Improvising with Triads (Arpeggios)

When we think about improvising in jazz we most often think about more notes, bigger arpeggios and more complicated scales as the road to playing more intricate and exciting solos. It’s true that 9ths, 13ths and all manner of complicated extensions do add beautiful colours to our solos. In this post, I’d like to point you to an easier route to achieve this goal. We will explore how simple 3 note triads can be used to create beautiful lush textures in our improvised solos.

So how does this work? Let’s start with some simple examples. First off, we will examine a couple of 4 note 7th chords and look at them in a different way. What if we visualize them as slash chords. What is a Cmaj7 chord? Cmaj7 has 4 notes; root, major 3rd, 5th and major 7th. Some will also say that a Cmaj7 is a C major triad with a major 7th. All true.

What if we look at Cmaj7 the other way. What if we say that a Cmaj7 chord is an Em triad with a C in the bass?

We can do the same for a Dm7 chord.

Visualizing our chords in this way gives us a new tool to improvise with. Instead of thinking of a Dm7 arpeggio or a D Dorian mode, we can think of playing a simple F triad over a Dm7 chord. This is perfect as we avoid playing the root. The bass player has the root covered so that leaves us to everything else.

Next let’s look at some 9th chords. What if we take the top 3 notes of a 9th chord and see what kind of triads we end up with. Let’s look at Dm9.

If we use an Am triad to improvise over a Dm9 chord, the triad will give us the 5th, 7th and 9th of the Dm9 chord.

For the Dm7 chord, I’ve used only an Am triad.

Now we will go one step further. Lets look at G7(sus4). In this chord we have  the root, 4th, 5th, flatted 7th and 9th. Remember that we are using the 4th to replace the 3rd and not adding the 11th on top with the 3rd still present. We will however visualize our chord as having an 11 (no 3rd) for the purpose of creating our triad. In other words, we will use the 7th, 9th and 11th. We end up with an F major triad.

A nice way to incorporate the F triad into a nice improvised line is to combine it with a G triad. In the example below I am using F and G triads to create a line.

Bars 1 and 2 are G triad to F triad, 2 beats each while bars 3 and 4 do the opposite: G triad for 2 beats followed by F triad for 2 beats.

The same 2 triads also work very well over an F Lydian mode. Our chord is Fmaj7(#11).

Triads often make up the upper extensions of more complax chords as in the example below.

If we take the 3rd, b9 and the 13th, respell enharmonically the Ab as a G# we end up with an E triad. In the example below, I’ve used an E triad over the G7 chord.

Here we have only looked at a few possible ideas for improvising with Triads. There are many other possible triads to explore. Your next step would be to look at the chords to one of the songs you are working on and experiment with some of the possible triads contained within the chords. Look especially at chords with lots of extensions and try to see what kinds of Triads each contains.

As always, have fun and be creative with your practice!


Autumn Thieves (Stealing from the melody)

In the words of the great Igor Stravinsky: “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.” As I’m sure you don’t want to be a “lesser artist” but a great artist, we’re going to learn how to steal. What are we stealing?

When it’s your turn to improvise you need a place to start. If you are going to take your solo right after the sax player, you want to take the last idea she or he played and work that into your solo. If you are the first soloist, you’ll be playing right after the head so you want to take your cue from the melody. We are stealing musical ideas, licks, melody, rhythms or whatever we can from whomever is playing before us or even from the melody. It’s always nice when one solo blends into the next and the spirit of one solo is passed on to the next solo.

In this post, we are going to look at how we can use elements of the melody to craft a solo. We will be looking at “Autumn Leaves” as this is a very well known tune. It also has many strong melodic motives which can easily be worked into new ideas. So the idea is to take one of the motivic ideas from the melody and use it as a starting point for your solo.

If you plan on taking more than one chorus of solo, you need to have a plan as to how you will begin your solo, what you will play in the middle and how you will conclude. It’s not the best idea to just play 3 choruses of Bebop lines. You want to have some variety, a sense that you are on a journey and a feeling that your solo is part of the overall structure of the piece. I’ve always felt that you should not just be soloing but rather playing a specific piece of music. Apart from having different chord progressions, what make one tune different from another. Whatever standard you are playing, use ideas from the melody in your solo. Play that piece.

Here is the beginning of the melody to Autumn Leaves.

And since I play jazz I would probably play the melody more like this.

Here is what I played to start my solo. Can you hear how I’ve referenced the melody?

