soloing over changes
What follows are some very general ideas on pairing up scales and chords for the emerging improviser with lots of links back to reference material and forward to more advanced improvisational concepts. Divided into two sections, the first part combine styles / vocabulary / concepts with creating an improvised solo over the chord changes created by style, while making definite scale / chord connections that are cool and provide a basis to get started. The second part simply examines chords by their color / type and function and pairs them up with possible groups of pitches ( scales ) for creating our melodic ideas, ( click here to get there ). First a we bit of perspective ...
Historically, which came first, the scales or chords? Scales yes? And chords are created from scales right? So why think of applying scales to chords, not chords to scales? Well, simply common practice in American music. Way often we get changes to blow over but do we ever get scales to play chords over?
A solid yet totally cool first step in beginning to create improvised lines is to simply create your own artistic interpretation of the melody of the tune as a improvisational solo.
Can you play the melody of the song you want to solo in? Can you sing the melody of the song? By combining these two ideas, a golden rule of improvisation emerges, "sing the line, play the line." So, what's the melody? By knowing the melody of the tune, we have a way into the the emotional essence of the song, providing us with a continuing source of melodic ideas. So when we get lost or out there while soloing, playing the melody will usually get us back on track. Cool with this? A very basic approach, but a sure way to start and be successful right away, to be musical and create a sense of artistic confidence in our lines, while giving the listeners something to sink their ears into. Bumping into the "don't know the melody, don't get to solo" rule among players is also a drag. So try to play the melody of the songs you want to play and get some solid initial ideas for your improvised lines.
In songs where the melody and chords are for the most part diatonic in composition, creating melodic ideas from the parent scale of the tune is a sure way to making the changes. Of course, certain pitches sound better with particular chords within the progression of the song, and these pitch / chord relationships can be examined by simply playing your ideas over the changes and deciding what works best for you.
Thinking diatonically, let's examine a few of the popular styles of American music, create common chord progressions from within each style and look at various groups of pitches from which we can create our melodic ideas.
In folk music, we generally stay in the diatonic realm within one key center, using these pitches to create our melodies. Using a variation of the essential One / Four / Five chord progression, check out the following idea in the key of C major. Example 1.
|pickup notes||C major||C major||F major||G major|
Know the line? It's been around for a century or so. The first phrase of "Oh Susanna" is created from the major pentatonic scale, as is often the case with folk melodies. Is there a lot of ride time in folk music of this genre? No generally not, as folk music is traditionally a story telling format, but if there was, generating our improvised lines from the pentatonic group would be an obvious choice eh? Maybe in creating an intro for the tune. So that group is cool. Can we also use the fancier turnaround created from the major scale group in bar 9 of the example above to create our improvised ideas? Concerns with substituting one scale for another? Always? Why? Well in this case, we are about to add some dissonance. Compare the pitches of the two different primary groups that produce the major tonal environment. Example 1a.
|C major pentatonic||C||D||E||G||A||C|
|C major scale||C||D||E||F||G||A||B||C|
Here is the melodic idea from above with the added fourth and seventh scale degrees, creating the tritone within the major scale. Example 1b.
|pickup notes||C major||C major||F major||G major|
Nice huh? Singly, adding the perfect fourth F adds a bit of passionate "longing" to the pentatonic group, while the major 7th B is used here as the leading tone to jump start the line a bit. Paired together in a chord, the pitches F and B create the tritone interval, essential to the dominant seventh chord color as in bar 10 above.
Even if we expand our chord progression to include other diatonic chords, both the major pentatonic scale and the major scale are cool and important groups of pitches from which to create our melodic ideas. Example 1c.
|C maj E -||A - D -||C maj F maj||G 7|
So, as long as all of our chords are created from one group of pitches, such as the major scale as in the above idea, can we use this major scale to create our melodic ideas? Totally.
What about folk songs in the minor tonality? Here is One / Four / Five in the minor tonality. Example 2.
|pickup notes||A minor||D min||A min||E minor|
Same group of pitches, the C major scale? In the minor tonality, how so? Well, do you remember that there is a relative major scale within the natural minor scale? Compare the pitches of the following scales. Example 2a.
|A natural minor||A||B||C||D||E||F||G||A|
Coolness emerges from the theory, the same group of pitches creates two different scale colors! It's all in the intervals and which pitch we choose as our tonal center. Hip to the relative major / relative minor concept? Can we advance the minor chord progression of example 2 to include other diatonic chords and stay with the core group of pitches? For sure. Example 2b.
|pick up||A - G maj||F maj D -||C maj A -||E minor|
So much color and simply diatonic, so very cool is this equal temper. So, jamming on a folk tune in the key of C with the diatonic chords? Perhaps initially try creating your melodic ideas from the pitches of the C pentatonic major or G major groups. Example 2c.
|G pentatonic major||
Again the idea that when the chords of the tune are all or for the most part diatonic, using the parent scale to create those chords for creating melodic ideas is a sure way to go.
