As any jazz musician knows, improvising over ii V I's and learning to play jazz standards are essentials skills to develop to improve our jazz playing and to take part in our tradition. During our Wednesday lessons, we take the shapes and ideas looked at on Mondays and Tuesdays and apply them to musical situations. Specifically talking about strategies for breaking our addiction to scales, riffs, arpeggios, and chord tones and discussing practical strategies for getting more melodic phrases into our playing.
Once we can see the DNA and the building blocks of melody, our next step has to be to cultivate the right mentality that will help us to be spontaneous and playful within the music while creating solos that don’t sound robotic or rigid, but convey a great sense of humanity and authenticity. Once you’ve constructed your foundation with the fundamentals, it’s time to start putting together the steel frame of your building!
The standard approach to teaching and learning jazz can best be describe as a journey of (1) learning your basic music theory, (2) shedding your scales and arpeggios like a madman for years, (3) transcribing and memorizing tons of riffs from players you dig, and (4) gigging (badly) a lot for many years.
Then if you’re lucky, the gods of music may descend and bestow upon you the medal of jazz honor.
There’s nothing innately wrong with this way of learning. It’s helped produce some staggeringly incredible musicians. But it’s also not necessarily a guarantee of anything. There are plenty of players who go through these steps for years, even decades, and never quite reach the point with their playing that they had always dreamed of.
Countless blog posts and books could be written as to why, and countless deep conversations about philosophy, practice, human nature, and talent vs work could be had over coffee or beers… but ultimately the answer isn’t necessarily the same for each person and can’t really be pinned down to one generalized problem. As a musician who’s had to learn to play the guitar twice and as an educator who’s taught everywhere from young kids to college students studying jazz to older players who’ve been working at the guitar longer than I’ve been alive, I have my theories.
I think all of the things on the list above are important and play their part. But a few things are missing. A big one is a lack of our music institutions and teachers forcing us to take things personally. I often tell my students that rather than spending an hour reading a chapter in their theory book, instead just pick one sentence and spend an hour exploring what that sentence is attempting to convey, how to hear it in a visceral way (not by comparing it to nursery rhymes), and how to see and execute it on the fretboard. Then to take another hour learning to dismantle it and play with the individual components of it like an aspiring car mechanic getting their first car and pulling the engine out.
It’s ultimately about getting underneath where the intellectual understanding of an idea can take you. One of the most challenging thing for me as a teacher is to engage with a student when I try and show them something and they respond, “Yeah, I already know that… what’s next.”
Any topic within music could quite literally become a multi-lifetime exploration to discover and master all its facets… and the many more facets that it leads to. The mentality of “I already know that, let’s do something more advanced,” in many ways is the greatest enemy to music progress. Bill Evans talked about this in Universal Mind when he said that the main problem with music students is their desire to approximate everything. To look at the most advanced period of the most advanced player, skip over all of the years of building the fundamentals they went through to get to that period, and to think they can simply skip all of that foundation-building and learn to play that way by transcribing and stealing some riffs. As he said, it leaves the student feeling like he touching the thing, but in this way the end goal will always feel JUST out of reach. And the lack of foundation will leave the student feeling confused and unsure about how to continue progressing towards their goal.
So here’s what I recommend you try, alongside the traditional approach I mentioned above of theory, scales, transcription, and playing tunes. There are two fundamental skills that, when combined, will create a natural spring of improvisational melody for you… where ideas seem to bubble up from some hidden source. It will feel like you’re not even doing anything. Like your job is simply to get yourself and your ego out of the way and let the melodies happen.
The two skills are
Here’s how I recommend you work on this. First, find a G minor triad. Then find a nearby A major triad that you can voice lead to. The best voice leading will be to move your G minor DOWN the fretboard away from the body to avoid too many parallel intervals. Then voice lead that A major triad to a D minor triad (use common tone voice leading where the A note stays put and the E and C# both move up a half step to F and D).
Play around with trying this in one position. Then move it around to other positions. No arpeggios. Just play these like little three note chords at first. Get the sound in your ear.
Then use a looping pedal, iRealb, or any other backing track to create a ii V i loop in D minor.
