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All the notes

So now you have all the notes in the scale. Or do you?

Well, you do if we’re talking about the seven-note, diatonic major scale. But you don’t have all the notes if you’re talking about the chromatic scale. That takes five more notes, and you should be asking yourself, “Can I use those when I’m improvising, too?”

The answer is yes. But you have to be careful because they all sit a half-step away from a chord tone. Here they are:

Db  D  D#  E  F  Gb  G  G#  A  Bb  B

    b9        #9          b5        #5       b7

These notes are most often used on the dominant 7th chord, which accepts the tension of these notes more readily than do the minor7 and major7 chords. But if you use them wisely, you can use them anywhere.

Using tension    

Since these notes are a half-step away from chord tones, the obvious strategy when using them is to resolve them to the chord tone. But there are other things you can do that might be more interesting.

Here’s an example of a phrase played over a G7 chord. The altered tones are Ab (b9), Bb (#9), Db (b5), and D# (#5). The phrase here doesn’t use the D#.

This is an example of using these tones to create arpeggios that are outside of the key, creating a sense of movement that disguises to some extent the dissonance of these notes.

Arpeggios are things that humans have been hearing for centuries. They’re in our DNA (figuratively speaking). They’re so familiar that you can put them in weird contexts and, while they might sound strange, they don’t sound completely out of place.

The three arpeggios in the above phrase are relatively normal. The Gmin arpeggio has the root and the fifth of the G7 chord, and a #9 sandwiched between them. This just winds up sounding a bit bluesy. The Bbmaj arpeggio has the fifth and the seventh of the G7 along with that #9 – a bit more tension, but not much.

You can also think of the combined notes of the Gmin and the Bb arpeggios (G, Bb, D, F) in this example as a Gmin7 chord. I’m presenting them like this to demonstrate two different strategies.

The Amaj arpeggio is the most dissonant/interesting with the 9, the b5, and the 13 of the G7 chord: two extensions and chromatic note, no chord tones.


Create a list of triad arpeggios using the b9, #9, b5, and #5 of the G7 chord. Then try using them  in some improvisations. Just make a G7 backing track and practice using the arpeggios you create by inserting them into scalar passages, remembering to resolve the arpeggios to diatonic notes.

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Extensions – 9, 11, 13

“Extensions” is the name given to the other notes – the non-chord-tones – in any scale. Here are the chord-tones and non-chord-tones in a C major 7 chord. Notice that you wind up with a C major scale.

C          D          E          F          G         A          B

They’re called extensions because, as you build the chord up in thirds from the root, they extend into the next octave. In that octave, they’re called the 9, 11, and 13. Within the octave, they’re called the 2, the 4, and 6.

C(1)   D   E(3)   F   G(5)  A    B(7)  C   D(9)  E    F(11)   G    A(13)     

In order to get a feel for how these notes sound, do the same thing that you did for the chord tones a few posts ago:

  1. Loop a single chord. Use a Cmaj7 chord for simplicity.
  2. Play the 9th and nothing but the 9th while the chord plays. Really figure out how that note makes you feel. Play it with the same articulation for a while (soft, hard, staccato, etc.). Then vary the articulation. Don’t vary the rhythm. Keep asking how it makes you feel. Don’t worry about coming up with an answer. The point is to feel, not explain.
  3. Do the same thing with the other extensions – the 11 and 13.
  4. Improvise using only two extensions. Your choices are 9 and 11; 9 and 13; 11 and 13. Play around with each pair.
  5. Use all three extensions in the same manner.
  6. Use every note in the scale.

If this feels tedious, remember you’re laying the groundwork, really getting to know how every note makes you feel. You can ignore all this, but you won’t feel what you’re doing as deeply.

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Learning the guitar neck with licks

Learning the neck

Here it is:

Keep it in mind as we take a look at that Louis Armstrong solo again.

What’s the first thing you see in the first bar?

Nothing but C major chord tones. But where are those notes on the guitar? This is the crucial part. If you study the diagram above, you’ll find four practical locations to play it.

  1. Open position using an open E string to start.
  2. Fifth position starting with the E on the B string.
  3. Ninth position starting with the E on the G string.
  4. Fourteenth position starting with the E on the D string.

Finding the notes in all the positions might take a little while. Be patient. It’ll be worth it.

Play the lick in all of these positions, saying the names of the notes out loud as you do. Move randomly between positions, and see if you can play in each position five times.

Do this every day for a week, and you’ll know where the four pitches in this lick are in all the practical positions on the guitar. You’ll also have a lick that you can use in a number of different places. Don’t like the lick? Find one you do, or better yet, invent one. Don’t make it longer than four pitches; you want to make it easy to learn where the notes are.

Then learn two more four-note licks. Each of these three licks should have their own unique set of notes, different than the other two. Do this and you’ll cover all twelve pitches. Don’t worry about making licks that only use chord tones. Just make sure all twelve pitches are represented in the three licks.

Learn each one in two different octaves, and you’ll have covered most, if not all of the guitar. Give each lick in both octaves a week, and in six weeks, you’ll have a reasonably solid knowledge of the fretboard. And you’ll have six licks you can use in your improvising. Six weeks is nothing in the scope of things.

Then just keep learning new licks, and your knowledge will get stronger and stronger.

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