Rockers often use the same principles as folk music to work their magic, i.e., one key, mostly triadic harmony, but often base their lines simply on the minor pentatonic color. With so much rock music being created with the electric guitar, the blue colors are often created by bending the strings to obtain the desired pitch and effect. So, someone suggests jamming in a rock groove, maybe try the following changes. Example 3.
|pickup notes||A minor||G major||F major||G major|
Common enough, I call them the "watchtower" changes. All of the chords are diatonic to A natural minor. So that scale would be a good choice. We could also soften the natural minor scale to the older minor pentatonic color. Example 3a.
A natural minor
A minor pentatonic
The pentatonic colors, both major and minor, provide groups of pitches that when applied to diatonic chord progressions rarely if ever sound off key, for they are at the very historical core of all our ancestral music. With no tritone in this group as compared to the major / natural minor scales, thus less of a chance to goof up.
Blues. Soloing over blues changes is unique in that so often the pitches used to create the melodies are a bit different than the ones used to create the chords. Really? You bet. Why? Well, in the notes of the basic blues scale, we don't have all the pitches we need to create even the three principle chords of the 12 bar blues, neither major or minor, let alone the variations. But after a century or so of doing it, no one seems to really complain about this theoretical abnormality of American blues. Adding in the blue colors to our line. Example 4.
|pickup notes||C 7||C 7||F 7||G 7|
Ah, the seventh chord tone emerges in the blues. Rockers use it also of course, we all do, but historically the blues came first. Also interesting is the idea that we so often use the same group of blues pitches for both the major and minor blues tonalities. Example 4a.
|pickup notes||C minor 7||C - 7||F - 7||G - 7|
Which do you prefer? The major or minor tonality? Exact same melody over two different tonalities, ok with this? Potentially this goes against some serious theoretical grains but obviously it is part of the blues magic. So your jammin with friends and you or someone suggests playing a 12 bar blues in A, what groups of pitches initially come to mind to create your melodic ideas? Initial, more diatonic type choices might include... Example 4b.
|A minor pentatonic||
|A minor blues||
|A natural minor||
All of these scales provide groups of pitches for creating cool blues ideas, each potentially providing different shades of the blue color. Can bluesy ideas work in the folk and rock idioms? Or better perhaps, can one get their bluesy ideas to "fit" into a folk or rock improvised solo? Being the core group of the American sounds, it stands to reason n'est pas? Anyway, maybe choose a different key for jamming than A minor? Simply transpose the pitches to any of the other 11 minor tonal centers.
Jazz players do it all, in all keys, styles and tempos. It is potentially the most complex of the American styles, not only oftentimes demanding some knowledge of the theory but some serious chops to actually play the music. Soloing over chord changes in jazz can range from playing a blues line over any chord changes to complex cycles of whatever melodic resource chosen over basic blues chords. Thanks to our American legends and the artistic path they blazed, sky's the limit, it's so very cool. A solid place to start the process of soloing over jazz chords is simply to define a parent scale of the chords used and create a melodic idea from those pitches, i.e., think diatonically. Here is the common jazz chord progression of Two / Five / One applied to our melody. Example 5.
|pickup notes||D - 7||G 7||C major 7||F maj 7|
All of the chords are diatonically created from the C major scale, so the pitches of C major become our parent scale. Easy enough eh?. What if the tune modulates? Well, will the same parent scale / chord theory apply. Example 5a.
|D - 7 G 7||C major 7||C - 7 F 7||Bb major 7|
The first two bars create a melody from the C major scale. The music modulates down a whole step with the same cycle of chords. What's the parent scale for these chords? Right, Bb major. What if the tune goes here. Example 5b.
|D - 7 G 7||C major 7||Ab - 7 Db 7||Gb major 7|
A rather distant modulation eh? Moving by the interval of a tritone this time, C to Gb? So, the first two bars remain in C major, creating a line from the C major scale yes? What is the parent scale of the last two bars of the above phrase? Same melody but in Gb major? Yep. Got this Gb major grouping of pitches under your fingers? Can you permutate the above idea in thirds for both keys? Can you arpeggiate all of the chords in the above idea? Can you double the tempo and still feel cool? Just a few of the potential challenges and tricks in the jazz players bag of licks.
