~ improv ~

~ soloing over changes ~

~ parent scales ~

~ diatonic improv ~

'... theorywise, there's 'over the river or through the trees' and this is 'over the river ...'

In a nutshell. In creating theory discussions about Americana improv, making the general distinction of thinking 'over or through' the chord changes and form of the song simplifies the learning. That said, in most of our improv we combine the best of both approaches with musical style usually determining the balance of the two. Towards the folk side of our spectrum, more over the changes. On the jazz horizon, through the changes and almost by necessity.

style spectrum
through the changes

In soloing over the changes, in theory we pick what is termed a 'parent scale' and use those pitches to create our melodic ideas over a whole series of key center related chords in a song.

parent scales
key center

Overview. This approach to soloing and improv is used in all of our Americana styles. We most often start with the user friendly five pitch pentatonic group then evolve to the seven pitches of the diatonic scale. As we move towards a jazz style in our style spectrum, we end up adding new pitches from our chromatic 12 to strengthen our cadential motions and cover key changes through modulation. All while the blue notes are ever ready to add in some of the true Americana 'blues hue.'

chromatic 12
blues hue

'Over the changes' with five pitches.' This first chart holds the pitch basis for our most accessible groups of pitches for creating melody lines over chord changes. The five pitches of both the major and minor pentatonic groups are said 'to have no bad pitches' ( and they don't ) when properly ( diatonically ) paired up with their chords for creating improvised melodic lines. Examine their letter name pitches in a table format. Thinking here in C major / A minor. Example 1.

pentatonic scales
diatonic
C major / A minor
scale degrees
1
2
3
.
5
6
.
8
C major
C
D
E
.
G
A
.
C
arpeggio
C
E
G
.
D
.
A
C
One / C major
C
E
G
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
A minor
A
.
C
D
E
.
G
A
arpeggio
A
C
E
G
.
D
.
A
One / A minor
A
C
E
.
.
.
.
.

Looks like we only get build up a single triad / chord for each of the major and minor keys from this initial five pitch grouping. No wonder there's no clunkers in the melody pitches :) This is very often the pitch and chord resource for writing songs for little ones; for children's songs and the lullaby melodies we cherish that are easy to sing, easy to make up new words (parody) and quickly rote learned. Here improvising with these five pitches over one major and one minor triad; pentatonic jamming here. Example 1a.

a lullaby melody
parody
rote learned

So the same group of pitches works perfectly fine for creating ideas for both major and minor tonalities? Yep, tis the beauty of our modern system of pitches and their integration and organization together. And didn't we create a melody line through the changes in the 2nd and 4th bars? Sure did, simply spelled out the chords tones of the triads in successive tones thus, we could say as theorists that our melodic line went 'through the chords' and not 'over the chords.'

mm / YY
chord tones

Is this the basic theory for 'over the changes' with these five pitches and a major and minor triad? Sure is. And the pentatonic scale shape atop the example is the one? It is in many circles. So depending on what you need, run this shape around the neck finding the key centers for the songs you be a jamming on. Are there are amazing artists who venture no further down the theory road yet never run out of ideas for soloing and composing with just these pitches? Absolutely.

good sounding music

Five pitches over different chords. That our five note pentatonic group know's no clunker pitches, it's the perfect group for creating ideas over loops of different chords. Here's a two chord jam vamp using the major / minor pentatonics. Think A minor to Ab major. Ex. 1b.

Cool huh ? Works like a charm. There's a whole study of the use of these pentatonic groupings for improv over all sorts of harmonies both diatonic and altered. For the advancing musician who digs these sounds, there's a theory improv book titled Pentatonic Scales for Jazz Improvisation by Raymond Ricker worth examining.

altered chords

Common practice. So, jamming with your mates in the key of A? Locate this scale shape at the 2nd fret for major sounds and at the 5th fret for minor / blues. Example 1c.

common practice

In this last idea is a common start point in Americana improv. At some point along the way cats called this 'playing in the boxes, or box scales' etc. Over the decades I've had the chance to see many great rock and blues artists who never really stray to far from this one shape, they simply move it to different locations based on the key of the song, chord of the moment. It really 'works like a charm' for getting things sounding cool in a hurry when soloing over the changes.

box scales

Six pitches over the chords ~ minor. In all of our Americana, there might be no better art that initially defines this 'over the changes' improv than the blues. For hands down, the blues is the clear winner in the contest of number of theory rules bent and still sounding totally Americana legit, thus filling the dance floor night after night after night; back then, right now and tomorrow.

bending the theory
filling the dance floor

A theory basis of the blues. One foundation of the blues is that we rub melody pitches that create minor sounding melodies over chords built with major triads. The blues artist 'rubs' these two distinct sets of pitches together to make their magic. This basic theory owns most of this next discussion.

