a tune in more captivating, intriguing, and spontaneous ways.
One of our Melodic Triads Study Group members asked me in a recently open office hours if we could talk about how to create this type of movement in a tune like Blue In Green. I thought this would be a perfect example for one of our Jazz Guitar Lessons Daily series on a Thursday: How Chords Move video. So let’s check this out.
Here’s the basic chord progression for Blue In Green that we would expect to see if we opened the real book or iRealB.
So that’s cool, but it can be difficult to break away from this and find some more interesting harmonic pathways through it. So I came up with an idea for myself, a challenge. I wanted to see if I could play harmony through this form where the bass note is always descending chromatically. What do you think? Is this possible?
I came up with a few versions of this idea. One using very straight ahead, traditional, old school shell voicing options and chord movements… and then a second version that’s following the same concept but using some slightly more hip and modern voicings.
Here’s the more traditional one.
See how the bass note is always descending? It takes us from the G root note of the G-7 chord all the way down two octaves to the G root note again on the downbeat of the next chorus.
Now here’s the same thing but with a few more unconventional shell voicings and movements.
Can you see the difference? I’m adding the 9th into all of the diminished chord shell voicings, making them sound much more ambiguous. I’m also using a few maj7 shell voicings in place of some of the tritone sub dominant 7 shell voicings.
I wouldn’t recommend memorizing these ideas and playing them verbatim chorus after chorus after chorus, just like I don’t think you should practice comping that way using the real book changes either. This is meant to help show you just how much harmonic freedom is possible once we let go of the need to constantly make every voicing super hip and instead simplify the voicings down and start thinking about how we can get more creative with moving through chords. Inserting dominant and diminished chords, thinking about using tension chords to bump us to our next target area, ignoring chords here and there and replacing them with functional chords that help carry us to the next section, and taking advantage of tonic/dominant or tonic/diminished movements are really fundamental ways to begin thinking about harmony. But this stuff doesn’t appear magically in our harmonic vocabulary just because we learn the theory. We really do need to sit and spend time on it. I offer a ton of practical steps you can take to practice these concepts in Chords For Life to help internalize them into the ear and the fingers so they can come out more naturally. But another good thing to do is to look at tunes we know well and to start writing and learning harmonic etudes over those forms so we can start to see the possibilities of harmonic motion hiding right beneath our fingertips.
Give this one a shot… you’re going to love it! If you don’t know your basic shell voicing shapes, check out the PDF to see them charted out.
Hit me up if you need anything. And happy practicing!
When it comes to jazz guitar comping, I think the jazz guitar education world has a long way to go. Not that there’s any incorrect information out there. It just reminds me a lot of the fitness industry where everyone wants to talk about fancy machines, expensive supplements, exotic superfoods, and 500 pound deadlifts, but nobody wants to just get down to the nitty gritty and admit that if we all just ate a little bit less junk and moved around a little bit more throughout the day, we would look and feel and be significantly healthier. Honestly this is my feeling on the majority of the way jazz education orders our priorities… not JUST when it comes to comping.
But Thursday is our comping lesson day, so let’s get into it.
In our comping course, Chords For Life, I do my best to break down all of comping into the two most important fundamentals. Groove and movement. Of these two, being able to play with a strong groove and an amazing sense of feel is the most important thing. If you don’t believe me, go listen to a James Brown song. The guitar player is probably vamping on a single chord for the majority of the track, but it grooves so hard you just want to get up and move. We should always remember that no matter how hip, modern, or out there jazz gets… it’s growing from a musical tradition that came directly from dance music. Even though we don’t expect audience members to get up and dance when we perform jazz today, it should still reflect that and make people feel almost uncomfortable sitting still and not tapping their toes, nodding their heads, and feeling something inside themselves.
As far as the second element goes, movement, there are all kinds of ways that chords like to move. But the four movement types I present in Chords For Life are dominant, diminished, chromatic, and diatonic. These four, as I learned from studying composition and arranging, are probably the most common and traditional types of movement in the hundreds of years of the western musical tradition… dating as far back as Bach and continuing all the way up through Bird and Rosenwinkel.
Today’s lesson is all about exploring the potential of dominant function. How does it work, and how can we use it to really say something harmonically. Specifically we’re applying it to the humble ii V I and seeing just how many harmonic pathways we can come up with to move through this progression. It’s all about playing with the sensation of home and away, tonic and dominant, resolution and tension. How can we take the harmony (and therefore the listener) somewhere and make it an exciting journey? Once we understand this, we are free from playing the same old real book changes chorus after chorus after chorus. Nobody craves hearing those changes over and over. Not the audience, not the soloist, not the original composers of tunes… nobody.
