In this article I’d like to share some ideas on how you can improvise over the tune. Improvisation is a big topic and there are endless ways of doing it, understand it and learn it. I don’t think there’s one right way to learn it, I think it’s about finding out what you want to say and how you want to do it. A lot of people describe good improvisation like ‘telling a story’. I think that’s a good way to see it: To tell a story about something you think is important. But before we can tell such a story we need to have the basic tools to express it. I hope this article can be a help to find or develop these tools. Enjoy!
Playing chord tones.
This is rather simple, but a very effective way of making good melodic lines in your improvisation. So lets do the theoretical stuff first and then talk about how we can apply it.
In the first 4 bars of How high the moon we have following progression: / G / G / Gm7 / C7 / In order to play chord tones we need to analyse each chord:
G major: G (root), B (3rd), D (fifth) and an extension: normally a F# (Maj7) or a E (6th).
Gm7: G (root), Bb (minor 3rd), D (5th) and F (7th).
C7: C (root), E (3rd), G (5th), Bb (b7th)
G major is the 1 chord of the G major scale
Gm7 and C7 are the 2 and 5 chords of the F major scale respectively.
G major scale: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#
F major scale: F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E
(Notice which notes differs from the two scales!)
Now, the next part here is to connect the chords with the each other throughout the changes. This is also called playing the changes. When you connect each chord with each other you (and the audience) will hear how the chord changes and it will give you a more ‘jazzy sound’.
In order to do that we have to see which notes differs from one another in each chord. And we have to know which notes is defining each chord the most.
In jazz the most important notes in the chords are the 3rd and the 7th. If we compare a Gmaj7 with a Gm7 we’ll see that the root and the 5th are the same in both chords, but the 3rd and the 7th of each chord changes.
An example of how to apply it:
When you go from a Gmaj7 to the Gm7, try to go from the B note (the 3rd of GMaj7) to the Bb note (the 3rd of Gm7). So you hit the Bb note on the first measure of 3rd bar of the song (the Gm7). You’ll clearly hear how tonality changes and the shift from major to minor. You’ll go from a ‘safe’ or ‘pretty’ sound to a more ‘sad’ or ‘sentimental’ sound.
When doing this it’s a good idea to start simple and practice in a slow tempo and then increase the tempo when you feel you got it. (I highly recommend this approach for everything you practice). Try to make a simple melody with the chord tones and don’t be afraid of pauses.
8th notes and strong and weak beats
To be aware of 8th notes and strong and weak beats is a way you can create long and elegant lines in your improvisation.
First 8th notes: A bar got 4 beats: 1, 2, 3, 4. Now count the four beats but with an ‘&’ between. Like this: 1&2&3&4. We now have 8 beats. If you play a note on each of the beats you’re playing in 8th notes. We can distinguish between strong and weak beats among these 8 notes. We call them strong beats because we tend to hear the beats 1, 2, 3, 4 better than the ‘off beats’ (The &’s).
Now you can try to make lines where you put the chord tones on the strong beats and non-chord tones on the weak beats.
I will spell out a line over a 2-5-1 in F (Gm7-C7-F). Remember we have 8 notes to play for each measure.
/ Bb-C-D–E-F-F#-G-A / Bb-B-C-D-E-F-G-G# / A…
So here the chord tones are in bold. And the last note is an A, the 3rd of the F major chord. Always good to end you line on a 3rd on the first beat of the bar.
On the off beats you can play whatever you like. A good way to spice up your lines is playing notes outside the scale on the off beats when it fits. When you work with your lines, you can, as an exercise, tell your self that you have 8 notes and then try to put chord tones on each uneven number. It’s a great exercise to get familiar with all the chord tones and to be aware of how you end and start your lines.
Notice how I’ve underline some of the notes, this is where the notes are connected chromatically. To use chromatics is a great way to make your lines flow elegantly through the changes.
It’s a common technique in bebop improvisation, even though I only see it as a small part of getting the ‘bebop sound’ (which is indeed also has to do with, rhythm, syncopation and accent).
For more info about bebop lines and chromatic lines I recommend this site.
