Category Archives: music

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!

Day Four – Obstalden


The view across the Walensee.

      It can be hard to stay on the ball with these posts. We played our fourth show in Obstalden near the home of Paul Rostetter. We basically had to drive halfway up an alp to get there. Winding two lane roads all the way.
      Musically there have been some good developments. We played Drifter’s Son last night, which was not on the set list originally. We are also playing Broken Heart Tattoo and The Last Goodbye, the very first Kevin Meisel tune I learned. Emma has recorded some of the songs so hopefully at some point there will be YouTube evidence.
    The view from Obstalden is amazing, of course. The weather has been mild. No rain or snow. Tomorrow is a busy day. We have a radio interview and we need to do laundry. Laundry = critical.
Sound check at Hotel Sternen, Obstalden.

Sound check at Hotel Sternen, Obstalden.

Day One – Laupen

Day one of the this tour has come to a close. I am sitting at Hotel Baeren in Laupen. This is a great little place where we always stay when we play at Die Tonne. I’m enjoying a glass of GlenDronach single malt scotch with Keith. Today was very long. We rented the van in Zurich…


arrived at Brambus Records HQ in Muhlehorn by 9:00 AM…


enjoyed some coffee and loaded up more gear with Paul Rostetter, label founder, president, and sole employee…


and then drove out to Laupen where Keith met a cat.


Although he is quite allergic he will still play with them as though they are his best friends in the world. I should mention that Keith is also blogging this tour at

I had not realized how energetic our sets were. There are a few mellower numbers but we really packed some rockers into our show. The venue was about 3/4 full and we played well. There are a few kinks to work out. I was exhausted (we all were) but as soon as we started I woke up. I love the feeling of playing good songs for an appreciative crowd. Keith, Kevin and Rob are excellent musicians and very fun to play with. Our hosts Anita, Meret, and Yvonne were very helpful and kind, and we sold nine CDs which is good for a small venue. We’re close to Bern tonight but tomorrow we head east to Sennwald for a house concert at the home of Beth Wimmer, an American expat who has been here for years.

I really need sleep.

Switzerland 2014 – Packed!


I’ve just finished packing for the upcoming two-week tour of Switzerland. It’s 2 AM. Keith will be here at 6:30 to drive me to Kevin’s house. We’ll meet Rob at the airport at 8:00 and take off at 10:10. We have a long layover in Toronto – I am not sure why I set up the flight that way but it is definitely my fault – and from there we fly into Zurich. I’ve managed to get a telecaster, a lap steel, the netbook that I will be using to write the rest of these posts, plus all of my clothing into the gig bag. The black bag holds my Vox Tonelab LE, which replaces an amplifier – it is basically a digital amp modeller/effects unit. Way easier for overseas touring than my usual tube amp. The road case holds all the cables and tools and miscellaneous stuff I might need. All in all I think I packed pretty small.

This tour is fifteen dates, starting in the town of Laupen – near Bern – at a little place called Die Tonne. We have played there on three other occasions and so it will be a nice way to start the tour. Christian von Erlach is our contact and he always makes sure we are well taken care of.

I’ll try to make this tour blog as interesting as possible and I will also try to update daily, though I may miss a few. Here is our complete tour schedule. You know, in case you happen to be in any of these towns in the next few weeks,,,

Samstag, 1. Nov. 2014      CH-LAUPEN, Die Tonne

Sonntag, 2. Nov. 2014      CH-Beth Wimmer‘s House-Concert

Montag, 3. Nov.  2014      CH-WINTERTHUR, Esse-Bar

Dienstag, 4. Nov. 2014     CH-OBSTALDEN, Sternen

Mittwoch, 5. Nov. 2014    CH-CHUR, Werkstatt

Donnerstag, 6. Nov. 2014 CH-REGENSDORF, s’Gwölb

Freitag, 7. Nov. 2014                CH-FEUERTHALEN, Dolder2

Samstag, 8. Nov.2014       D-01979 LAUCHHAMMER, Real Music Club

Sonntag, 9. Nov. 2014      D-Kötz, CWF

Montag, 10. Nov.2014      CH-THUN, Sekundarschule

Dienstag, 11. Nov. 2014   A-FUGEN-BINDERHOLZ

Mittwoch, 12. Nov. 2014  A-SCHARNITZ, Alte Mühle

Donnerstag, 13. Nov. 2014 A-INNSBRUCK, Bogentheater

Freitag, 14. Nov. 2014      CH-STAEFA, Rössli

Samstag, 15. Nov. 2014    CH-FLAWIL, Kulturpunkt FlawilDSC_1532 copy

Charlie Parker on Guitar!

Charlie Parker on Guitar


I thought it might be fun to share this Charlie Parker solo from the song Tiny’s Tempo by Tiny Grimes. This is a great blues tune from 1944. I’ve put in some fingerings that I think make it easier to get some of Bird’s phrasing right. I’ve also written it in the correct octave for guitarists to read.