Try playing the G minor triad over the EØ7, the A major triad over the A7, and the D minor triad over the D-6. If you can voice lead through this with a good sense of time, you should be able to create a smooth guide tone line that snakes through the changes. This will allow you to hear and respect the chord progression without outlining it. If you got that, play around adding a few leading tones or connecting some of these triad notes with short chromatic lines. This will break apart the simplicity of the triads and make it seem like more is happening than actually is. If you watch the video, you’ll hear me demonstrating both of these ideas.
The next step to try is to add tension 2 to the G minor and D minor triads and tension b2 to the A major triad.
Now you’ll be playing
EØ7 - G - (A) - Bb - D
A7b9 - A - (Bb) - C# - E
Dmin6 - D - (E) - F - A
Focus on hearing the tension notes and learning to resolve them in a natural way. Don’t treat these as arpeggios. Listen to the examples I demonstrate in the video. The simpler the phrase, the better. Let the drama and emotion of the “tension to resolution” movement built into these structure be the line. They’ll make it sound hip without you overplaying. You just need to keep track of where the changes are, keep your ears open, and let the notes dance through the chord movement.
This might sound easy, but even professional musicians I work with struggle with this. It’s a whole different way of “thinking” and approaching the guitar. But stay with it. If you take these baby steps and work on them slowly and diligently, in a focused manner, and continually attempt to apply them to real world musical situations, it will start to get easier. You’ll start to surprise yourself as hip sounding melodies bubble up from nowhere. No pre-memorized riffs, no scale sequences, no arpeggio running to outline anything. Just lyrical, melodic, storytelling phrases from deep within you.
Give it a shot and see what happens. And if you start to feel frustrated, take a deep breath, smile, and “triad again.”
This week we’ve been talking about the maj7 ‘arpeggio’ - or as we would say in melodic triads, a major triad + tension 7. In yesterday’s lesson we practiced the (G)/7 quadratonic both with the tension 7 resolving up to the G root note - creating the pure major sound, as well as reversing the roles and letting the G root note resolve down into the tension 7 - creating the major 7 sound.
Same notes. Very different emotions.
Pure major gives that classic, traditional, bright and happy sound that we expect when we think about a major chord or a major scale. Major 7 is not bright or happy at all. It’s actually tugs on the heart strings and can even seem rather sad and remorseful.
Often times in the real book, the changes will say Maj7 when the melody doesn’t really support that sound. In those instances the harmony should really read some like a 6 chord. However, in the famous jazz standard, Misty, we see a perfect example of a classic, authentic use of the major 7 sound. When the pick up notes resolve us into measure one, the melody drops down to a D note - the major 7th - over the EbMaj7 chord. This is the classic clue that we’re dealing with a legitimate major 7 chord and not a pure major or an Eb6 chord.
In today’s lesson we are going to see that tiny, subtle moment as a miniature etude and learn something from it. It’s showing us how to effectively squeeze as much emotion as possible out of a Maj7 chord melodically, without running chord tones and arpeggiating it. And what it’s showing us is the same thing we discussed in yesterday’s lesson… that the major 7th of a Maj7 chord is actually a more stable resolution note than the chord’s root note.
Check out the short etude I wrote to simplify this, help you hear it, and see how it fits over the first few chords from Misty’s chord progression - from the EbMaj7 chord up through the AbMaj7 chord. The idea is that over the EbMaj7 chord, we want to hear the Eb note resolve down to the D note. We don’t need to play a scale run or arpeggiate anything to create this effect. It’s enough to simply play the Eb note and lower it a half step to D as we harmonize it with the EbMaj7 shell voicing as is notated on the down beat of measure 1.
In measure 2 we’re going to flatten the D note to Db as we as we move to the Bb-7 chord and then again down another half step to C note as we move to the Eb7 chord. Finally in measure 3, as we resolve to the AbMaj7, we bring back the “root resolving down to the major 7th” idea again as we move through the Ab note down to the G.
Try playing through the notated example and along with me a few times. As you get the hang of the sound and the look of moving THROUGH the root note on the way down to the major 7th of the chord, fill in some of the empty space left by all of the half notes and whole notes and see if you can spice up the example with some of your own melodic ideas. If you can do that, try moving up or down into other octaves to see if you can spot the “root -> major 7th” over these two chords. Finally, if it’s going well, try applying this to some other jazz standards and see if you can improvise your way through their forms using this trick to accentuate the heavy and weighted emotional feel of the Maj7 chords they contain.