Charlie Parker was the great pioneer in the bebop revolution in the 1940’s. He experimented with altered chords, soloing with the upper extensions of the chords, rhythm and syncopation. His tunes or ‘heads’ was typically based on 3 different kind of chord progressions:
1) Blues: Bloomdido, Chi Chi..
2) Rhythm changes: Anthropology, Moose the Mooche..
3) The popular tunes of the day: Donna Lee, Scrapple from the Apple, Ko-Ko. Was based on the changes of ‘Back home again in Indiana’, ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ and ‘Cherokee’ respectively.
In this case his ‘head’ Ornithology is created over the changes of High high the Moon. A study of the head of Ornithology compared to the melody of How high the Moon, is a good way to see two very different approaches to the same changes. Both ‘styles’ would be good to use in your improvisation: The rhythmically simple, melodic chord-tone way of How high the Moon and the rhythmically sophisticated bebop way with extensions and altered notes of Ornithology. For further study the ‘Charlie Parker Omnibook’ is the the ‘bible’ for most bebop’ers. It contains transcriptions of most of his tunes and his solo’s.
This is a good way to “mix up” your lines if you usually play scales. Django Reinhardt used this technique a lot. I will divide this in two areas:
1) Inside-arpeggios. Are arpeggios which stays in the given tonality. So over an G major chord you can play any chord from the scale of G major: Gmaj7, Am7, Bm7, Cmaj7, D7, Em7 F#m7b5. Of course some works better than other. Try to relate each chord to the G chord and see which notes each arpeggio contain.
A Bm7 arpeggio will give you the notes B, D, F# and A. So if we relate those notes to a G major chord we’ll have the 3rd (B), the 5th (D), Major 7 (F#) and the 9th (A). In other words a Gmaj9 chord without the root note (the G). A ‘nice’ and ‘airy’ sound and a good way to outline the changes (remember the 3rd and the 7th are the notes which are defining the chords the most).
Lets look at an Em arpeggio and relate it to the G major chord like we did before: Em7 contains the notes E, G, B and D. Related to the G chord we’ll have: the 6th (E), the Root (G ), the 3rd (B) and the 5th (D). in other words a G6 chord. A more ‘stable’ and ‘safe’ sound and also a very good way to outline the changes.
These contains a note or notes which doesn’t belong to the tonality of the changes your playing. You can play any arpeggio you like. What’s matter is if it works and you like the sound of it. I will give a few examples of outside-arpeggios I like to use, so this is only an example to follow in finding sounds you like.
Diminished 7th arpeggios.
Consist of minor 3rd intervals and is build from ‘stacking 3rds’ from the diminished scale. The diminished 7th arpeggio has a symmetrical structure. It’s the same interval (minor 3rds) between the notes in the chords. That means we basically only got three different kind of a dim 7 chord. If you try to ‘build’ a dim 7th chord you’ll see why. Start on any given note. C for example. go up a minor 3rd and you’ll have Eb, then F# and then A. If you’ll do it again you will be back at the C note. You’ll have a Cdim7, Ebdim7, F#dim7 or Adim7. The notes are the same in each chord.
The dim7 arpeggio is very ‘effective’, it works on minor, dominant and diminished chords and it is pretty easy to apply.
So in How high the moon we have / Gm7 / C7 / a 2-5 in the key of F. You can use a diminished arpeggio over both chords. But which diminished arpeggio?
From a minor 7th chord you can start your arpeggio from the root of the chord. In this case with a Gm7 you can play a G dim7 arpeggio (you can also see it as a Bb, Db or E dim7 arpeggio): G, Bb, Db and E. That will give you the root (G), the minor 3rd (Bb), a b5 (Db) and a 6th (E). So here the outside note is the Db, which will give you the sound of a Gm6b5 chord. And a ‘dark’ or ‘bluesy’ flavour.
You can use the same G diminished 7th scale over the C7 chord. You’ll get the 5th (G), the 7th (Bb), the b9 (Db) and the major 3rd (E). This will give your lines a sound of a Dominant7b9 chord. A ‘unstable’ or ‘sharp’ sound.
This is a very effective way of making your playing more pleasant and laid-back. I think it’s not often we talk about pauses or space in improvisation, we are more concerned of what we wish to play than what we not wish to play. In my opinion pauses it’s a way of putting more awareness into your music and to listen more.
