Shell Voicings

I remember when I started playing jazz it took me forever to find chords. I felt like there were a million possible chords and I would never learn them all. But as it turns out, as with most things in life, there are a few simple principles that, when applied carefully, can make finding chords a lot easier. Today I want to look at what I call shell voicings. I call them shell voicings because that’s what my teacher, Chris Buzzelli, called them. I bet you can find some cool diagrams over on his web site! Shell voicings are constructed with the Root of the chord on the 5th or 6th string and the 3rd (minor, major, or sus4) and 7th (minor, major, or 6) on the middle two strings. These are simple chords, but they are designed so that you can add color tones such as 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths to them easily. We’ll look at that in a later post.

The first thing you must be able to do to get to these chords quickly is to be able to find the root of any chord on the 6th or 5th string. I suggest that you try to stay between the 3rd and 10th fret, and when moving to a new chord, change strings rather than jumping up and down on one string. For example, in the tune attached (All the Things You Are), the first chord is Fmi7. You can find an F on the 5th string at the 8th fret. Each subsequent chord moves up a fourth, and if you keep changing strings, you’ll find a Bb on the 6th string, an Eb on the 5th, an Ab on the 6th, and so on. Remember to only use the bottom two strings to find the roots. This is just like finding power chords, kids! You should be able to pick any (and I do mean any) song and find all of the roots between the 3rd and 10th frets on the bottom two strings.

You may have noticed that chords often move by 4th, and that following this alternating string idea moves you down the neck of the instrument. As a result, once in a while you will need to make a jump up the neck. In the example I wrote out, I put the jumps in places where I felt they made sense, such as when a new phrase or section was beginning. But in actual practice you will learn for yourself where you need or want to jump up, and ultimately you may learn other strategies and concepts for voice leading so that you don’t have to jump up. Shell voicings are just one of many approaches to chord voicings.

Now, if you have taken some time to be sure that you really can find roots of chords on your bottom two strings, let’s add the 3rds and 7ths. You may want to refer to the example here. When the root of the chord is on the 5th string, the third of the chord will be on the 4th string, and the seventh will be on the 3rd string. So, if you look at measure two you will see an F on the bottom, an Ab in the middle, and an Eb on top. When the root of the chord is on the low E string, the third and seventh switch positions so that the third is on top (on the 3rd string) and the 7th is in the middle (on the 4th string). This results in nice, simple voice leading in the top two voices. If you look at measures 1-8, you will see that no voice moves more than a step.

It’s a good idea to memorize the following shapes – Maj7, 7, 6, mi(M7), mi7, mi6, 7sus4. Remember that there are two ways to play each shape. Check out this list of each chord in C. Once you have memorized these shapes you may notice a few things. The first is that if you leave out the root (which you should definitely do when playing with a bassist), the only intervals you have to deal with (besides the mi(M7) chord) are fourths, fifths, and tritones. That’s because the interval between the 3rd and 7th of a chord is always either a perfect fifth (Maj7 or mi7), a tritone (7, mi6), or a fourth (6, 7sus4). And since the instrument is tuned in fourths, these shapes are really easy to play. The hard part is not playing them, it’s finding them without the root. The second thing you might notice is that there is no diminished chord listed. That’s because these chords have no 5th. The mi6 voicing serves as a diminished chord. A third thing that you might notice is that you can get better voice leading in the bass by alternating between the root and the fifth. You might want to try this approach if you think you will be doing a lot of traditional rhythm jazz guitar. Just always use the 6th string, so that your voicings are either R, 7, 3 (low to high) or 5, 3, 7.

When practicing these chords, please take the following steps. First find the roots for the chords of a few tunes on the bottom two strings. Next learn to play all the chords in the tunes with three note shell voicings using the best possible voice leading. Last, remove the roots. You’ll be playing simple shapes on the middle two strings but you will be defining each chord well. These small voicings will expand to create some very cool, colorful voicings. And yes, these chords also work on the piano. Good luck! And use your new chord skills to play music that resists the coming totalitarian nightmare. Don’t play cool jazz for uncool fascists.


