Tag Archives: Chords

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.

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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!

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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7aDW1kWbAU

http://www.fretsource.com/Music/Bouree.html

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!

Dominant 7 Arpeggios

Arpeggios are hard. Most people don’t enjoy learning them, but they are critical if you want to understand how to improvise over chord changes. It’s important to be able to find chord tones on the guitar and arpeggios are the best way to do that. Dominant 7 arpeggios are a good place to start because secondary dominants are so common. If you know your C scale and the E7, A7, and D7 arpeggios you can easily play over All of Me, for example. Take a look at these fingerings for dominant 7 arpeggios. If you have already learned these major scale fingerings, you will notice that the arpeggios come out of the scales, based off of the 5th. A great way to learn these fingerings is to play a C scale and then play the G7 arpeggio that is found within the scale. Just leave out the C, E, and A notes. Once you are fluent with dominant 7 arpeggios in all keys you can start learning some other arpeggios such as Maj7, min7, min7(b5) and dim7.

I am using arpeggios in my playing all the time, even when I am not playing them straight up or down. When I am playing chromatically, I like to start and end my lines on chord tones. The arpeggios that I have practiced form an underlying structure over which I build my linear ideas. This is true for all styles of music, not just jazz. There is a difference between choosing a scale that sounds good with a certain set of chords and choosing notes to target at particular structural points in a chord progression. Finding those chord tones can actually free you from the confines of a particular scale.

Good luck practicing your arpeggios, and have fun figuring out how to apply them creatively!

All of Me – Scale Choices for Improvising – With Digressions!

A fellow guitar teacher asked me how to improvise over the changes for All of Me. The tune is usually done in C but it is also commonly played in G. Rather than answer him immediately I wrote the following analysis. Well, I’m not sure if it is an analysis, or just a rambling look into my own mind, but whatever. You might just find it useful. I am not delving into strange scale choices, or discussing phrasing. I’m just throwing out the basics here. Thanks to Travis Preston for transposing this entire analysis to C from the original G.

mm 1-2 – C6

The first two bars are a C6 chord. That’s I in the key of C, so your typical scale of choice is C. Or C pentatonic, or C major blues, whatever.

mm 3-4 – E7

This is a chord type known as a secondary dominant. That’s any chord that is V of something other than the tonic. In this case it is V/vi or “five of six”. There are a few ways to generate the most expected scale to use over this chord. If we take a C scale and only change the note we need to accommodate E7, we get C, D, E, F, G#, A, B , which happens to be an A harmonic minor scale. Alternatively, if we say “E7 is V in the key of A minor (not A major, because A is a minor chord in the key of C), and when faced with a V in a minor key the most expected scale is the harmonic minor,” then we get the same answer. Also, it’s nice to know how to play a straight up E7 arpeggio. AND, it’s nice to know what extensions are generated by using A harmonic minor on an E7. E G# B D F (A) C spells E7(b9,b13). The A is the 11, and is an avoid note, or a passing tone, but not part of the chord.

mm 5-6 – A7

We would expect V/vi to actually go to the vi chord. In this case, it sort of does. The vi chord (Amin7) has been replaced by yet another secondary dominant – V/ii or A7. That’s what secondary dominants do; they often stack up on each other in a series known as “backcycling”. If we take C and only change the note we need to accommodate A7, we get C# D E F G A B, which turns out to be D melodic minor. Not surprising as A is V in the key of D minor. Melodic minor is a scale that gives us the V chord without that funny augmented second between the 6th and 7th degrees of the scale that we get with harmonic minor. On the other hand, if we use the second method mentioned above – “A7 is V in the key of D minor (not D major, because D is a minor chord in the key of C), and when faced with a V in a minor key the most expected scale is the harmonic minor,” then we get a different answer. So we have a choice between D harmonic minor or D melodic minor. Again, it’s useful to know the extensions generated by each scale. A C# E G B (D) F is A9(b13) whereas A C# E G Bb (D) F is A7(b9,b13). There’s a pretty obvious b9 in the melody on beat 3 of measure 6, so I’d definitely use a b9 when playing chords over the melody. Harmonic minor is probably the most expected choice here, but there’s never just one choice in music, as far as I can tell.

mm 7-8 – Dmin7

Our series of secondary dominants has arrived at the ii chord. We’re in the key of C and this is the ii chord in C, so C is the scale we should use. Extensions generated? D F A C E G B spells Dmin13, but we are NOT playing with modal or static harmony, we are playing with funcional harmony. Nailing that 13 is not doing the tune any favors. This is a ii chord in C, not a i chord in D minor. Hitting that B will just make it sound like you think you’re on a V chord, which you are not. Feeling bluesy? A little D minor blues scale might sound hip here.

mm 9-10 – E7

V/vi. You know what to do!

mm 11-12 – Amin7

Our V/vi resolved to the vi chord. Again, we’re in C and we have a chord that is diatonic to C, so we should be using C. A C E G B D (F) spells Amin11. The F is not part of the harmony. Again you could use minor blues if you want. You could try to use A dorian here but I don’t think it’s all that spectacular. By the way, did you notice how the melody in mm 7-8 and mm 11-12 went from the 4 down to the minor 3? That’s not just something you’ll see on this tune. Look at ii and vi chords in any number of jazz tunes and you will see that it is an extremely common melodic device. This stuff is as formulaic as anything else that humans do.