Spanning well beyond a 100 years now so probably a half dozen generations or so, the passing down the art of the regional styles of Congo Square and Delta, Memphis, Chicago, and on into Kansas City jump swing, East Coast hip and West Coast cool, rockabilly, classic blues rock, Southern blues rock, country rock and all of today's retro revivals on through to the modern takes, are all for the most part based on soloing over the changes; using a half a dozen pitches we just usually call the blues scale to work the 'blues rub' magic over the three principle chords; One / Four and Five.

Congo Square

In this whole fantastic blues library of over the changes musical art, the consistent 'blues rub' theory goes mostly like this. Examine the pitches of the scale and chords thinking 'blues in A' followed by a realization of the pitches. Example 2.

melody pitches
six pitches of the minor blues scale
scale degrees
1
.
b3
4
#4/b5
5
.
b7
8
blues scale
A
.
C
D
D#
E
.
G
A
chord pitches
pitches of the three major blues chords
chord degrees
1
3
5
b7
.
.
.
.
.
A7
A
C#
E
G
.
.
.
.
.
D7
D
F#
A
C
.
.
.
.
.
E7
E
G#
B
D
.
.
.
.
.

Did we just run the same melody idea created from the box scale over the three chords by simply moving the scale shape to the appropriate fret? Yep we sure did. Sounds fine to me. One shape moved around to the proper fret location of the barre chord. Hmmm ... Oh, out of frets? Transpose the whole idea down a step to G at the 3rd fret with the exact same shapes. Any key and position; same shapes same results.

So while our melody and our chord pitches share a number of the same pitches, there's also a few not shared. Examine the pitches. Example 2a.

scale degrees
1
.
b3
maj 3
4
#4/b5
5
6
b7
maj 7
8
shared pitches
A
.
C
.
D
D#
E
.
G
.
A
chord pitches
A
B
C
C#
D
.
E
F#
G
G#
A

So in theory, we add four new pitches to our blues scale to make the basic chords. For in the 'ideal' world of diatonic music theory, our 'parent scale' has all the pitches to make all the licks, lines, chords and kibbles and bits nuancing of our music. But thanks to Americana blues and its influence through the styles, our perfect diatonic theory world bumps into that mean old world we call reality and we have to negotiate it all to let the art happen. Let's combine the these two groups together. Example 2b.

diatonic theory
parent scale
degrees
1
2
b3
maj 3
4
#4/b5
5
6
b7
maj 7
8
shared pitches
A
B
C
C#
D
D#
E
F#
G
G#
A

Adding them up we have 10 different pitches. We only get 12 with the whole tamale ... in the chromatic scale that is. So two left to discover? Example 2c.

whole tamale
shared blues pitches
A
.
B
C
C#
D
D#
E
.
F#
G
G#
A
new notes
.
Bb
.
.
.
.
.
.
F
.
.
.
.
chromatic scale
A
Bb
B
C
C#
D
D#
E
F
F#
G
G#
A

So Bb, on the flat Two (bii) scale degree and F, flat Six. Ya know if we push either the tonic A or the 5th E around a bit with a bending, where right near these two pitches anyway. We just worked the pitches from six into 10 then 12, finding the perfect closure of the pitches that the theory always brings.