Give a listen to the video and see if you can make sense of the dominant movement that I’m talking about, the basic rules that govern it (V7 -> I, the tritone sub bII7 -> I, and the addition of the ii chord before any dominant). If you need some help nailing down your basic shell voicings or would like to read a few of the examples I played in the video, grab a copy of the PDF below to see everything in tab and standard notation. I wrote the examples out with the chords D-7 G7 CMaj7 at the top, the way you would expect to see in the real book… then I also notated the names of the chords that I’m using and thinking about underneath so you can see how the two both take us to the same place. Don’t think of these as “substitution” chords. I’m not subbing anything in or out. I’m simply thinking about where I want to target, what harmony I want to create tension to pull me towards, and then how can dominant movement carry me there. These are just alternative harmonic pathways to get me to the same point. If traffic is bad on your usual route, you can always turn down a different street, cut through the park, loop around, and still get where you’re going. That’s all I’m doing.
This might be challenging at first, but like anything else in music, it gets easier with practice. Slow things down, stick with the ii V I for a while and simply explore it. How many ways can you find to navigate it? You’ll likely discover some things you’d never considered before. Maybe you’ll find some new “harmonic riffs” that you’ll come back to again and again in your comping. That’s cool. And remember, we’re keeping the voicings basic right now, simple shell voicings. But dominant movement functions with more advanced voicings as well. Once you understand this movement type and can execute it, you can apply any type of advanced voicing ideas you already know to the movement patterns. It’s incredibly freeing!
Today’s lesson is all about delving deeper into one of the “simplest” types of jazz chords we have available to us. Shell voicings are three note chords that are generally comprised of the root, 3rd, and 7th of a chord (with some variation) which state all of the necessary information to convey the basic structure of a harmony. The root tells us what chord we’re hearing, the 3rd (or possibly 4th) tells us the quality of the chord (major, minor, diminished, sus, etc), and the 7th (or possibly 6th) tells us whether the chord is stable (tonic) or not (traditional speaking 6 chords are stable, chords with a b7 want to move, and major 7 chords are stable - unless we’re thinking from the Barry Harris perspective which recognizes the instability of the major 7th as wanting to resolve… but this is a lesson for another day).
Generally that’s as far as this topic gets covered, and most guitar players will QUICKLY leave shell voicings behind to study drop chord voicings and chord scales. I personally think this is a mistake. Just like I think it’s a mistake to overlook the simple, humble triad so quickly in favor of more advanced melodic concepts. Often times the real way to advanced playing is not by chasing the intellectual, academic shiny objects of advanced IDEAS, but rather the full surrender to the fundamentals… learning them, mastering them, being able to make music with them, and then learning to think creatively and outside the box using them.
So here’s the idea we’re exploring today… what if we invert our shell voicings? Can we play four different inversions of a CMaj7 shell voicing in the same way we would four inversions of a CMaj7 drop 2 chord?
Why would we want to do this? Inverting a CMaj7 drop 2 chord gives us four different chords, each made of the same four pitches but placed in a different order. It’s like going to a restaurant, ordered a four course chef’s special, and then realizing that each course is made of the exact same food, they’re just reordering the ingredients on the plate. Every dish is chicken, broccoli, carrots, and rice. But in the first course the chicken is on the top left, in the second course they move the chicken to the bottom right, maybe they get fancy and slice up the chicken and put it on top of the rice. But it’s all still the same flavors course after course after course. It’s pretty boring, right?
With shell voicings, we’re only presenting three pitches. Which means one ingredient is missing. So we’re always going to be missing an ingredient, and then as we move, occasionally, that ingredient will show up and one of the other ingredients will disappear. A much more interesting “dining” experience. On top of this is just the physical practicality of the guitar. It’s EASIER to play three note voicings quickly on the guitar. One less finger to deal with.
Listen to the video to get the sound of these Maj7 inversions in your ear. Then try finding them on your fretboard. You can download the PDF if you need help. Then, to really step up your mastery of this topic, try moving these shapes through the circle of 5ths. And finally, to master this skill before applying it to tunes, try voice leading these shapes through the circle of 5ths… so you’re conveying all 12 keys through the circle of 5ths, but without any big jumps. At this point you should sit and work on applying these ideas to ii V I’s and tunes. Get creative. This stuff can be used for comping, solo guitar, trio playing, or even part of your single note improvisational vocabulary if you dig deep enough down this rabbit hole.
Give it a shot and see what you can do with it!
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