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I should say, before I go any further, that my intent with these posts is to emphasize the depth of relationships between notes and notes, and between notes and you. That’s implied in the last post, but as strongly as I would have liked.

Music is not just about making cool sounds. That definitely happens, but it’s much more than that. Really paying attention to the sounds you make, and how they make you feel, is the first step in establishing your own, unique voice.

Ok. So on to today’s post…

Chord tones vs. arpeggios

If you wanted to answer the question of who first started soloing over jazz changes first, good luck. Who did it best is a bit easier, and most people would say Louis Armstrong. So how did he approach things?

If you look at the first 12 bars of his solo on Basin Street Blues, you’ll find a lot of chord tones, arpeggios, and chromatic neighbor and passing tones. Scales don’t dominate the picture, and this emphasis on chord tones and chromatic movement give his work drive, direction,  and coherence.

There are exceptions of course, but look at almost any jazz solo and you’ll find chord tones all over the place. They give cover for creating tension by providing places to resolve whatever tension you may have set up.

Knowledge of chord tones give you solid control over what you’re doing. A lot of people enter the world of chord tones by learning all their arpeggios, but you don’t need to learn all your arpeggios to know your chord tones.

You just need to know the note-name of every fret on the neck of the guitar (at least up to the 12th fret). Then you need to know what the chord tones are in any chord you encounter. Then, as you move through different chord charts, chord tones light up on the frets, alerting you to safe harbor.

No matter what trouble you’ve gotten yourself in, you can get out of it by landing on a chord tone. This creates a lot of confidence.

Arpeggios give you shapes. The guitar is really good at shapes, so it makes it easy to just memorize arpeggios without looking at the guts of things, without getting to really know your instrument.

Knowledge of the neck combined with knowledge of chord theory gives you freedom and confidence that simply knowing shapes doesn’t.  It’s work, and it takes time, but it’s worth it.

And once you got that in place, go ahead and learn your arpeggios. They’ll mean more.

In the next post, I’ll present a way to learn the neck through the use of licks.

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Chord tones

There’s an old saying in jazz: “Someone made a mistake, and jazz was born.” That mistake led to a discovery, which led to questions about freedom and creativity, about form and content. Space was made for invention. Freedom to embellish became a thing. All from accepting a mistake and exploring it instead of running away from it (“Don’t fear mistakes. There aren’t any” – Miles Davis).

The easiest (safest?) way to embellish – at least in terms of note choice – is to use the notes of the chord that you’re playing on. They never sound bad. And more importantly, each one has a specific emotional effect. The root of the chord, for instance, has a different level of tension – a different colour – than the 3rd,  the 5th, or the 7th.

Getting the feel of these colours in your ear and in your body is essential if you want to be as good as you can be improvising over jazz changes.

That being the case, your job is to figure out how each chord tone makes you feel. Try this:

  1. Loop a single chord. Use a Cmaj7 chord for simplicity.
  2. Play the root and nothing but the root 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 chord tones.
  4. Improvise using only two chord tones. Your choices are 1 and 5; 1 and 3; 1 and 7; 3 and 5; 3 and 7, 5 and 7. Play with each pair.
  5. Use three chord tones in the same manner – 1, 3, 5; 1, 3, 7; 1, 5, 7; 3, 5, 7.
  6. Use all four chord tones.

If you do all this, you should have a decent idea of how each chord tone makes you feel, and how the relationships between chord tones makes you feel. This is incredibly important.

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