#1 / b2
#5 / b6
tonic
perfect closure

In billiards they call the process we just worked through 'running the table.' Worked through the And in doing so we win the game. Able to follow along with this last processing of the pitches? Win the theory? Just one of a number of ways to run the table so to speak :)

By theory understanding the 'bends in the rules' from our purely diatonic basis, as just discussed with the pitches of the blues scale and chord relationships, in improvising 'over' rather than 'through' the chords, we might better understand the blues hue shade in Americana musics.

blues hue

Six pitches over the chords ~ major. In all fairness to the balance of all things theory, there's a six note group associated with minor that comes along in the music with Americana melodies and and improv fairly often. To create this group we add in the fourth degree to the five pitch pentatonic major. Examine the pitches in C major. Example 3.

bending the theory
filling the dance floor
melody pitches
six pitches of the major blues scale
scale degrees
1
2
3
4
.
5
6
7
8
C pentatonic scale
C
D
E
.
.
G
A
.
C
with added 4th
C
D
E
F
.
G
A
.
C

So basically a diatonic major / relative minor group without a leading tone? Yep. How handy? Well as most songs will eventually get to Four, nice to have the root pitch to create the chord diatonically and to land on in our improvs. Have this melody and hook under your fingers yet ? Into the wayback and thinking C major sans a leading tone 7th. Example 3a.

motion to Four
wayback

Git it? Cool. True true Americana adaptable to every conceivable genre of the local universe including to the near points beyond where even on the outskirts, most folks will recognize the line in just a couple of pitches and start to groove along.

The Saints

And no leading tone. A six pitch scale surely leading towards the major with no leading tone. Well there's no need in this sort of melody really. For it might be as aurally predicatble in its tonal direction as ever a line there might ever be. Hear the three times and out built into the last phrase?

leading tone

A 'six pitcher' that went #1 in 1849. Another true Americana classic, "Oh Susanna" is one we all sang at some point along the way. Big radio hit for many stars over the last century, once we get these sorts of melodies totally rote and under the fingers, our interpretative universe will blossom evermore.

top 10 / #1
by rote

For in doing so we gain the confidence to strengthen our melody playing and improvs from deep down within our own oldest memories. Look back into your own origins for the melodies you first loved. These will surely be the deepest you've known all along. Sound them out by ear, it is the original way. Learn one pitch at a time and know it forever. There's only 12 right ? :)

swing
12 pitches

Same with the swing? You bet. Get this melody to swing and lots of other good things will happen. Learn it here if need be, in a couple of keys if so inclined. There's a another dozen or so of these familiar melodies included in songs to help us overcome any fears we might have of playing the melody. Fear not the melody; conquer it :) Example 3b.

in a couple of keys
songs

Cool? Again the idea that if we can capture the 'jaunty air' of melodies like this, we'll better infuse the 'air' into our improv lines. These are the songs many of our musical heros learned as kids, as so many of these Americana lines were part of the public school curriculum of the last century. Written out in 2/4 gets us down to the 16th note prolation of the beat.

~ super theory game changer ~

'Over the changes' with seven pitches. From six we add one; the leading tone or 7th scale step, which opens a whole new section of palette for the improv artist. This next chart builds up using the seven pitches of the diatonic major scale. This ancient group is the true source for so much Americana musical improv for a wide wide spectrum of our styles.

palette
diatonic major scale
ancient group
spectrum of styles
melody pitches
seven pitches of the diatonic scale
scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
C pentatonic scale
C
D
E
.
G
A
.
C
with added 4th
C
D
E
F
G
A
.
C
diatonic seven
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
C

Now with seven pitches in our group we get some new improv potentials, we've the pitches to diatonically build all of associated triads and extended chords for each of our key centers; we also regain all the modes, those also ancient groups that improvisors love to jamm on and explore for the ancient lines that live within.

triads and chords
tonal center
the modes / modal improv

We also get a two pitch tritone, so a strong dissonance and something to keep on an ear on as we create our lines. Examine the diatonic pitches of the paired relative C major / A minor grouping of pitches. Rote memorize this chart for maximum bennies. Example 4.

two pitch tritone
scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
C major
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
C
arpeggio
C
E
G
B
D
F
A
C
One / C major
C
E
G
.
.
.
.
.
Four / F major
.
.
.
.
.
F
A
C
Five / G major
.
.
G
B
D
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
A minor
A
B
C
D
E
F
G
A
arpeggio
A
C
E
G
B
D
F
A
One / A minor
A
C
E
.
.
.
.
.
Four / D minor
.
.
.
.
.
D
F
A
Five / E minor
.
.
E
G
B
.
.
.

Now having seven pitches for creating melodic ideas 'over' the One / Four / Five of both major and minor combined, is an awfully big chunk of the theory and provides a ton of the resource to improv on the Americana music we know and have come to love. In this next idea we'll first run the seven pitches over their respective One / Four and Five chords. Example 4a.