Let’s Keep it Possible – Writing for Guitar

I wrote a little treatise on how to write for guitar. I’m often given music that is not possible to play on the instrument, and I realize that this is because there are many people who want to write for guitar but are not sure how the guitar works. Rather than complain and curse these well meaning composers and arrangers, I decided to offer some assistance. Am I qualified? Yes. I’ve been playing and reading for a long time now and I am definitely an above average reader and player. Am I the ultimate authority on what you can write for guitar? Hell no. That person is too busy and didn’t have time to write anything, so you’re stuck with my ideas instead. Enjoy!

Notice Moment’s Notice

Check out this Transcription of John Coltrane’s solo on his composition, “Moment’s Notice”. This is a great tune. The melody is very singable and the chord changes, while difficult, make sense. I’ve loved this tune for years but never really learned it well.

Looking at the solo, the first thing that strikes me is how often ‘Trane will use the same melodic material with slight variations. It’s clear that he has worked out some basic ideas for these changes. The second thing I noticed is an increasing use of the sharp five on dominant chords as the solo progresses. This is nearly always part of a descending arpeggio and happens at mm 21 (Bb7), 29 (Eb7), 33 (Bb7), 43 (Bb7 – not part of a descending arpeggio), 57 (Bb7, though he actually starts on an A natural here. Also, not resolving to I), 63 (Ab7), 85 (Ab7), 95 (Bb7, not resolving to I), 98 (Bb7 – he plays the arpeggio after the chord has already resolved to I and follows up with a lick that he also plays a few times earlier in his solo. That lick is also two beats later. Compare mm 21-22, 81-82, and 97-99.), 101 (Ab7), 109 (Bb7), and 115 (Bb7). I hadn’t really picked up on this with casual listening but it became very clear once I got into the transcription process.

Coltrane starts the solo out with a break. He plays down the so-called major bebop scale (a major scale with a chromatic added between 6 and 5 which keeps chord tones on strong beats) and then outlines the I chord. It’s repeated almost note for note at his second break in measures 40-41. The descending Maj7 arpeggio in measure 8 is used again in measures 62, 84, 85 (up a half step) and 100. Actually, he plays the exact same line in mm 99-102 that he played in mm 61-64. The difference is that the later repetition is part of a very long eighth note line. It’s as though he was assemling ideas in his first two choruses and then putting them together in the final chorus.

In measure 13 I think it’s pretty clear that he was still playing over Cmin7 even though the change to Bbmin7 had already arrived. It still sounds great and he makes the modulation quite clear in the second half of the measure with a descending Bbmin7 arpeggio.

Contrast the 13th measure of the form (mm 16, 54, 92) with the 29th measure (mm 32, 70, 108). It’s clear that despite the written changes, he is treating the former as a I chord (before launching into the key change up a minor third), whereas in the latter he is treating the measure as a ii-V to the ii chord. It’s an excellent example of how the function of a change can determine what you might do with it.

I love the desending melodic minor scale Coltrane uses over the Abmin6 chords in this tune. Check out mm. 31, 69, 91, and 107. I also appreciate the way he echoes the melody over the last 8 bars of each chorus. And of course there is the double time diminished scale lick right before the third chorus in measure 75. Dom7#5 chords played in descending minor 3rds. Each four note group is half of a diminished scale and the next four note group covers the other half. Well worth learning. Also note that the longest 8th note phrase – 5 bars long – is in his final chorus. And the first note of each measure is G, F#, F, E, Eb, and F. In case you thought that the F# on the Eb chord was some kind of error!

Every time I transcribe I learn something new. Usually I discover that what I thought was complicated is actually really straightforward. And I’ll admit that I don’t have this solo learned at full speed. Yet. That’s what practice is for!

Out of Stitt’s Brain

I’ve recently completed this transcription of Sonny Stitt’s solo on “Out of Nowhere” from his Last Sessions LP. It’s one of the many tunes that I should have known years ago but only recently learned. I transcribed Sonny’s interpretation of the melody as well as his two chorus improvisation. The fingering should allow you to get close to the original phrasing, which is why, for example, in measure 53 there is a sudden jump up from position II to XII.
Rather than analyze the entire solo, here are some highlights that I found particularly interesting. There is a lot to learn from transcribing a solo, from phrasing to feel to interpretation and scale choice.

