~ improv ~

~ common tones ~

~ guide tone lines ~

' developing the skills to make it up as we go along ...'

In a nutshell. These two topics probably merit whole pages or chapters individually but are combined here so that their similar theory and musical applications create a solid intellectual foundation for the beginning to intermediate soloist. For the initial ideas of using common tones between diatonic chords in soloing over changes evolves to become guide tone lines as we create our improvised melodic lines through chord changes.


Overview / common tones. As the term implies, a 'common tone' is when we have the same pitch between two chords. So when we are improvising, holding this note in our lines is a way to glue the chords together and keep us inside the changes. In soloing over the changes with a diatonic approach, this often includes most if not all of the chords in a song. If we're mainly sticking with the five pitches of the pentatonic group of pitches, all of these pitches individually will for the most part work as common tones between the diatonic triads or chords.

solo over the changes
the diatonic
the core five pitches

Common tones are fun in that we can drive on the one pitch with our rhythms to quickly get everyone right on board with the groove going down. And in terms of sheer numbers of pitches, a rather inexpensive and joyous way to climax a solo that everyone in the room can dig.

climax a solo

Overview / guide tone lines. As we move into soloing over the changes, a guide tone line is a sort of backbone of different pitches that threads through the chords. This we can use to center and as launch points for our ideas. So while similar to what common tones do for us, guide tone lines are more evolved in that they are different pitches as we move through the chord progression of a song. As we advance in our studies, guide tone lines can encompass any of the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale. Oh, the 12 pitches, so leaning jazz? Yep, leaning to jazz.

solo through the changes
12 pitches

Guide tone lines are oftentimes an integral part of the arranger's palette of colors and tricks for creating arrangements for larger groups of instruments. And while guide tones do pretty much the same thing as in smaller improv settings, with larger numbers of voices, the creative arranger will use guide tone lines to 'glue' up together a wide array of components.


In theory, guide tones can help glue up even the zaniest of musics. Can guide tones be rhythm patterns? Absolutely, we might call them 'guide beat rhythms' or 'guide grooves' even 'rhythm modes' instead of tones, but arranging around a central thread that captures the rhythm mojo of a song works like a charm.

A common tone in action. In this next idea we use a tonic common tone to glue up six of our seven diatonic chords. Written without key signature, cool with D major? Ex. 1.

D major

Tonic strength knows no bounds !And six out of seven diatonic chords gives us the One / Four and Five chords of both major and minor in each key center n'est-ce pas? Thus the basic chord resource for the vast majority of our Americana harmonies. Roman numerals ... ?

Americana harmonies
Roman numerals

Flip it over. In this next idea we flip it all over and our D note becomes the what we commonly term the lower pedal or a pedal tone etc. It's still our tonic pitch of course yet now flipped from the top voice or soprano to the bass. Quick modulation to E the key of E-land to get our lower pedal tone on the open low E string of our concert tuned guitars. Roll 'em :) Example 1a.

lower pedal
musical voices

Flip it back over. This key center of E provides both these 'upper and lower pedals' on open strings. So we get a nice full sound on a concert tuned guitar. In this next idea we move the low E bass pedal to the E 'upper pedal' and find some chords to go with it. Roll 'em :) Ex. 1b.

upper pedal
roll em'

A common tone in the blues. In this next idea we toss all the diatonic theory and find some blues magic with a common tone. Here we run the tonic tone over the three main chords of a 12 bar blues. So, blues in A. Ex. 2.

diatonic theory
12 bar blues
blues in A

Dig the 12 / 8 shuffle feel just whom ping on the tonic. Works every time :) Even over a whole chorus? Depending but sure why not?

12 / 8
a chorus

One note till the end. This next idea finds us in F major. Here our common tone is in the lead and we use it to glue together a series of descending chromatic chords as we look to take a tune out. Example 3.