Have fun, and hit me up if you need help with anything.
And of course… happy practicing!
When is a 7 chord arpeggio NOT a 7 chord arpeggio? When it’s not an arpeggio.
When is a diminished chord NOT an inversion of a 7b9 chord? When it’s not an inversion of a 7b9 chord.
Today we are looking at how to use a dominant 7 arpeggio to improvise melodic phrases that imply the chord without simply “outlining” it. And we’re going to apply this over a fully diminished 7 chord, but in a where where the diminished-dominant relationship won’t make sense.
That might sound really complicated and overly academic. But stick with me. This is worth it. These sounds exist inside of standards. This is going to simplify your ability to improvise more melodically over tunes like Someday My Prince Will Come, All The Things You Are, any rhythm changes tune, and more.
Think about a Bº7 chord. If you know your basic music theory and chord construction, you might already be aware that a Bº7 can be thought of as a rootless G7b9 chord. They’re made of the same pitches, but the G7b9 has a G note. That means you can use the notes of G7 or a G7b9 to play over the Bº7. You probably also know that fully diminished 7 chords resolve up a half step beautifully. So Bº7 can resolve up to C or C minor. G7 is the dominant chord that resolves to C and C minor as well. And this makes sense. Bº7 and G7b9 are almost the same thing, and the both resolve to the same tonic chords.
But diminished chords don’t HAVE TO resolve up a half step. In Chords For Life, the comping course in our online study group, we discuss the different ways diminished chords can move and resolve. Up a whole step is only one option. What happens if we resolve Bº7 DOWN a half step.
For example, check out this chord progression.
This progression is in the key of Ab major. We’re starting on the iii-7 chord, walking down chromatically through the biiiº7 to the ii-7, and then hitting the V7 chord.
Think about that for a moment. If we play that G7 arpeggio over the Bº7 chord, now we’re melodically voice leading our line through G7 directly to a Bb-7 chord. It might seem strange if you haven’t gotten used to thinking of diminished chords functionally in a way where they’re not relying on the dominant-diminished relationship.
Try this out. Getting lyrical, melodic phrases with the whole-half diminished scale can be trick. And getting stuck running fully diminished arpeggios can be a little outdated and tiresome. But being able to base your lines on a major triad? Now that is a recipe for some melodic freedom and authority.
Check out how I break down the process of getting used to this and what these lines will sound like in the video. And grab a copy of the PDF to see which triads and which melodic tension notes I’m using for each of these four chords.
Hit me up if you need anything or have questions.
And happy practicing!
The opening few measures from Horace Silver’s tune Nica’s Dream are not only a hip progression to play over during the form, but also make for a great vamp that can be used as an intro or an outro, for Nica’s as well as other tunes.
It’s generally notated as a BbminMaj7 to an AbminMaj7. And the usually go to approach to improvising is to think Bb melodic minor to Ab melodic minor. Given that these are the proper chord-scale options for this progression, and the length of time we have to play around inside of each chord before it moves to the next, this is a good starting point for scalar ideas.
But what if we want to go for something more direct and lyrical. What if we want to develop bring out some of the upper extension notes more clearly while implying the chords, but ultimately focus on clean phrases and voice leading to play over this vamp and bring it to life with a less obvious sound.
Enter the minMaj9 sound. We can create the minMaj9 by using the major triad built on the 5th of a minMaj7 chord. For BbminMaj7 we can use an F Major triad. If we treat F, A, and C as the melodic triad to use over a BbminMaj7 chord, we accomplish a couple of things. First, we get rid of running around inside of scales and can spot three distinct notes to act as melodic stable points to anchor our phrases and the harmony without getting trapped arpeggiated the 1 - b3 - 5 - 7 chord tones. Here we’re getting rid of the root and the 3rd. Now our most stable notes are the 5th, the 7th, and the 9th. Learning to hear these notes as the most stable sound over a minMaj7 will give us a great sense of melodic intention and authority… like we’re not simply noodling inside of a key signature but are putting our flag in the ground and saying, “I own this.”