MM.24- This lick is difficult on guitar but it sounds great and the sudden drop of a fifth is very cool. Also, after this point Stitt begins to mix up the octaves that he uses to play the melody, jumping up and then back down and using melodic fills to move around. Overall his statement of the melody is loose and peppered with short licks in between the important melodic passages. While the original melody covers a ninth, from D below the staff to E an octave up, Sonny’s version covers an octave plus a sixth, from D below middle C up to the B above middle C.
MM.36- The break is what made me want to transcribe this solo. It’s such a great use of the minor pentatonic where many other players would tend to use some sort of D7 lick. The repetition of the Bb contrasts with the B on beat one of the form, when Stitt outlines the G triad from the third up.
MM.40- It’s clear from looking at the lines in measures 40-41, 56-57, 72-73, and 88-89 that Stitt is thinking of the ii-V in Ab as a Bbmin7 chord. He never really outlines the Eb7, completely avoiding the third (G, the tonic of the overall key) in every case. Also, the way that he transitions back to the tonic key with double chromatic enclosures in measures 41, 57, and 89 is ingenious. In all cases he uses two notes that are diatonic to the Ab scale to enclose a chord tone from G. What a great way to employ chromaticism diatonically!
MM42- I always learn something new when I transcribe. I never would have thought to treat the G chord in measure 5 of the first eight as a G7, especially considering the F# in the melody, but that’s exactly what Stitt does and it sounds great.
MM.50- Thanks to my student Ben Collins for showing me that you can slow a Youtube video down to half speed! He also helped to transcribe this lick when my ear was failing me. Mastering the double time licks in this solo is not easy. You will need to pay close attention to your right hand technique and decide for yourself where you want to slur. I like to slur as little as possible to maintain clarity. Note that the lick in measure 52 starts out the same as the one in measure 50 except it is down a half step, missing the first note, and is not in double time. I put the octave slide here in measure 53 to reflect the way that Sonny does it on the tenor.

MM.66- Although the changes here are iii – biii dim – ii – V, which is a very common chord progression in standard tunes, Sonny outlines a iii – bIII – ii – bII and quotes a bit of the Charlie Parker tune “Ornithology”. Both sets of changes get you back to the tonic efffectively.

MM.70- Guitarists know that playing the same note on two different strings yields a different tone. Saxophonists also have alternate fingerings for certain notes and Stitt bounces back and forth between two different B notes here. If you refuse to use open strings then catch this on the G and D strings.
MM92- This is another difficult lick. I found that in order to smoothly execute the sixteenth note Bmin arpeggios I had to play them all as an upstroke sweep. You might try down-up-up-up, but that didn’t work for me.

MM100- For some reason I didn’t learn how to effectively wrap up a solo until way after college. I guess it was when I started recording and realized that all of my solos just stopped without any resolution. Sonny Stitt uses a nice major pentatonic (mostly) lick to close out two choruses of great improvising.

When learning this solo, remember that you are copying someone else’s phrasing and feel. Work on playing along with the recording. If you just try to learn the licks off the page without listening to the record, you are completely missing the point. Good luck, have fun, and when you’re done, find another solo to transcribe on your own! It’s enjoyable and educational!

Pentatonic Soup

Many years ago I made a diagram of parallel Major and minor pentatonic scales for a student who was working on improvising on an A blues. It’s worth looking over because there are many times when switching from Major to minor pentatonic is useful, such as on blues tunes or over funky or soulful I-IV chord progressions. I often use minor blues or pentatonic ideas on turnarounds in Major keys.

Major vs minor pentatonic – A

Read left to right to see the two fingerings for Maj and min that are overlapping with each other. The two scales only have two notes out of five in common.

Read top to bottom on one column to learn all of the fingerings for Maj or min pentatonic. Note that the fingerings are the same but the pitches are different relative to the tonic.

