~ improv ~

~ soloing through chord changes ~

~ hearing the chord changes in the line ~

' over the river or ... through the trees ... :) '

~ ~

In a nutshell. In creating theory discussions about Americana improv here in EMG, making the general distinction of improvising 'over or through' the chord changes of the song can simplify the learning. While we often combine the two, musical style usually determines between which of the two approaches is generally used. Towards the diatonic, folk side of our spectrum, we're usually thinking more 'over the changes.'

On the jazz horizon, almost by necessity of its advanced color tone harmonies and common use of modulation, we're thinking of improvising 'through the changes.' For there are generally just too many non-diatonic pitches in the written chord symbols to apply one diatonic scale over a song's chord progression. Not that it can't be done but there's just a lot of nuanced coolness with non-diatonic tones that might be missed.

Soloing through chord changes opens our artistic senses right up with just a wee bit of understanding of the structural theory of our musics; to spell out the letter names of the pitches of the chords of a song and string these pitches together over the song's form.

A new way forward. In October 1939, jazz saxophonist Coleman Hawkins recorded "Body and Soul", a pop song of that era. And in his version, once the melody is stated in the first 8 bar 'A' section, Mr Hawkins improvs the rest of the three minute track by improvising with arpeggios through the written chords of the song. Two full choruses complete the take.

Once this recording hit the shops and airwaves, players further considered the 'storyline' aspect of the composition and realized that the chord changes of the songs they were performing could provide a new framework for their improvised melodies. Things as they say ... 'haven't been the same since.' Within a few short years the 'race through the changes' was on and Bebop, among America's most advancing and difficult of the jazz arts, becomes the 'new thing' over the 1940's airwaves.

'Through the changes.' In improvising through the chord changes, we want to be able to hear the supporting chords in the single note melody lines we create. Many of our improvising instruments, such as the horns, cannot play chords like we guitarists can, so they rely on a solid reflection of a chord's pitches in the single notes they string together to create their improvisations.

The idea of 'through the changes' simply means we'll look at each chord as it comes along and see if there's not something a bit extra and unique in addition to its diatonic function within a key center of the song. A pitch or two that will better define the harmony of the moment that we can turn into something cool in our single note lines.

The core skill to thoroughly master here is to spell out the letter name pitches of the chords in the music you create. These we use to play 'correctly' through the chord. Termed an arpeggio, once the theory process is in place to spell our chords, we simply pay some dues and rote learn what we need. In doing so we create a solid resource to improv through the changes using arpeggios.

Combining both. Most of the improv we hear in any style really is a combination of these two approaches. For while great melodies have come from both ways exclusively, in a combined approach we simply get the best of both; a more horizontal scale shaped line with the more vertical shaped of the arpeggiated chords.

Once hip to the ideas in these discussions, start to take apart your own favorite melodies and don't be surprised if you find a combination of a scaler, linear shaped lines sounded 'over the changes' with intervals or arpeggios that take us exactly through the spelled out pitches of a supporting chord. Understanding and using the best of both together, so as to hear the changes in our improvised lines is our long term goal, one that will ever continue to evolve for those so inclined.

A rule of thumb; 'think from the root and never get lost.' The basis of through the changes is to think from the root pitch of whatever is happening harmonically at that point in the music. This works for both pathways. In creating lines 'over' the changes with a pentatonic and or diatonic color, the root pitch we're thinking from is usually the key of the music.

In improvising 'through' the changes, depending mostly on style, each new chord can present us with a new root pitch; which when all strung together creates the bass line for chord progression of the song. For example, in early rock n' roll 12 bar blues form tunes each of the three principle chords are arpeggiated in turn; we're playing through these chord changes amigos :)

If needed, learn this lick here and rote learn it in a couple of keys. It's the basis for some boogie woogie piano (left hand) and just a classical Americana bass line. For up and coming cats looking to gig, you'll get some pro mileage out of this arpeggiated, through the changes line. Its '1 3 5 7' core becomes the basis for tons more lines and it shares well with others in the band. Thinking 12 bar blues in G. Example 1a.

Again sorry but do learn this lick right here if you don't yet know it. For up and coming cats looking to gig, you'll get some mileage out of this, for it's the basis for tons more and it shares well with like minded others. Add the 'Muddy' walkdown and there's a lot you can potentially play on. Got the main blues 'box' scale under you fingers? Can you move it into position for the One, Four and Five chords? Tis an easy path in to getting started improvising, one that so many have traveled along.

Quick review. That 'through the changes' improv is based on spelling the pitches of the supporting chords, let's pause a moment and go through the spelling process. Basically we need all seven pitches of the diatonic scale to create the basics of functional harmony for improvising through the changes. The links to the right outline the basic evolutions into a fully functioning key center so to speak. Click off to explore if you see something of interest to review. Continue here for the basics of spelling our chords.