The other thing it does is give us some melodic direction and the ability to very cleanly and precisely voice lead from one chord to the next. Start off by practicing improvising over the looped vamp with the F major triad over the BbminMaj7 chord and the Eb triad over the AbminMaj7 chord. Keep the rhythm simple and focus entirely on strong voice leading. The idea is to be able to play triad “lines” through the chords without needing to jump down to the root note or the 6th string of the guitar to reset for a new position. Simply take the last note of the triad you’re playing for one chord and find the nearest note from the next triad to shift to. Ideally, we don’t want to hear any big leaps.
Then we can add the tension b6 to each triad. So an F major triad + Db and an Eb major triad + Cb. This tension b6 will give us the ability to start making simple phrases based on tension and resolution… not on scale sequences or running arpeggios. Oddly, the tension note will actually be the minor 3rd of each chord, and you’ll find that it will want to resolve down a half step to the 9th of the chord, helping strengthen the stability of the 9th, putting us firmly in the upper structure of the chord, and making our lines sound much more seasoned than someone basing everything on the root note of each chord. From here, you can add leading tones and chromaticism, and you’re now improvising with all 12 notes, avoiding cliche scales, riffs, and arpeggios, and yet still implying the changes.
Grab a copy of today’s PDF to see these chords written out with the proper quadratonic (triad +1) notated for each chord. Check out lesson #37 to work on some ear training ideas to hear this note (The Batman Note) more deeply and personally so you can use it in a more musical way. You can download that PDF to see these shape of these “triad + tension b6” positions notated out with scale charts.
Hit me up if you have questions.
And happy practicing!
Adding a tension #4 note to a major triad is one of my favorite quadratonics. If you haven’t explored this sound yet, I strongly recommend checking out our lesson #32 on ear training this note using emotion and body movements before trying today’s lesson, as trying to play anything without first getting the sound in your ear is futile.
Once you can hear the emotion and the energy of that tension #4, now we can practice using it in an improvised way.
One of my favorite melodic uses for this quadratonic is to treat it as a tritone substitution to setup important chords and moments in a form. In other words, if I want to land on particular chord melodically in a big way, I will play the major triad + tension #4 a half step, or semitone, above it first… and then resolve down into the target chord.
As an example, if I want to really accentuate the movement to an Fmin7 chord when I’m improvising, one to two measures before the band hits the Fmin7 chord, I’m going to think up a half step and play around with a (Gb) / #4 quadratonic. That’s a Gb major triad with a C natural note added for it’s emotion and melodic color. After playing some type of phrase within this melodic structure, THEN I will resolve it down to the Fmin7 chord as the band play it.
I can do this even when the band isn’t playing a Gb chord along with me. It doesn’t matter. They could be playing something completely different and “wrong” compared to the Gb major triad… it can still work. Why? Because the entire point is to create some type of tension moving to some type of resolution. The quadratonic I’m playing has tension because of the #4. My line has tension because I’m implying the sound of the tritone sub… the bII7. So we’re hearing harmonic tension and resolution. Then there may be additional tension and resolution because I, as the soloist, may be playing something different from, and clashing with, what the bass player and comping instrument are doing. But because it’s all moving forward through time and form, and because we’re all headed to the next chord, it can still work out.
Try applying this idea to the 12 bar minor blues. There are only a few chords in the entire form and a lot of empty, non-moving space, so it’s a perfect form to start testing this out. Checkout the breakdown of how, when, and why I’m applying which triads throughout the form that I offer in the video. And make sure to download the PDF so you can see how it’s notated to help you move through the tune.
Even though it’s only a 12 measure chord progression, you might need to break down the form into smaller segments and slow down to really focus on getting your ears, eyes, fingers, and mind working together to hit these quadratonics and make some nice phrases happening without losing the form. But the goal should be to bring the broken apart puzzle pieces back together and be able to get through the form with some new ideas for how to play over it.
Give it a shot. See how it goes. Hit me up if you need help.
When speaking about composition, Igor Stravinsky once said, “That which diminishes constraint, diminishes strength.”
This seems backwards from the mentality I see in most students of jazz. This ever-burning desire to chase after freedom and limitless options… squeezing as many notes into every phrase and playing idea after idea after idea without much thought for how they relate to each other or to the tune they’re playing over.