Pentatonic scales are extremely useful and can be applied in some very creative ways, but the first thing to know about them is that the Major pentatonic is 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 while the minor is 1, b3, 4, 5, b7. So in C that would be C D E G A and C Eb F G Bb respectively. The scales can also be thought of as being relative instead of parallel. F Ab Bb C Eb spells F minor pentatonic while Ab Bb C Eb F spells Ab Major.

A simple way to look at the pentatonic scales is that the Major pentatonic works well with Major chords because it contains a major triad (1 3 5) plus two notes that are not very dissonant to the triad (2 and 6). It is basically a Major 6/9 arpeggio and sounds good with Maj7, 6, or Dom7 chords. A great deal of country, bluegrass, rock, folk, and swing melodic material can be traced back to Maj pentatonic. Add some chromatics and you can sound really hip! The minor pentatonic works well over minor chords because it contains a min7 chord (1 b3 5 b7) plus the 4th. It’s also commonly used over major blues progressions in electric blues and rock. It’s safe to say that the minor pentatonic scale is the basic scale for rock improvisation, though it is worth noting that virtually every great rock soloist has a musical vocabulary that is greater than just the minor pentatonic. Even Stevie!

A more sophisticated way of looking at pentatonics is to view them as a pitch set and think about what chords they could potentially be used with, and what extension and chord tones they imply as a result.

Examples over a C root

D E F# A B                  2 3 #4 6 7         Maj7 with a 9 and b5/#11     CMaj9(#11), Cmaj9(b5)

G A B D E                   5 6 7 2 3             Maj9 with a 6                            CMaj9(13)

C D E G A                  1 2 3 5 6             Maj triad with 6 and 9                C9, CMaj9, C6/9

F G A C D                  4 5 6 1 2             Sus4 with a 6 and 9                   Cmin6/9, Cmin(Maj9), Cmin13, Csus4

Bb C D F G                b7 1 2 4 5           7sus4 with a 9                           Cmin9, C9sus4

Eb F G Bb C              b3 4 5 b7 1         min7 with a 4                            Cmin7(11)

Gb Ab Bb Db Eb       b5 b6 b7 b2 b3   altered 9ths and 5ths, b7          C7alt, C7(#/b9 #/b5)

D pentatonic implies C Lydian.

G pentatonic implies C Major.

C pentatonic is typical for chords based on a C triad

D min (F) pentatonic over a Cmin chord implies C dorian.

G min (Bb) pentatonic is a great way to get a Cmin9 sound.

C min (Eb) is typical for chords based on a Cmin triad.

Gb pentatonic contains all the notes of C altered except the 1 and 3. And it’s a lot easier to play!

My response to people who tell me that they are tired of pentatonics is usually to say, “You have not looked at them closely enough.” It’s amazing how new uses for old shapes will pop up again and again.

Non-diatonic Chords – I’ve Got Your Number

Looking at jazz standards, the chord progressions can be daunting. But most of the chords fall into one of four categories – diatonic 7th chords, secondary dominants and their tritone substitutions, borrowed chords, and diminished passing chords.

Diatonic 7th chords are chords that are found in the key that the song is in. I, ii, iii, IV, V and vi. You can usually improvise in the key of I over these chords. Of course it helps to know the arpeggios and to be able to find the chord tones.

Non-diatonic chords are everything else. If a chord has at least one note in it that is not in the key of I, it is a non-diatonic chord. Secondary dominants are the most common.

Secondary dominants are chords that are V in relation to something other than I. V/ii, V/IV, V/V and V/vi are the most common. In C, those chords would be A7, C7, D7, and E7, respectively. If you can superimpose those arpeggios over the key of I (changing notes that clash) you can usually generate a very useable scale. For example, if you are in C and the chord is A7, all you need to do is change the C to a C# and you have a nice D melodic minor scale which sounds great. If the chord has been tritone subbed (replaced with the dominant 7 chord a b5 away) you can still use that trick. Eb7 superimposed over C major would be Eb F G A Bb C Db, or Eb lydian dominant.