A parent scale evolves. We start the process by deciding the key of the music. 'C' major is our initial choice as we've no accidentals applied to the pitches. Examine the chart for the pitches of 'C' major through one octave. Example 1.

scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
C major scale
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
C

Evolving a scale into its arpeggio. The next step in spelling is to turn our stepwise scale pitches into its arpeggio. First we expand our scale into a full two octave span by simply skipping every other note and working our way through all of its pitches. This creates our chord tones. Example 2.

stepwise
arpeggio degrees
chord tones
arpeggio degrees
1
3
5
7
9
11
13
15
C major arpeggio
C
E
G
B
D
F
A
C

The arpeggio. The arpeggio is the 'chord scale' used by any instrument when they want to sound out the pitches of the chords in a song. As guitarists (and for piano players too) we can do both; sound out the arpeggios in succession to hear a chord or, stack up the pitches and sound them together as a chord. Here is the arpeggio and chord from the first scale degree of 'C.' Example 2a.

And that's the theory. In this last example we get the basics of soloing through a chord change. We sounded out the arpeggio pitches and then stacked them up and sounded them together as a chord. And three notes makes a triad yes? Exactly. We're spelling the triads on each of the seven scale degrees of a key center. To triads we add color tones and extend the arpeggios. Everything else we'll do here will follow along these basic theory guidelines. Too easy? Then rote learn all the changes through the 12 keys :) So in theory yes but in practice ... and depending and on circumstances, a wonderful challenge and then something more to make it art :)

A chord on each scale degree. As most songs use a couple of chords or more to support the melody, in getting our arms around all this we can expand our chart to spell out the seven diatonic chords of any given key center; we simply build a unique chord on each scale degree. These become the diatonic chords of our song's chord progression. This provides the gist of the chords for most of our music. Examine the letter names and sounds of our seven diatonic triads, One through Seven, in C major. Example 3.

scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
C major scale
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
C
arpeggio degrees
1
3
5
7
9
11
13
15
C major arpeggio
C
E
G
B
D
F
A
C
One
C
E
G
.
.
.
.
.
Two
D
F
A
.
.
.
.
.
Three
E
G
B
.
.
.
.
.
Four
F
A
C
.
.
.
.
.
Five
G
B
D
.
.
.
.
.
Six
A
C
E
.
.
.
.
.
Seven
B
D
F
.
.
.
.
.

It is from these seven triads that we make up our chord progressions. Depending on the style of music we're working in, we'll do any number of different things to best support our melody and create variety. These often include; adding the 7th, adding additional color tones, creating inversions of the triads, finding melodic ideas, arpeggios and chords that live in between these seven diatonic positions through chord substitution.

Hear the changes in the line. In this next idea we simply arpeggiate these seven chords in a new sequence. Can you 'hear the changes in the line?' Hint; it doesn't start on the One chord. Example 4.

Able to catch the progression by ear? The progression goes like this; Four, Three, Two, One, Four, Five, Six, Seven, One. Try again if needed. Hearing the changes, melodies, intervals and all of it falls under the academics of 'ear training.' It's a fair amount of the work involved as we develop as music theorists. 'Hearing the theory' of the pitches as a song moves along is a goal many pursue over the course of their careers.

The long view. Can I convincingly improvise a single note melody that clearly carries the progression of the harmony too? As the harmony evolves through styles and artistic evolutions, our degree of challenge evolves also. Add in brighter tempos and we're right back to busy and up to our elbows with stuff to shed and drive deeper into our rote and muscle memories. Many many love and cherish this unending artistic searching. Again, if there's a beginning secret understanding to unlocking this theory, it is learning how to spell out the letter names of the chords we have in our songs and then them find them on our guitars.

Inside / outside. A further distinction for improvising 'through' the chord changes is commonly termed 'inside and outside.' If we can't hear the chord changes in our improvised melodic lines, there's going to be issues. And when we 'side by side' two improvising artists, one right after another on the same chord progression, with one cat blowing 'inside' and through the changes while the other moves 'outside' of the changes, our emotional reaction to the music often changes dramatically, as the difference is often quite startling in its effect. Compare the two approaches. Two / Five / One in C major, first 'inside' then 'out.' Example 5.

Hear the difference? Concord versus discord? Sounds fine versus what is that noise ? :) Yea pretty much. And while there's surely places for both approaches, if we can evolve through from inside to outside and understand the process along the way, we'll have the best of both. The ability to play over or through the written chords to make harmonious music as well as the ability to 'take it out' of key when our muse or the music calls for crazy, sounds to portray the zaniness of it all.

A common start point. Improv in many Americana styles has the blues musics as part of its basis in theory, history and in performance. So we can use the blues and its pitches, chords, form and time to initiate and create a study strengthen this 'through the changes process.'

We couple this with gradually adding new chords into the 12 bar form, each new chord needing to be outlined in the single note line.

And while this heads us in a jazz direction mostly, it is a good way to begin shedding 'through the changes' for it puts us on familiar ground with a predictable form that creates our own ideas we can use on the bandstand.

Find a metronome, getting clicking on 2 and 4 and play through 12 bar blues. Thanks to all our heros over the decades, there's tons of subs to pepper in as the ears evolve and we learn more tunes with more changes.

