Learning to use three-note approach patterns

As we continue to build a repertoire of musical information to explore while we’re soloing, my experience has been that there are few things as useful as approach patterns. What is an approach pattern? It’s a three-note “approach” to a note that is so versatile, it can function as a sort of “glue” that stitches two different ideas together, or a “hinge” that lets you send your improvised line in a different direction. You can even spin a solo using nothing but them alone. You’ll recognize approach patterns as a huge part of the vocabulary of improvised music, but you may never have isolated them into something you could actually practice. Let’s take a closer look at them in use!

1. Approach Pattern Basics

Ex. 1 illustrates four types of approach patterns. They are (1) double-chromatic from above to chromatic from below, (2) double-chromatic from below to chromatic from above (or scale tone from above), (3) chromatic (or scale tone) from above to double-chromatic from below, and (4) chromatic from below to double-chromatic from above.

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2. Patterns in Action

Let’s use approach patterns to get to a chord tone that’s “on the beat.” Remember that approach patterns are always “pick-ups” in that they start off the beat (on the “and” or “e” of the count), and land on the beat, either on the quarter-note or the eighth-note. Ex. 2 starts with our first approach pattern and approaches all of the chord tones of a Cmin7 chord in this manner. The notes we’re approaching (chord tones) are on beats 1 and 3 in this example.

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3. Connecting the Dots

Ex. 3 illustrates a solo line connected with approach patterns over a ii-V-I chord progression. Approach patterns (shown in red) are most useful when functioning as “connective tissue” between other techniques like arpeggiated triads and eight-note bop scales. Notice that the approach pattern works as a sort of “pivot point” in the line and gives us a whole array of shapes that aren’t scales or arpeggios. It can also get us to a chord tone on the beat, syncing us up with either the chord we’re landing on or with something we’re substituting on top of that chord. The chromatic action of the approach pattern also gives us a very strong sense of resolution, and since it often puts a chromatic resolution on the beat before the target beat, it has a built-in tension-resolution action to it that’s very satisfying in the middle of a line.

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4. Nothin’ but Approach Patterns

Ex. 4 illustrates improvised lines created solely from approach patterns. If you mix the different patterns up in the line and approach different notes of the chords, a huge variety of great sounding lines with interesting contours can be created. Note that I sometimes “drop” the third note of the approach pattern by playing it softer, a technique I picked up from great improvisers like McCoy Tyner, Michael Brecker, and Freddie Hubbard. It’s a nice way to put little “breaths” in the middle of your lines.

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5. Combining Techniques

Ex. 5 features several different techniques over a Cmin7 chord, all connected together with approach patterns. Notice how the approach patterns (again shown in red) can be used to get us out of anywhere “outside” of the tonality we might go. Just approach a chord tone with one and you’re immediately back “inside.”

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Practice Tip

“Getting these little three-note approach patterns under your fingers will be a huge addition to your improvisational toolkit. Try practicing them one at a time by approaching the notes of every chord you can think of and then try alternating between them,” says George Whitty, who has performed with David Sanborn, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, and the Brecker Brothers. Whitty is also jazz piano instructor at Artistworks.com. His latest release by his group Third Rail is entitled Ignition: Live Across Europe. For more info visit gwhittty.com.