Borrowed Chords are chords that come from the parallel minor scale. In jazz, the most common of these are the minor iv chord and the dominant bVII chord, but the bVI and the bIII are also heard. Another common example of borrowed chords would be the use of a minor ii-V resolving to a major I. For example, Dm7(b5)-G7(b9)-CMaj7. In all these cases using the parallel minor scale works really well. There are other great choices as well, such as harmonic and melodic minor and sometimes altered scales.

Diminished passing chords are diminished chords that are placed in between two other chords. The most common location is between iii and V/V. In C that would be Em7-Ebdim7-Dm7. The Dm7 then usually goes to G7, and resolves to C. It’s important to note that diminished chords with the root a half step lower than the next chord are usually substitutions for secondary dominants. Cmaj7-C#dim7-Dmin7 is not a diminished passing chord but is really a version of A7(b9). Easy ways to navigate diminished passing chords are the diminished arpeggio as well as the whole/half diminished scale (1 2 b3 4 b5 b6 6 7).

The point here is not that all jazz tunes are easy. They are not. The point is that most chord progressions are relatively standard. Chords function in predictable ways. That’s why we call it functional harmony. If you know your major and minor scales and your dominant seven and diminished arpeggios you can navigate a lot of changes. If you learn a lot of tunes you will start seeing the patterns. That doesn’t make you a master of improvisation, it just means you are keeping your wheels on the road most of the time. From there you still need to develop creative ideas, phrasing, tone, a sense of direction, and lots of other wonderful concepts. As a person who is in the middle (I hope) of his musical journey, I can say it’s a really fun ride!

Melodic minor patterns

The melodic minor scale is one of the most useful for improvising in jazz. The scale has a flat 3 but a major 6 and 7. In C that would be C D Eb F G A B C. In E it would be E F# G A B C# D# E. I’ll be covering the modes of melodic minor in more detail in a few other posts, but today I just want to present these fingerings. They are not the only possible fingerings for this scale but I think they feel pretty good. My suggestion for practicing is to take one shape through the cycle of fourths and then move on to the next shape until you have all of the shapes memorized in all keys.

In classical music, melodic minor is an ascending scale, used mostly over a V chord in a minor key. An excellent example of this scale is the famous Bouree in E minor by J.S. Bach.

In jazz we use this scale and its modes on the chords that are derived from the scale, and we use it ascending as well as descending. We would use C melodic minor over a Cm(M7) chord, which is spelled C Eb G B. You also might want to use it over Cm6 (C Eb G A) or Cm6/9 (C Eb G A D). I will often use melodic minor in a modal setting where dorian might be the more expected scale. So even if the chord in the chart is Dmin7, I might still use D melodic minor.

One of my favorite places to use melodic minor happens in a huge number of standard tunes -the classic IV-iv progression. Look at the last 12 measures of “All the Things You Are.” This is a very common chord progression, usually preceded by a ii-V in the key of IV and followed by a I or a iii (subsitute for I). It’s an example of a borrowed chord – the iv is borrowed from the parallel minor. In the example of “All the Things You Are” it’s a Db minor chord. Try using Db melodic minor there.

The most common modes of melodic minor are the 4th (lydian dominant – 1 2 3 #4 5 6 b7) and the 7th (altered scale or super locrian – this scale has altered 9ths and 5ths as well as a 3 and a b7). Also common are the 6th mode, for playing over a min7(b5) – 1 2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 – and the 3rd mode for playing over a M7(#5) chord – 1 2 3 #4 #5 6 7.

Knowing the different modes of this scale is important, but you’ll want to be able to think of those modes – especially the lydian dominant and the altered scale – as they relate to their own tonics. This is why I advocate practicing parallel, rather than relative, modes. So once you have all of the melodic minor scales down, try doing the mental shift to get the other modes down as well.

A final note – it is often worth thinking of a scale as a chord with extensions. Looking at melodic minor in this way we have 1 b3 5 7 9 11 13 or min13(Maj7). Looking at a scale in this way helps us see what chords and extensions are being expressed when we use the scale. If we take the third mode of the scale we would have 1 3 #5 7 9 #11 13 or Maj13(#5#11).

Now stop reading and start shedding!