The ascending triplet Gmin7 (really a Bb6) arpeggio that starts off the solo is followed by a descending scale passage. Note that he is hitting chord tones on the beats with passing tones on the off beats. This is how you want to be using your scales when improvising most of the time. Bird hits the 5th of the chord on beat 2, the 3rd on beat three, the root on beat four, and nails the 3rd of the IV chord on beat one of measure 2. The first two measures of this solo make a great lick to learn in all keys.

Measures 3 and 4 are an excellent example of chromaticism with the whole tone scale. Think of the chord as Bb9(#5). The line starts on the 9th and drops chromatically so that on each downbeat a consonant note is played – 9th, root, 7th, and 6th. The 6th does not fit into the whole tone scale. When I first looked at this line I was confused by the F# just left hanging unresolved at the end of the measure. Then I noted that the G is the only note on a strong beat that is not part of the whole tone scale. The F# along with the D and Bb in the next measure form a D augmented triad. I think that Bird’s drop down a sixth (something he does quite often) on the “and” of 3 in measure 3 flipped the chromatic line out of sync for a beat. I guess I’m claiming that the G is an accented passing tone while the F# is the chord tone. The whole tone line continues into measure 4 until the F# which is both the last note of the whole tone scale and a half step approach to the Gmin7 (Bb6) arpeggio on beat 4, echoing the starting lick an octave down.

I love the way Parker leaves notes hanging and then resolves them later. You can find so many great guide tone lines in his playing. That F# from the end of measure 3? He picks up the F (now the 9th of the IV chord) at the beginning of measure 5, brings it down to the E (b9) at the end of the measure, down to Eb in measure 6, and then resolves it nicely with a D in measure 7, back at the I chord. Measures 5 and 6 also just sound nice and bluesy.

In measure 8 we see the same lick as the opening statement but at a different pitch level, and starting on a different beat. The ascending Dmin7 arpeggio implies a BbMaj9 chord. The descending scale that follows uses a chromatic note so that Bird can land on the b7 of the ii chord in measure 9. Again, note the chord tones on the strong beats. Also note the drop of a 6th in beat 3. Did I mention he does that often? At the end of measure 9 is a Gmin arpeggio. Over Cmin7 that gives us the 5th, b7th, and 9th. This concept of playing arpeggios off of notes other than the root to get more interesting extensions is an important one, and the more you transcribe the more you will see it.

Measure 10 is pretty straightforward looking, though I have replaced Bird’s flurry of notes on beat two with a triplet because I think it mays better on the guitar and still gets the gist of what is happening. Beats one and two of this measure are repeated note for note in measures 22 and 34. In fact, the last four measures of all three choruses are basically the same. Measures 10 and 34 are exactly the same. Measures 21 and 33 are exactly the same and only differ from measure 9 in that there is no turn on beat one of that measure. Charlie Parker is inventive, but no one is endlessly inventive, and the repetition draws everything together nicely as well.

I’m not going to dissect every measure of the next two choruses, but I will point out the things I find particularly compelling. Contrast the third and fourth measures of the second chorus (mm. 15 and 16). Note how measure 15 is completely diatonic (even using a Major 7th) while measure 16 has a b13 and both flat and sharp 9. The tension in measure 16 leads nicely to the IV chord in measure 17. The chromatic enclosure at the end of measure 16 is particularly common in bebop.

Measures 20 and 32 are both interesting in that they use passing arpeggios. Descending Dmin7-Dbmin7 arpeggios lead nicely to the Cmin7 chord in measures 21 and 33. What a great way to play four “wrong” notes in a row! This idea works just like chromatic passing tones but it takes up more time and builds more tension.

I would also note the chromaticism of measure 26, the descending scale (interrupted by another drop of a 6th) with a chromatic passing tone of measure 27, and the general fact that chord tones are played on strong beats.

The melodic elements of this solo are scales, arpeggios, and chromaticism. The harmonic elements are the same because Parker’s use of extensions and altered notes affects the harmony. The rhythmic elements are not something I have gone into here, but it is worth noting that he starts and ends his phrases in a variety of places within the measure. There are repeated patterns such as the triplet ascending arpeggios. And of course, as usual in jazz, the primary rhythmic unit is the 8th note.

Overall it’s a great introduction to bebop improvising over a familiar set of changes. It sounds killer and it lays well on the guitar. I learned a lot from looking it over and that’s the point of transcribing. You get to see how concepts are applied.

Finally, I would note that it is not likely that you will be able to use scales and chromatic lines to such good effect if you don’t know where your basic chord tones are. That’s why practicing arpeggios is so important. You don’t just land on chord tones accidentally. You need to know they are there and how they sound. Charlie Parker knew his instrument, and he knew where his chord tones were, and he knew those things because he practiced. So stop reading and go practice!