Often times, we find ourselves playing blues or pentatonic-based scales and licks in situations that really call for jazz tonalities. Sometimes, this is due to what music we grew up listening to and practicing, but it’s also because blues lines are generally easier to hear, sing, and physically execute. If you find yourself in this situation—playing blues-type changes because they’re “what your hands want to do” and wondering where your favorite jazz players are getting those crazy notes from in their solos—then read on. To help speed your progress, make sure to both play and sing the following exercises in all 12 keys. Soon, you’ll hear a jazz player at work and know his or her secrets!
This lesson is dedicated to the memory of Charlie Banacos.
1. The Comfort Zone
Ex. 1 is our old standby the blues scale. It can be a valuable tool, and is especially suited for soloing over rock chord progressions. However, it shouldn’t be the only sound at your command. Remember that omitting the raised fourth in the blues scale gives us a pentatonic scale, another useful sound on our improvisational palette.
2. Two Approaches to Improvisation
Let’s look at two types of improvisation that will help expand your musical vocabulary beyond the blues scale. Ex. 2a illustrates what I call “key center” improvisation, where melodic lines are constructed with the focus on a particular key center (using modes or scales).
Ex. 2b shows what I call “making the changes,” where melodic lines are built by outlining the chord changes as they occur. Both of these styles of improvisation should be practiced and added to your playing to expand your musical language. The goal is to be able to weave in and out of both of these types of improvisation effortlessly.
3. Get Tones from Chords
How do you do this? You need to establish a reservoir of notes to draw from, and one of the most abundant sources is our old friend the dominant seventh chord, hence Ex. 3. Chord tones are notes derived from the root, third, fifth, seventh, and sometimes the sixth of a given chord. Tensions are notes that add color or enrich a basic chord sound, (often the ninth, 11th, and 13th). Passing tones are scale tones that connect two adjacent chord tones—often the second, fourth, and sixth. Approach tones are generally weak tones that approach stronger chord tones, the most common being a half-step below or the next scale tone above the destination note. Try adding these new tones to your improvised lines. You’ll be amazed at how they expand your musical range.
4. Major and Minor Options
Chord, tension, passing, and approach tones are also available when building melodic lines over major and minor chords. Ex. 4a illustrates some of the available note choices when improvising over a C major seventh chord.
Note choices available for a C minor seventh chord are shown in Ex. 4b.
5. Half-Diminished and Diminished Options
Half- and fully-diminished chords are also emboldened by this new reservoir of available tones. Ex. 5a illustrates some of the notes available when building an improvised line over a Cmin7b5 (or halfdiminished) chord.
The notes available on a C diminished seventh chord are shown in Ex. 5b.
John Novello is a world-renowned keyboardist, composer, and music educator. He is the co-founder and Hammond B-3 player of legendary fusion trio Niacin, featuring Billy Sheehan on bass and Dennis Chambers on drums. His keyboard instruction method, The Contemporary Keyboardist (published by Hal Leonard) is considered the bible of modern keyboard instruction. Find out more at jazzkeyboardlessons.com.