Tag Archives: Music theory

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!

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!

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!

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!

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!

Memorization versus Comprehension – Spell those Chords!

Part of my teaching philosophy has always been that it’s more important to understand broad concepts about music than it is to memorize lots of little facts and details. Lately, however, I am starting to realize that one of the reasons I can organize seemingly disparate ideas into unified musical concepts is because I have a lot of little facts and details memorized. I used to walk to school reciting my scales and chord tones in time to my walking pace, and I may have underestimated how much that mental repetition, without my instrument, helped me. So, I want to present a simple way to memorize your Major Triads.

Normally I would expect my students to learn their major scales, know how they sound and how to spell them all through the cycle of fourths, understand that Major Triads are built from the first, third and fifth degrees of the scale, know what Major Triads sound like and so on and so forth. I still want my students to do all of that but for now we are going to bypass those concepts and learn some chord spelling!

Triads are built by stacking thirds, so the first thing you need to do is to be able to say your musical alphabet by skipping letters – ABCDEFG becomes A C E G B D F. It helps to say this, out loud, over and over again until it is memorized. Then you should say it backwards. A lot. Music goes up AND down!

Now that you know your musical alphabet by thirds we will learn the first three chords – G,C, and F Major have no sharps or flats so they are easy to memorize. G is spelled G,B,D, C is spelled C,E,G, and F is spelled F,A,C. It’s that simple. Knowing how to spell these chords does not mean you know what they sound like, how to play them, or how they work together. It doesn’t make you a better musician or a smarter person. It’s just one of the many, many things you need to know to be a competent musician.

Moving on, there are three Major Triads with one sharp, and they ALL have the sharp on the third degree. E is spelled E,G#,B. A is spelled A,C#,E. D is spelled D,F#,A. Why? We are not talking about that today!

Finally there is B. It has two sharps and is spelled B,D#,F#.

Memorize these Major Triads. Seriously. Be able to spell them instantly from memory. Here is a handy chart in fifths:

F  A  C

C  E  G

G  B  D

D  F# A

A  C# E

E  G# B

B D# F#

If you can spell all of your Major Triads with natural roots you can spell all of your Major Triads with flat or sharp roots too. For example, since, D is spelled D,F#,A, Db is spelled Db,F,Ab. Also you can learn your minor Triads by flatting the thirds of your Major Triads. A is A,C#,E, so Amin is A,C,E.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have musical knowledge at your fingertips. This stuff just has to be second nature. So spend some quality time inside your head, spelling your triads!