For the entire chorus of the solo, I’ve tried to develop the “borrowed” musical idea. Sometimes it is more obvious than others. This is good. I like to start with something familiar and see where it takes me. Just like in composition, the goal is to use melodic techniques such as the sequence and melodic inversion to name a few, to develop your improvisational ideas.

The solo below would be played as the first chorus of the first soloist. In other words, we are coming out of the head (melody) and so the solo will build on what we hear last and go from there. For a second chorus of solo, I would probably start to play more lines or perhaps play something more rhythmic. Either way, after a chorus of building on ideas from the melody, I think it is time to change direction.

Have a listen to the track below and as always, feel free to use (steal!) what you like.

  • Dave Watts: bass
  • Claude Lavergne: drums
  • Michael Berard: guitar, piano

Harmonic Minor

Improvising over songs that have a lot of chord progressions in minor is always so much fun. The thing I like most about playing tunes with a lot of progressions in minor is that you get to play harmonic and melodic minor scales. Both scales are very colourful. Minor is never dark. Minor is full of the some of the most beautiful musical possibilities available.

In this post, I’d like to look at the “Harmonic Minor” scale. There are a couple of ways one might visualize this scale.

  1. We can visualize the scale as being a natural minor scale with a raised 7th degree.
  2. Another way to visualize harmonic minor is to compare it to the major scale. I like to compare every scale and mode to the major scale. We all know the major scale well so comparing the notes of any mode or scale to the major scale will usually give us a pretty good idea what’s going on. The harmonic minor scale is then a major scale with a flatted 3rd and 6th.

A great standard with lots of minor progressions is “Alone Together.” In this post, I have included a solo over the chord changes to Alone Together and so to make our examples relevant, we will look at harmonic minor scales in D as the song is in D minor.

D Harmonic Minor Scale

Obviously it is possible to play the D harmonic minor scale over a Dm chord but that is not the most interesting and colourful way to use the scale. D harmonic minor is most often played over the IIm7(b5) – V7(b9) chords or the “minor two-five.”

Let’s look at D harmonic minor from E to E. If we look at the R, 3rd, 5th and 7th of the scale, and compare these notes to the chord tones of the IIm7(b5) chord, we see we have all the notes we need.

Now let’s spell our D harmonic minor scale from A to A for the V7 chord. I’ve used “alt” for a very specific reason. We’ll see why in a minute. First, look at the R, 3rd, 5th and 7th of the scale to make sure we have all the notes we need to spell our A7 chord. We have A, C# E and G notes so we are good.

At the beginning of the post I mentioned that harmonic minor was a colourful scale. If we look at the passing tones between our chord tones we see some very interesting notes. We have a b9, sus4 and a b13. The reason one would notate a 7th chord with the “alt” extension is to give the player the flexibility to chose the extensions she or he wants to play in their chord voicings. You can play a simple A7(b9) or an A7(b13) or some combination of b9 and sus4 or any other combination of the 3 possible extensions.

In terms of soloing, harmonic minor is going to allow you to play all of those beautiful passing tones over the dominant chords.

As always, (and this is quickly becoming my way of demonstrating the sound of whatever is being discussed) I’ve included a written solo over the chords to “Alone Together.” I’ve used harmonic minor as often as possible over IIm7(b5) and V7.

Listen to the recording, check out the lines I’ve played and feel free to use as much of it as you like in your own solos.

7th scales (Dom7 and Half-Diminished Chords)

Seventh scales (7th Scales) are basically descending mixolydian modes with added notes. The most common way of playing a 7th scales is to add the major 7th between the root and the flatted 7th scale degrees.

Adding this one notes gives you an 8 note scale which is important because it allows you, in this case, to start and end on the same note. This of course assumes you are playing 8th notes in a Bebop style.

As an example, let’s say we are playing a “C” 7th scale over a C7 chord and we are resolving to Fmaj7. If we are playing 8th notes and starting on the first beat of the bar we will end on the same note we start on. We start on a “C” note which means we will also end on a “C.” This is important because it allows us to end on the 5th of the Fmaj7 chord.

Now of course this is not all there is to 7th scales. It is possible to start on any note of the scale. Depending on which note we start on, chromatic notes are added in a way which ensures you will resolve nicely to your next chord. I will not go into every example in this post but will stick to just 2 examples for now. The first will be as described above and the second is as follows: Starting on the 3rd of the chord we will add chromatic notes between the 3rd and 2nd degrees, between the 2nd degree and the root of the chord and between the root of the chord and the flatted 7th degree. More information is also available in my book “Jazz Guitar Elements.”