One / Four / Five
three chords / the truth
a chord built on Seven

Simply scale wise lines whose pitches match up with the pitches the chords are made from. See the upper and lower case Roman numerals to label the chords? We theorists often find numerical equivalents for our various musical components. In this next idea we mix up the major and minor chords together and find a melody idea over these changes. Example 4b.

Roman numerals
music and math

See how the Roman numerals evolved? We're now measuring everything from the pitch C, One, which is the root or tonic of our key center in these examples. So probably starting to sound a bit on the 'classical' side of things? No real surprise there as the classical cats totally dig the diatonic and of course there's no blues in the classical way of the theory. Here's some added 'blues hue' grace notes over the same changes. Example 4c.

One
classical cats
blues hue
grace notes

Cheesy? No? Cool. Taking on some gospel ya say? Sure is. Our gospel is the perfect blend of an 'in tune' piano with voices deep steeped in the Americana storytelling traditions of the 'blues hue.' Following along the same sort of ideas but now focused from a minor key center. Example 4e.

gospel
an in-tune piano

These sorts of diatonic ideas of melody and harmony creates the majority of our musics over the last 150 years or so. Unless it's the blues? Right the blues is different as described above. There's another aspect here and that is how the pentatonic groups play a rather important improv role over these same changes. The pentatonics might be easier to bluesify or blue hue. Surely in minor. Example 4e.

arpeggios
triads
add 7
read chord symbols

Pentatonic and the hue. Sounds light and less busy. Here's the pentatonic major over the changes from the C major example above with blue hue highlights. Example 4f.

rote learning

Might be even more gospel hued with the pentatonic group with some blue high lights. So we've simply theorized about the pitches, labeled things up along the way. Now we're mixing elements and creating sounds that fit into a style. And that's part of how theory knowledge empowers the artist, who often looks to other styles to evolve their own work thus putting the 'modern' theory perspective in Modern Guitar.

modern guitarist

Quick review ~ pentatonic and diatonic. With the above discussion in mind, let's in table format again compare these two groups. Example 5.

palette
melody pitches
Americana improv groups of pitches
scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
C pentatonic scale
C
D
E
.
G
A
.
C
C major scale
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
C

So we can clearly see the F / B addition to the major scale group of pitches. These tow sounded together create the tritone dissonance that we associate with dominant harmony and the blues. Without these we have the 'no really bad pitches' of the pentatonic while still creating memorable and important musics.

tritone

Review. So this discussion is the basic theory of 'soloing over the changes' in Americana improv. Our music is mostly diatonic major scale based, for with the seven pitches we get to diatonically build up most of the necessary chords. The five note pentatonics, said to have 'no wrong notes', among the most popular of the groups for soloing over these diatonic harmonies built from the seven pitches of the major scale. Most anytime we can add in the blues hue, when tastefully done seems to generate a smile or two and tie us back into part of our Americana core; the blues.

modern guitarist

Next up. Soloing over the changes is most of it for some and a part of it for others. The other part? Here in Essentials we term it soloing 'through the changes.' In this approach we outline the pitches of the chord to create our improv melodies. When we combine the two, in theory and practice, we're well on our way to understanding the basis of Americana improv. For as the harmony of the music evolves, even by simply having more chords in a progression, there's a historical school of improv that wants to hear the changes in the lines. Often called playing 'inside the changes' it is what many jazz leaning artists love to do. Choose to further explore.

soloing over the changes

"When you play, play what's in your heart, what's in your mind, not what somebody else plays. You have to be yourself."

Herb Hardesty

w / Fats Domino

Grout, Donald Jay. A History of Western Music, p. 10. W.W.Norton and Company Inc. New York, 1960.

 

Grout, Donald Jay. A History of Western Music, p. 10. W.W.Norton and Company Inc. New York, 1960.

 

Aebersold, James and Slone, Ken. Charlie Parker Omnibook. New York: Atlantic Music Corp., 1978. I know this is a troubling stand to take but I felt I had to and as jazz player, I based it on Charlie Parker's compositions in the Omnibook. Find a copy, count the number of tunes, then compare the number of major key to minor key songs. Any real book of popular American song, by a mix of composers, will follow along similar lines in this regard.regard.