This is usually done unconsciously, without even realizing that it’s happening on the part of the musician. I think it has to do with the way we’re told to practice and learn and the topics prioritized in the standard jazz guitar pedagogy. We’re pulled in 1000 different directions, many of which are outside of playing within a “real world” musical situation… running scales, patterns, sequences, arpeggios, etc. We’re often not encouraged to make time to focus on phrases, repetition, leaving certain ideas unsaid to make more room for the ideas we ARE playing, and in general… the concept of constraint.
But that which diminishes constraint, diminishes strength.
In other words, part of our practice should be in learning to constrain ourselves. To force ourselves into a box and not let ourselves out. To make us stay put until we start to get comfortable within that constraint… and in that comfort discover the ability to control something new. To perform a new task with a greater sense of confidence, mastery, and intentionality.
In this lesson, I’m showing how something as simple as a major triad and the 4th degree of that triad can be used in a variety of different ways to improvise over some standard jazz changes. And this is a worthwhile thing to practice. It will help you get more comfortable with the emotion that the tension 4 creates, it will help you experience the sensation of moving in and out of tension and resolution melodically, AND it will also help train your mind to stay open to constraint.
Part of why practicing with constraints is so helpful is it gives us much stronger and more intentional sounding phrases very quickly. But another reason is that, in the big picture, what makes a good jazz musician is constraint. The ability to hold onto a theme and take advantage of motivic development. The ability to keep the melody of the tune in mind and dance around it during one’s solo. The ability build the energy of the solo with a certain plot… like starting quiet and building to a climax… coming in strong and then gradually bring the dynamics down. All of these types elements of being a great jazz musician require that the player can remain centered and constrained, and not lose their focus every time a neat riff floats by.
Give this a shot. You will likely see shifts in your ear and your playing rather quickly. And in the long run, you will see huge benefits with your ability to stay focused and directed when practicing, improvising, and composing.
Grab a copy of the PDF if you need help finding the G major + tension 4 quadratonic shapes.
I’m often asked how to play out, and while it annoys the average musician to hear this, the best answer I can offer is, “Learn to play in.”
It’s the ultimate jazz guitar zen koan - a riddle that both does AND doesn’t make sense, depending on how you look at things… but that forces us to rethink our unconscious assumptions.
To the average music student, playing in and playing out are two very different experiences. One means “making the changes” and playing within the diatonic key… both of which come from the idea that arpeggios, scales, and chord tones are the “proper” approach to improvisation.
But if choose to rethink this approach and instead focus on melodic tension and resolution, then we have two approaches to “playing out” that we can jump into by learning to “play in” more masterfully. By relying on the quadratonics concept within our melodic triads approach, we are prioritizing four pitches to create melody with at any given moment. But we’re not limited to only these four pitches. We can use leading tones and chromaticism within these four to give us access to all 12 pitches over any chord. Meaning we can play the most non-diatonic and nonsensical options at any moment and still make it work because it’s within the context of a very “in” sound. So learning to play with pure quadratonics is an amazing tool to not only learn to control specific types of emotions and phrases within your melodic phrases, but also to then use as a means to frame as much chaotic “out” playing as you want in a logical, musical, and “in” way.
But then we can take it one step farther and choose to use less obvious triads to create our lines from… and then the options start to become near limitless. We can choose upper structure triads to create lines that are technically diatonic and work, but will come across as incredibly unexpected and “out” compared to a root structure triad. We can also use even more unexpected triads by implying a tension chord (like a dominant, diminished, or chromatic approach chord) over any chord. But that’s a WHOLE other story that we’ll have to leave for another day.
In today’s lesson we’re relying mostly on upper structure triads. We’re playing over a ii V I biiiº progression in C major. D-7 to G7 to CMaj7 to Ebº7. But the triads we’re going to use are E major, G major, B major, and D major… respectively.
Against each major triad we’re going to add a tension b2. So we’re adding the F note to the E triad, the Ab note to the G triad, the C note to the B triad, and the Eb note to the D triad. This will help us create our melodic tension and resolution using the sound of the b2 note… or what I sometimes call The Dracula Note.