Jazz tunes tend to use a few keys and various color tones to spice up common chord progressions. So not only is the music in one sense "multitonical", ( my term ? ) creating shifting parent scales to follow the modulations, but can also contain quite a wide assortment of non-diatonic tones, used to color the chords and melodic lines. So, while a diatonic / parent scale approach to creating melodic ideas provides a solid basis, not only does this parent scale shift to other tonal centers as the tune modulates, but non-diatonic tones are borrowed from additional keys on a regular basis, all within the tune. So how might one initially begin to decipher these challenges? Well, there are a couple of ways. Theory first? But of course.
Aspiring jazz players wanting to get a hanfle on the whole resource may want to simply begin by examining the 12 pitch chromatic color grouping of pitches, commonly referred to by all as the chromatic scale. By understanding the theory of it's interval configuration and how it loops within equal temper, the eventual projection of any idea from any pitch emerges. This ability becomes the key to understanding the whole of the jazz vocabulary, providing the resource from which the artist speaks.
The aspiring modern improviser of American jazz could simply begin by getting the pitches of the chromatic scale under their fingers on their chosen instrument. Once this group is solidly in place, recreate with your voice the sound your instrument makes and slowly articulate the scale, i.e., strive to develop the ability to sing a chromatic scale. Is this like sing the line, play the line? Well... yes of course, but when you try it you'll see perhaps that the chromatic group presents a potentailly rather unique challenge to the emerging jazz artist, a challenge that can push the evelope so to speak and rapidly expand one's aural awareness of the pitches. Pour moi, man did I ever struggle to get this sound deep down and sure in my soul, and come to think of it, haven't really had to look back since either though ...
From a theoretical perspective, are all of our scales and chords from equal temper created from the pitches of the chromatic scale? What about the blue notes? Other musical sounds, tones and pitches?
Suggestions for the emerging soloist.
First is to perhaps to simply play diatonically and embellish the melody of the song, we use the parent scale of that section of the tune to create our melodic ideas and shift to a new parent scale as the music dictates. Using these pitches we can usually stay pretty close to the melody of the tune and gradually lock in our ears to what tonality and creating lines involves. Second, we can begin to think about arpeggiating the chords that initially present problems in our musical lines. Third, we can view any chord as being in one of three chord families, basing this on their quality of third and seventh chord tones, helping us to create a parent scale for any chord. A more in depth knowledge of the families of chords helps us to begin to include altered or symmetrical scales as the harmony dictates. Fourth, to simply play a blues lick when all else fails, for in almost any style of American music, a cool blues line is rarely if ever out of place.
So where does one start this process? By playing tunes, reading transcribed solos, by playing the blues, getting the pitches of the important scales and chords of the music we want to create under our fingers, by listening to our musical hero's and singing along with their lines. Perhaps by simply singing the line we want to play, or imagine it in our minds ear so to speak, will allow each of us to bring forth the art in our hearts.
Review. So by creating a parent scale for a chord, we are provided with a group of pitches from which we can create consonant lines over that harmony? Would this same parent scale be cool with diatonic chord progressions that included that chord? For example, over say a C major 9 chord, could we easily create melodic ideas from the pitches of the C major scale? Thus, over a diatonic 2 / 5 / 1 chord progression in C major, is using C major as a parent scale is very common? Yep. But aren't these chords different from each other? Yep. Major and minor right? Yep. Is this where the concept of chord type can merge with the theory of soloing? I think so. Can we define chord type by interval? Is it the 3rd and 7th of the chord that determines it's chord type and quality?
Need some chord / scale pairings? Perhaps a scale syllabus?
Here we simply look at pairing various chords and groups of pitches commonly used for creating melodic ideas over them. Remember the idea of scale / arpeggio / chord?
|major chords / tonic type||major scales, modes.|
|minor chords / tonic type||minor scales, modes.|
|blues chords / dominant type||blues scale, major scale, Mixolydian mode.|
|half diminished||Locrian mode, major scale / natural minor scale.|
|fully diminished||diminished scale.|
|augmented chords||whole tone scale.|
|suspended 4th chords||major scale / natural minor scale.|
|altered chords||analyze the altered pitches and look for triads to build scales from.|
Is nearly all of our improvisations based in the pitches of the major / relative minor pairings? Yep, pretty much. How about blues players? Well then minor pentatonic and the blues colors. Rockers? Pretty much the same. Folk players? major minor / pentatonic colors. Jazz players? All of the above and then some? Absolutely! Click styles to explore these last styles / colors relationships.
|Where to next?|