mm 13-14 – D7

Another secondary dominant. This one is V/V. Again, if we just accommodate the chord to the C scale, we get C D E F# G A B, which turns out to be a G major scale. That makes sense, because D is V in the key of G, and G is a major triad in the key of C. Since we’re not in G, we should probably call this scale D mixolydian. Looking at the arpeggio, we have D F# A C E (G) B, or D9(13) the 11 is not part of the harmony. It clashes with the 3rd. Another way to deal with this chord is to add the #11. D F# A C E G# B is D13(#11). Putting that arpeggio into scale form, we get D E F# G# A B C – a D Major scale with a sharp 4 and a flat 7. This scale is known as Lydian-Dominant, and also happens to be the fourth mode of melodic minor (in this case A melodic minor). So, D mixolydian (D major with a b7, and the 5th mode of G), or D Lydian-Dominant (D major with a #4 and b7, and the 4th mode of A melodic minor) are both typical for this part of the tune. D major blues would work as well.

mm 15-16 – Amin7-D7

A secondary dominant usually goes to the chord that it “points” to, or to another secondary dominant with the same root. In this tune, V/vi went to V/ii, which went to ii. Later, V/vi went to vi. That’s because chords functioning as dominants want to resolve to their respective tonics. That process is called “tonicization”. We tonicize the vi with a V/vi, and so on. So it seems strange at first that the D7 in mm 13-14 does not move directly to G7, but instead changes to Dmin7, and then goes to G7. What’s happening here is that in jazz, a V chord (D7) can often be replaced with a ii-V (Amin7-D7). So, imagine this as two bars of V that have been replaced with a ii-V. Incidentally, it’s much more common for a V/V to resolve to a ii-V than it is for secondary dominants in other positions. That is to say, the chord progression seen in mm 13-16 is extremely common in jazz standards. In any event, we have a ii-V in the key of C here, so a C major scale is where it’s at, so to speak.

mm 17-24 – See mm 1-8

mm 25-26 – F6-Fm6

Here is a classic chord change in jazz and pop that illustrates the concept of borrowed chords really well. We have a IV-iv, or “four to minor four” progression. The iv chord is borrowed from C minor. Yeah, we can do that. Thank you very much, giants of western classical music. We’re still using the key of C for the F6 chord, which means we are implying Fmaj13(#11) – F A C E G B D. Since the Fmin6 comes from C minor we can use a C minor scale. Looking at the arpeggio, we would have F Ab C Eb G B D, or Fmin13. This is a great place to use that 13, by the way, unlike the ii chord earlier. We can also just change the notes we need to, staying as close to C as possible. C D E F G Ab Bb would be the scale. We had to flat the A to accommodate the chord, and we had to flat the B because B natural would sound like a flat five. Minor chords pretty much universally accommodate perfect fourths but shun augmented fourths. That scale is F harmonic minor, and I much prefer it to C minor when dealing with borrowed iv chords. Looking at the arpeggio we have F Ab C E G B D, or Fmin13(Maj7)! AWESOME!!

There is a variation on this change that is just as common, and that is to use a bVII chord (Bb7 in this case), or to use both chords (Fmin7-Bb7) as a sort of ii-V in the key of the bIII. All the same scales mentioned above will accommodate both changes. Actually, the F harmonic minor does not fit the Fmin7 perfectly as you’ll need a Eb for that change, but I don’t usually worry about that very much.

Finally, it is important to note that borrowed iv and bVII7 chords function as V chords. This means that they go to I or to a chord that functions in place of I, such as iii, or to another chord that delays resolution such as IV. The progressions that I consider all roughly the same that are encompassed here are as follows. Pick one from each column…

IV            V          I

ii             iv         iii

               bVII7

               iv bVII7

And then in rock there is the ever popluar I – bVII – IV – I. Can’t Explain is a good example.

Getting back to “All of Me”, you could replace the iv chord in mm 26 with a V chord and the melody would work just fine.

mm 27-28 – CMaj7 – Emin7 – A7

This is pretty straightforward. Measure 27 is a I-iii (not very common) and you can use C Major here. Measure 28 is V/ii and you can treat it like the other A7 chords in the tune.

mm 29-32 – Dmin7 G7 CMaj7

The tune wraps up, like most standards, with a ii-V-I. Resolution in measure 31 is typical of a 32 bar tune. Obviously the key of C is the most expected sound here. Again, knowing arpeggios is always helpful. It should be noted that the progressions in this tune are pretty typical of jazz tunes. It’s less common for chords to be static for two bars as they are in this piece, but the actual progressions are very straightforward. Every chord is either a diatonic seventh chord, a secondary dominant, or a borrowed chord. We generally take one of two approaches to these chords – Either stay as close to the key as possible, only altering scale tones that need to be altered to accommodate the non-diatonic chords, or use an appropriate scale for the chord based on its actual function. Either way we get roughly the same outcome. Of course, there are less common scales that could be employed at various points in this tune – fully altered, half-whole diminished, and whole tone scales come to mind.