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!
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!
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!
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
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!
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!
I mean, can you play your major scales in all keys all across the fretboard? If not, you might consider checking out these fingerings. And, you might also consider coming to my class on the 17th of August at 2:00. I will be teaching the major scale fingerings and showing students how to change keys without having to jump all over the fretboard as well as how to play all over the fretboard in any key.
Major scales are the building blocks for most of your other scales, chords, modes, and arpeggios. Knowing them in all keys as well as knowing how to spell them and how they are built is just critical.
If you are interested in this class please contact me for details. Otherwise, get practicing! Those major scales are important and they don’t learn themselves!