This prescribed process was a shedding essential for jazz guitarist Emily Remler, who subbed out the metronome by using her foot tapping to create the 2 and 4. Not so easy a task as things start to get along :)

Jazz improv. Jazz improv covers the whole tamale of what the Americana musics have to offer. That we've a solid library of audio recordings and video films to enjoy and learn from that spans the range of creativity within the jazz stylings. From a soloing through the changes lens, in jazz we can energize a full exploration of what we can combine of the blues and the harmony that equal temper tuning provides. Combined together we really have the full palette for creating the Americana weave of aural colors. Add in the rhythms of the parade, now 'house', big 4, the 2 and 4 backbeat pulse of the blues and beyond and the '2 feel' of the samba dances, and we've a solid resource to express our ideas.

Historically, artist to artist mentoring and with various technologies, listening to music is the way in to all of this palette. With the simple process of repetition and rote learning to internalize the magics, (find one recorded song that totally turns you on and spin it for a month, memorizing each of the parts by your voice). Once there we grow an inner sound vocabulary to express our ideas in our musics. So jazz covers it all huh? It sure can. The whole tamale? Yep, the whole tamale :)

Even in theory; no limits. Beginning to see yet another 'endless pathway of unlimited exploratory coolness and challenge' for your music with the basics of soloing through chord changes? Cool, we've a few of these unlimited pathways to choose and pursue.

Soloing through chord changes opens our artistic senses right up with just a wee bit of understanding of the structural theory of our musics; spell out the letter names of the pitches of the chords of a song and string these pitches together over the song's form.

Many great improvisers started out as youngsters playing the melodies included in EMG. They come from the standard text that was used in the public schools during the last century. These melodies capture the Americana spirit we all cherish and strive to fulfill and share. So in learning these melodies, we tie right into our musical DNA. Once under our fingers we gain the color melodic colors for our improvisations.

There's also the pathway of dedication to the art and the time put in that all may follow, working to master the art of improvisation through this most basics of basics; sing the line, play the line. And this any of us might do with whatever ideas we come up with.

Handed down to us. The following picture is taken off the music stand of a good pal here in Alaska Eli Whitney. Early on in his career Eli had the opportunity to take lessons with Jackie McLean, who in his early days had spent time with many of bebop's finest including arpeggio king Charlie Parker, whom he subbed for on occasion. During a lesson he described his process of 'reading through the changes' as a way to improvise and spoke of how this was a common approach for many players of his generation and circle of musical friends. The penciled in words at the top of this chart are written in Mr. McLean's own hand. Sums it all right up nice :)

Review. Soloing through chord changes gives us an opportunity to improvise single note melody lines that aurally captures the emotional character and direction of the chords of a song. For most our styles; folk on through to pop, we're in a diatonic environment. And if we use the correct associated pentatonic group, we're really forever golden. Our responsibility mainly to find the melody of the song, riff on it and conjure up some mojo to get it all going on as a soloist leading the group.

For as my buddy Stu once remarked, 'in the songs I play there's really only a couple of choices where the chords can go Joe.' This in reference to his soloing in mostly diatonically created musics; country swing, the blues and rock stylings. Soloing over the changes. Even so, when listening to Stu working the magic, chances are good he'll somehow nick 'extra' pitches along the way, an opportunity to expand by working 'through the change.'

Through the changes becomes more of a necessity in jazz for tempos accelerate, there are more chords altered from their diatonic basis, there are chord cycles within progressions diatonic to other keys and the complete changing keys or modulation is very very common. In these sorts of challenges, arpeggiating a chord's pitches wins the day to hear the chords in our improvised melodic lines. The theory basis of this is developing the ability to spell any chord in relation to its own key center and its parent scale or mode.

The eventual rote memorization of these components and fingerboard shapes gradually become assimilated through shedding. We theorists can explore the idea of 'chord type', which allows us to create three 'categories of chords' that facilitate the learning process. That any chord in our lexicon can be one of three 'types' can truly reduce the amount of shedding dramatically.

Here in Essentials, learning melodies is the key to our improv as we can discover all of our music theory in an already completed artistic form. We can extract any bit of melody coolness and run it through near endless theory sequences or 'filters' that potentially expand any motif into complete works of art. That in listening to accomplished soloists we often hear just that; a continuous stream of melody created from bits and pieces of other written melodies. This is also one part of the reasoning that encourages jazz artists to learn songs in a couple of keys, if not all twelve, creating a 'database' of ideas or as termed in the old days, a 'bag of licks.'

The blues can be a sure fire way into developing strength for soloing through the changes for the evolving guitarist. With its solid 12 bar form and three four bar phrases, over the last century or so nearly every nook and cranny has been explored. Thus today we inherit a solid library of chord substitutions that make good sense when located within the form. Once a chord substitution is established in the blues, we'll find other working spots for these ideas in other forms, songs and styles of music.

"It always seems impossible until it's done."
wiki ~ Nelson Mandela

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.