It should be rather easy to hold pauses in our playing, we can just stop! But I think some are afraid of get lost if they’re not playing the changes all the time. Some are maybe not comfortable with the silence. But there’s no need to fear it! It’s like a good conversation. Sometimes you’re saying something spontaneous, then you take a moment to reflect about what you’ve just said. Then you think about how you can express your self the best way in your next sentence. It’s a way of letting your lines ‘breathe’ and to make the audience and the band mates digest your ‘story’.
How to do it:
First of all think about you don’t have to play everything you can! When we’re playing we have all our personal vocabulary which we use in different situations. So when you’re playing over a certain chord or passage and you start to use your usual ‘tricks’, try to stop it. Make a pause, listen to the groove and see if some new idea spontaneous comes to mind and do that instead. It’s better than the usual licks we more or less mindless normally pulls off. This is a good way of breaking up our usual licks and habits.
For a simple exercise to get started, you can do like this: start a backing track with a tune you know well. Then start your lines on the second beat of the bars. Get use to the feeling of letting the first beat start before you do something.
If you listen to the old masters you’ve hear how they do it. Another good exercise is to do like this: Take a good tune you like. Confirmation by Charlie Parker is a good example. Then count along the recording (tap your foot or your finger in 1,2,3,4) and listen to where on the beat he starts his lines.
Next you can experiment with different places to you start and end your lines. The important thing is to have some variation and have a good sense of time.
Tension and release.
We could also call this ‘building a climax’. The idea, as pointed out in the first part of this guide to How high the moon, is about getting home in a good way. One of the ways we can make interest in our improvisation is to create tension and then release it. It’s like a telling good story, and in literature there’s tons of stories with the Home-away theme. You’ll start your journey and experience all kinds of exiting things and get home as a new man! So how do we apply that? It’s a big and very interesting subject, so I will only talk briefly about it and give a common example:
First take your instrument and play a 2-5-1 in any key. Play it slowly and pay attention to each note of each chord. You’ll hear how it feels like ‘getting home’ when you end on the 1 chord: It’s safe and stable. So it’s typically over dominant 7th chords you would create tension. For example when playing over a turn around or at the end of the A or B sections.
In How high the moon, try to do it in the end of the A section (bar 15 and 16) and the B section (29 and 30) and release it when you “get home” on the G chord.
So how do you create tension? There are several ‘tricks’ you can use:
– Play harder, louder more intense. (Check out Django Reinhardt’s solo on ‘I’ll see you in my dreams’ from 1:09 – 1:16).
– Play notes outside the tonality. For example an outside-arpeggio.
– Play fast! (Check out Sonny Stitt on Just Friends 1:15 – 1:28).
– Play a repetitive pattern. (Guitarist Grant Green was great at this. check his solo on Alone Together 3:19 – 3:32 ).
After you’ve created tension, now you can release by showing you’re ‘home again’:
– Play soft, quiet and calm.
– Use silence.
– Play melodic or a small part of the original head (It will make it obvious to everybody that you’re home again).
– Play ‘stable notes’ or ‘inside notes’.
There are endless possibilities of doing it. And it’s a good way to avoid monotony in your playing. It can seem a bit awkward to do it like following a manual like this example, but it’s a good place to start until it begins to feel natural.
As mentioned earlier I think the very best way to practice is to start slow and simple and then increase the tempo when you got it. Play along your favorite recordings of the tunes. Use backing tracks. The best ones I’ve used so far is by Jamey Aebersold. In his vol. 6 “All bird” you’ll find Ornithology and other Parker backing tracks. You can also find How high the Moon and a lot of other good backing tracks here. If you’re in to a jazz-manouche style of backing track, you can use this one (Be aware of a mistake in the displayed chord changes).
So, lock the door, turn off the phone and kick out your girlfriend – for a while! Or throw out your TV and buy a metronome! As a fellow guitarist once told me. A just go for it. But in all seriousness; isolation and focus on only one thing can get you very far, but of course in the right doses. I guess we all have to find our own ‘golden mean’ which work for us.
I’ll finish this guide to How high the Moon with a Louis Armstrong quote, which I think expresses what it’s all about: Playing good, honest, swingin’ music.
“There is two kinds of music the good and bad. I play the good kind”.
– Yes you did!