So over a D-7 chord, by using E major + F, I’m using the m3, 9, #11, and 13 of the harmony to create my melodic phrases. Over the G7 I’m using a root structure triad, so it’s just root, 3rd, 5th, and b9. Over the CMaj7 we get the root, 7, #9, and #11. Over the Ebº7 we get the root, b3, b5, and maj7. Some pretty hip “chord tones” for creating some very modern and “out” sounds over the standard progression.
Then we mix in chromatic passing notes, and we have a universe of movement and phrasing ideas at our finger tips.
Give it a shot and see if you can get these sounds and shapes into your ears and fingers. Check out the video to help you get started. Break it down and focus on just voice leading the triads first. Then add in the tension notes and see if you can get some simple phrases happening. Then add in the chromaticism. Start slow, then begin building up your tempo as you get more comfortable. Eventually, try applying this to some tunes and see if you can get it swinging!
Grab the PDF if you need help finding these major triad + tension 2 quadratonic shapes. And hit me up if you need help.
When learning and improvising over jazz tunes, we quickly realize how important being able to control dominant -> tonic resolutions becomes. Both V7 -> i and V7 -> I. But we also want to look at the tritone sub. It’s an essential tool to work with to create more modern and hip sounding chord movement and single note solos.
In today’s lesson we are using the lydian dominant sound to imply the movement from a tritone sub dominant to a major or minor chord. It could be a tonic chord, or it could be some other chord in a moving progression… like a ii, iii, or IV chord maybe.
The tricky thing about the way that we create and use the lydian dominant sound in the melodic triads approach is that the root, 3rd, 5th, and b7th of the dominant chord all behave and function MELODICALLY as tension notes. In other words, when you play them during a solo, they will naturally crave movement to the 9, #11, and 13. So if all you’ve ever been told to do to play over a dominant7 chord is to rely on the chord tones, this is going to be tough. But if you watch this video, and episode 17 where we really dig into this ear training to help you open the way you’re hearing this sound, you should be able to hear this idea in motion. Once the ear can hear this, then the mind can come to term with the theory.
The theory is actually very basic. We’re relying on a C major triad over our Bb7 chord. The C triad is governing the melodic structure of this sound… and C, E, and G are the 9, #11, and 13 of the Bb7 chord. Then we add tension 2 (the D note) to the C triad to create a little bit of melodic tension. This allows us to play some really basic, lyrical phrases that imply the Bb lydian dominant sound… or the Bb13(#11,9) as I prefer to call it. We’re not outlining the chord. We’re simply implying it against the background of the music happening… and going straight for the sweet spot notes.
The next step is to practice playing the quadratonic (C + tension 2) and then resolve into an Amin or AMaj chord for the resolution. In this way we can voice lead through these two chords and be very respectful of them without getting lost outlining them. Check out the full video above to hear a ton of examples of how this could work out. It’s not about memorizing riffs. It’s about learning to hear, see, and move within this very simple shape of a C triad with the tension 2, and then resolving it to a nearby note for the A chord.
This is actually enough to play legitimately beautiful music.
However we’re not done. If you want, you can insert leading tones before any of these notes and make your phrases even more dramatic. Or you can connect any of these quadratonic tones with chromatic passing notes. This will create a more bebop and modern jazz vibe. And then of course we want to apply to tunes to start practicing what this looks, feels, and sounds like when we’re using it in a real situation. Near the end of the video you’ll hear me apply this movement of bII7 -> minor chord and bII7 -> major chord multiple times throughout the changes during A section of the famous jazz standard, Autumn Leaves.
If you need help with this, grab the PDF to see the C triad + tension 2 charted out to help you get started. Or reach out and hit me up.
There’s a story I remember hearing years ago. I have no idea if it’s true or not… it’s just one of those jazz folklore stories. Allegedly Monk had a new horn player playing with him. He called one of his original blues tunes (let’s assume it was Blue Monk, but I don’t recall). After they finished playing the melody the young horn player jumped into a burning hot, blues solo. Monk stopped the group and told the man, “Don’t play the blues. This isn’t a blues. Play Blue Monk.”
This story might seem like a confusing, illogical zen koan to a beginner or early intermediate jazz guitar student. Blue Monk is a 12 bar blues. How can you play Blue Monk without playing the blues?