A “C” 7th Scale (C Mixolydian with added note) is played over a C7 chord.

Next, let’s look at how we can use 7th scales over Half-Diminished chords. The first thing you should do is look at my post on “Chord Substitution.” In this post, we saw how a G9 chord with no root is the same as a Bm7(b5). If these 2 chords are in fact the same, then it stands to reason we can play a “G” 7th scale over a Bm7(b5) chord.

Here is an example of a “G” 7th scale used over a Bm7(b5) chord in a II – V – I chord progression in A minor.

Next let’s look at a standard. Below is a solo on the chord changes to “Stella By Starlight.” I’ve used 7th scales over some of the Dom7 and m7(b5) chords. At times I’ve used the entire scale and sometimes just fragments of the scale. (As in the first couple of notes only) Take a look and listen at how I’ve used 7th scales on both chord types. (Audio track is at the bottom of the post)

  • John Roney:piano
  • Dave Watts: bass
  • Claude Lavergne: drums
  • Michael Berard: guitar

Starting Lines (Early and Late)

In our last lesson, Improvising with Arpeggios (Bebop), we looked at using arpeggios to create lines in a Bebop style. All of our lines started on the beat of bar 1. When we play lines, we want to be more casual. To achieve this, start the line before the first beat of the bar or start the line late. Let’s look at different ways we can start our phrases before the bar and at ways to start our lines late.

To start the line early, the easiest approach is to use a pickup note. Let’s look at one of the lines from our previous lesson and add a pickup note before the line.

Adding just one note like this makes the line feel more natural and relaxed, more like a jazz line should. Let’s add a few more notes. In this example, we will use neighbour tones. Neighbour tones are the notes before and after our target note. In this case it would be the first note of our arpeggio. (F)

Let’s add a full 2 beats. Here I’ve used both diatonic and chromatic neighbour tones. (More on that in a later lesson.)

Next, let’s start the line late. We will add an 8th note rest and make up for the missing note by using a triplet.

Now let’s make the first beat of the line a rest and use 16th notes.

Starting lines before and after the beat helps to make your improvised lines sound more spontaneous and musical. In jazz, this is a must. When you are learning or creating new lines, you probably want to start by playing the lines from beat one. This allows you to more effectively understand what you are playing and how it will sound over the chords. Once you are comfortable playing the lines in this more strict form, work on starting the lines early and/or late to make them sound more musical and true to the jazz style.

Improv Lesson 3 (Targeting 3rds)

In this lesson, we will look at soloing in a Bebop style using a technique I call “targeting 3rds.” This technique will help make your soloing sound like you are always right on the changes. The most important aspect of soloing on standards and Bebop tunes is to sound like you are playing on the chord changes and not just wandering around the modes. An important characteristic of a great Bebop solo is that you can hear the chord changes in the soloing even when no one is comping.

The way to achieve this is to always make the first note of a new chord change one of the chord tones. Making the 3rd of the chord the first note you play for each new chord is one of the strongest ways to express the sound of the chord.

The first step is to practice playing only the third of each chord for either a standard or Bebop tune. As an example, let’s look at how we can apply this to the standard “Lady Bird.”

Continue reading “Improv Lesson 3 (Targeting 3rds)”

Improv Lesson 2 (BeBop)

Green Dolphin Street is one of my favorite types of standards to improvise on. It mixes modal progressions with Bebop. Take a look at the chart below. The “A” sections will be played using a modal technique and “B” and “B1” will be played in a Bebop style.

Let’s start with the “A” sections. For this modal section, we will use a technique called “Common Tone Approach.” This is a great tune to demonstrate this technique because we have a “C” pedal tone through most of the “A” section. As the name suggests, we will use a common tone to help us generate the modes we need to improvise. In other words, all of our modes will use the “C” note as their roots. Let’s begin. Continue reading “Improv Lesson 2 (BeBop)”

Improv Lesson 1 (Modal Jazz)

Let’s take a look at a simple modal composition. We will concentrate on: finding the scales we need, mapping them out on the fingerboard and working them into a solo.

First, look at the leadsheet below and listen to the recorded example to get a basic feel for the tune.


Continue reading “Improv Lesson 1 (Modal Jazz)”