guide tone lines

As the name implies, guide tone lines can help to "guide us" through the quality of the harmony of a song. Quality of the harmony? Yes, chord quality, as in major or minor, tonic or dominant 7th etc. Is this like chord type? Exactly.

So, just what are guide tone lines? Comprised of pitches chosen from those that create the chords in a progression, guide tone lines are often comprised of the 3rd and / or the 7th degree of each new chord as it comes along in the progression. And although guide tone lines are possible in any of the American styles, we often find or create these lines when the harmony gets a bit tricky, as say in a downward cycle of Two / Five cells in a jazz feel, to sure up our tonal intent. First the changes. Example 1.

    D - 7 G 7 C - 7  F 7 Bb - 7 Eb 7 Ab maj 7th

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Sound familiar? Lets create a guide tone line in the upper treble clef. This first guide tone line idea is created by simply using the common tone between the Two and Five chords. The minor 3rd pitch of the Two chord becomes the b7th of the Five chord as the harmony unfolds. The line then simply follows the modulations down by whole step. Example 2.

    D - 7 G 7  C - 7  F 7  Bb - 7 Eb 7 Ab maj 7th

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Nice to resolve by half step eh?

In this next idea, we use the 5th of the Two chord and 3rd of the Five chord to create our lines. Example 3.

   D - 7 G 7  C - 7  F 7  Bb - 7 Eb 7   Ab maj 7th

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Hip to the interval between the pitches of the top voice in measures 9 through 11?

In this next idea we weave the 3rd and the 7th together and move through the changes, thus a two voice guide tone line that nails the quality of each chord. Example 4.

  D - 7 G 7 C - 7  F 7 Bb - 7 Eb 7 Ab maj 7th

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Is it the 3rd and 7th that determine a chords "quality?" Absolutely. Let's jazz up the line by adding additional chord tones with a few passing tones and simply modulate this idea down in whole steps, following along with the changes. Example 5.

 D - 7 G 7 C - 7  F 7 Bb - 7 Eb 7 Ab maj 7th

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So, have a sense of how to create a guide tone line?

So why would we want to do this, create guide tone lines over modulating chord changes? Well, as usual in this text, for a number of reasons.

1) That guide tone lines give the emerging soloist an initial foothold in the music and a sure way to create nice lines over more complex chord changes. The guide tone pitches help give an emerging player a sense and feel of the tonal gravity and color of the various intervals of a chord, so as to personally feel the power of these pitches when articulated over the harmony.

2) That guide tone lines can become the core pitches and "backbone line" of a melody, or used to create riffs in an arrangement and vamps behind a soloist. Advanced jazz players often improvise guide tone lines when on the bandstand. When there are 2 or more horn players, oftentimes the one's not blowing will create a guide tone type line behind the soloist, taking turns creating the idea, while the other will harmonize the line by adding their own choice of pitches. Complex you say? Very. To seasoned jazz players? Nope, just part of working the magic. Does knowing the theory help to do this? Totally. Absolutely necessary? Nope, folks do this sort of thing by ear in all of the styles, all the time.

3) Guide tone lines can be used to help glue together complex harmonic sequences, either as common tones, chord tones or passing tones as illuminated above or simply the doubling of the bass line. So, is the bass line also a type of guide tone line? Absolutely. Ever try playing the just the bass pitches of a song to get a sense of it's character? Check it out sometime, it is amazing how clearly just the bass line can tell the story of the song.

Blues vamp lines. A close associate to the guide tone lines are the vamp lines so often found in the blues. And although these vamp lines are usually more of a lick than a structural line written into the music, they do function for the most part in the same manner, providing stability, added swing and a boost to the soloist to get a little bit further there. Where? There? Where's there? That my friend is for each of us to find for ourselves n'est pas?


1) Simply articulate the 3rd of each chord as it comes up. Try a adding a swing rhythmic lick to the pitch to get you more in the pocket.

2) Try the same idea with just the 7th degree of each chord.

3) Combine the 3rd and 7th in the line.

4) Create one idea containing the 3rd and 7th and modulate it through the changes of the tune you are working out on.

Where to next?
review new ideas
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