What Monk meant was that he has a lot of blues tunes. They’re not all the same. Each one has its own vibe, its own personality. What he wanted the horn player to do was to stop playing all of his own licks and riffs, and to start paying attention to the personality of the tune itself and play around within that sonic universe. To play THE TUNE and not just the generic form it’s related to. I always remind my students that Monk, Ellington, Miles, Cole Porter… the great composers of our music weren’t just making up random melodies so that they could spit out tons of chord progressions that we could pull up in iRealB to outline or noodle over. That’s not the point of these tunes. These tunes are compositions our founding fathers heard… just like Led Zeppelin heard Stairway to Heaven and didn’t simply write that tune as an excuse for guitar players decades later to shred their A minor scales over.
One of the downsides of modern day jazz education is that it’s all based on scales, chord tones, and arpeggios. All are great learning tools. But we’re asked to look at the chord progression of a tune and to simply apply these tools with the expectation that they will take care of everything else. They may show us “the right” notes… but they won’t show us “the better” notes. To get deeper into the music and the tunes, we need to approach things a little differently.
There are a couple of ways to do this. Peter Bernstein once recommended that I play the melody to a tune so many times that I start to get bored with it, and then continue playing the melody but to convey it as though I was bored and wanted to spice it up and play it slightly differently each time… and to approach my improvisation from this standpoint. Here’s a great video of Gilad Hekselman talking about and demonstrating this type of practice.
Other musicians recommend similar practices but taking a specific theme from the melody and holding onto that idea as our motif and sticking with it through entire sections or even choruses of the form.
One of my favorite things about the melodic triads approach is it gives us a way to analyze the melody of a tune and not just the chord progression. By looking at the melody from Blue Monk I can see that Monk was using primarily root structure triads over each chord and then sprinkling in some chromatic passing tones and a tension 6 note. There are really no classic blues riffs, no scale runs, no arpeggios, and almost no 7 chord being implied. Once I see that, it means that I can then improvise using basic triads with tension 6 notes added. So Bb major triad + G, Eb triad + C, and F triad + D. I can add in chromaticism to connect any of these quadratonic notes.
Can I quote his melody directly? Sure. Can I quote it but come up with variations? Absolutely. But once I get the sound of these quadratonics in my ear and understand how the tension 6 note feels and sounds and wants to move… I’m now free to improvise anything I want within these mini melody-building structures, and they will all be paying homage to the melody. They’re implying the same contour to the personality of Blue Monk, even when I’m not quoting it directly.
Give this a shot. If you’re new to melodic triads it might feel very limiting at first. But there’s an incredible amount of freedom to be found within limitation. Same reason Monk didn’t want his horn player to just play cool sounding blues riffs. He wanted him to limit himself to the personality of Blue Monk. In that limitation, creativity and humanity has more room to live… and musicianship is created and strengthened.
While I don’t recommend beginners to jazz guitar or the melodic triads approach jump straight into upper structure triads and melodic polytonality, it IS a very fun topic to create more depth and color and complexity into our lines. And because it’s effectively the same shapes, triads, and quadratonics we use in the beginning built from the root of every chord, moving into the upper structure of each chord isn’t as challenging for us as it would be if you were learning as purely a scalar or chord tone based player.
In today’s lessons we’re combining some root structure triads with some upper structure triads to improvise with over a ii V I VI in C major. This is going to give us a nice mix of very expected sounds with some slightly more surprising twists and turns.
Over the D-7 we’re just using a root structure D minor chord, and we’re going to add the E note, tension 2. For G7 we’re using an E major triad with tension b2. This is an upper structure triad made of G, B, and D… which will put the 13 and the b9 of the G7 chord into our melodic phrases. Over CMaj7 we will use an E minor triad with tension 4. Over A7 we will use a root structure A major triad with tension b2… giving us the sound of a dominant 7b9 chord.
Remember that the point of this 4th note we’re adding is to create melodic tension. It’s not simply meant to give us a miniature scale to noodle randomly inside of, or a four note arpeggio to run up and down within. It’s meant to show us strong, stable melodic notes (the triad) and then drama causing tension notes which will cause turmoil and a desire for movement in our melodies. This need to resolve helps produce forward momentum and it also allows us to express human emotion and desire into the line that is challenging to do with scales or arpeggios.
The goal is to be able to see the triads on the fretboard, be able to voice lead through them accurately, and then to be able to insert the tension notes and additional chromaticism and leading tones intentionally and at will so that we’re not stuck relying about riffs, noodling, or outlining… instead we’re able to see the steel frame of the melodic structure and swing around through it freely and spontaneously.
Check out the video and listen to how I dance around through the triads and quadratonics. Then download the PDF with the four different quadratonics charted out for you, shed them for to get used to the sound and the shape, and then jump into the water and see if you can figure out how to swim. If you run into issues, hit me up and let me know how I can help. Or consider checking out our Melodic Triads Study Group where you can access all of our courses which offer an in-depth, step-by-step, practical approach to helping you quickly and efficiently getting these ideas into your playing so you can truly start improvising and loving the experience of playing over tunes PLUS regular open office hours where I hang with the group, answer questions, play examples, and offer insight, inspiration, and practice tips to everyone to make sure we’re all progressing and moving forward with our jazz playing.
Have fun with this one! It makes up probably 80+% of what I’m doing when I improvise over tunes. And once you get through the initial learning curve, it’s just like skiing down a mountain… because the shapes really never change. You just have to put in a little bit of focused work on the front end to get the sound into your ears and the shapes into your fingers and eyes.
Enjoy the process… And happy practicing!
Unlike the traditional approaches to jazz guitar pedagogy, the melodic triads approach does not begin with scales, arpeggios, or chord tones. It relates to these elements, but the starting point is with a pure triad first, then a quadratonic (a triad with one addition note added, a tension note), and then finally the addition of leading tones and chromaticism. There are more steps we can take beyond this, but for the “getting started making music phrase” this is the final step. By the time we reach this level of competence, we are completely free to use all 12 notes at any moment, but have the ability to do so in a way where we’re still implying and respecting the harmony and conveying all of this musical information with strong, authoritative, melodic phrases that never sound like random noodling or “paint by numbers” chord tone running or outlining the changes.
In today’s lesson I present three of our most important quadratonics to being able to reach this level of playing. All we need to really start playing strong, musical phrases that precisely imply the changes are these three shapes. Yes, there are other shapes worth learning, but these three are the ones I present and delve deeply into in our Lines For Life course.
They are (1) Major triad + tension 2, (2) Major triad + tension b2, and (3) minor triad + tension 2. All three of these are extremely related and similar to each other. The difference between (1) and (2) is the tension note is one fret away. The difference between (1) and (3) is that the 3rd of the triad is one fret away. So these shouldn’t be TOO difficult to learn to see and begin implementing, though it may take some time and effort if you’re new to thinking in terms of triads rather than scales.
A good starting point for thinking this way is to use all root structure triads when improvising. So for a ii V I in C major we would use a D minor triad + tension 2 for the D-7 chord, for G7 we would use a G major triad + tension b2, and for C6 we would use C major + tension 2.
In the melodic triads approach, we would notate this idea like this.
If you watch the video you can hear me using these quadratonics to improvise melodically over the changes in a way that very precisely implies the chord progression. Even if I choose to insert chromaticism to create a more modern aesthetic, the chord progression is still ever-present in my lines without me “outlining” the changes.
As we get more comfortable with the root structure triads, we can take these same shapes and apply them to upper structure triads that work with the chord. Like how I use an A minor triad + tension 2 over a D-7 chord in the video. This tonicizes (or makes stable) the A minor triad in the melody over the D-7 chord. So the A, C, and E note will feel the most resolved giving us what I would refer to as D-9. Why? Because the E note (5th of the A minor triad) is now a stable note in the melodic structure, but the D note and the F note (the root and 3rd of D-7) are now no long stable melodically… they function as tension notes. This creates a much more colorful harmonic/melodic relationship that offers more depth to our vocabulary.
Give this a shot. You might find it difficult if you’re new to triads and the melodic triads approach, but work at it just a little bit. You’ll find with a little bit of focused practice things will start to click, because there really isn’t THAT MUCH going on. If you need help you can always reach out and hit me up, or you can join our study group and check out our courses which offer a step by step breakdown of the process for how to internalize these sounds into your ears and these shapes into your fingers.
Enjoy trying this out!
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