F major
take it out

Cool huh? Yea it's a great closing sequence of chord with some fairly essential root position jazz chord voicings. The common tone on top is somewhat reminiscent of the 'anything from anywhere' concept.

jazz chords
anything from anywhere

Recognize that first chord? The circle with the line through symbol is for the half diminished diminished 7th chord. So there's a fully diminished and half diminished stacked 7th chords? Yep. The half diminished is a diatonic chord built on Seven. Fully diminished we've two ways to get there.

Guide tone lines. As described above, guide tone lines are a way to string pitches through the chords that create a bit of a 'backbone' structure of pitches to help organize and sometimes sure up our improvs. This first idea is the basis; simply stringing together the roots of diatonic triads and 7th chords in C major. Example 4.

7th chords

A next step. Now that we've a line of 'inside' pitches to get us over and through the changes, really anyway we might 'jazz up' the guide tones should work. The style of music is usually the first consideration.

jazz up

In this next idea we'll stay with mostly diatonic pitches with a bit of the blues hue, while creating a sequence of sorts to add some art and direction to the line. Ex. 4a.

blues hue

Well surely a workable line even if not the most memorable of improvised melodies. But ya get the idea here yes? Guide tone pitches that form a string of pitches through the chord changes or progression of a song.

Alternating between the third and fifth. In this next idea we use the above motion to create a guide tone line by alternating between the third and fifth of each triad / chord. Again, using all diatonic pitches. Example 4b.


Beyond the diatonic. In this next idea we jump out of the diatonic realm and borrow a few pitches and cycle a series of dominant, Five chord motions. In G major, Three / Six / Two / Five / One. Here we use the third and seventh of each chord, its two pitch tritone interval, to create our guide tone line while keeping a common tone between each pair of chords. So the best of both; a common tone between chords and guide tone structure of pitches in the same idea. Example 5.

borrowing pitches
two pitch tritone

See the chromatic motion in the top voice of the line? That we can simply lower our two pitch fingering by half step as written in the line? A chromatic guide tone line ? Yep. Also, pick up on the pitch theory of how the major 3rd and b7 of each chord becomes the b7 and major 3rd of the next as the line descends by half step. Is this the theory that creates the 'tritone sub?' Yep.

chromatic motion
tritone sub

Each of these pitches can be the base structure of an improv line. That these sorts of patterns; the fingering, the chromatic motion and the swapping of chord tones through a cycle of chords, become some of the musical DNA of advancing improvisational lines. In this direction, we theorists will 'permutate' and 'sequence' this DNA into larger structures, which when placed into musical forms, create a chance for interesting thought out art.

musical forms

Back to the blues. We can take this two pitch tritone and locate an old timey blues idea that still works fine today. Thinking blues in B. Example 5a.

the blues

Hear a bit of the early blues in the line? Cool, for it's from this half step, two pitch tritone basis that we can trace back to and project into the main thread that ties our Americana music harmony theories together. Also note the 'B13' styled chord?

Americana harmony
the '13th'

Tritone sub. Based on the swapping' abilities of the two pitch 3rd and b7 tritone in any V7 chord, we get the 'streamliner of 'em all'; the tritone sub. Nothing really heavy theorywise just the new theory potential for chromatic motion in the bass line. This next idea extends the last as we use the tritone sub find the half step lead into Four; F9 to E9. Blues in B. Example 5b.

half step lead in

Cool ? Depending on where the art is going, this one bit of theory helps unlock a new dimensionality of possibilities powered by V7b9.


Within Two / Five. Off track a bit here but looking for the closure. Same two pitch tritone as part of two unique V7 chords, placed within the Two / Five motion, which in this next idea resolve to their respective tonics. Example 5c.

the blues

Cool? Big chunk of theory right here. For some this one 'theory into practice idea' is well worth the price of admission to the show for it's a way onto the path.

theory into practice
the path

Review. So in creating lines both over and through chord changes, these two features; a common tone between two or more chords and guide tone lines through entire chord progressions can help tie things together. Adding a rhythm idea to the mix, both approaches further evolve through permutation and sequence into larger forms. In the theory of improv, we've come a long way from our start point; play by ear / sing the line play the line.

chord progressions
play by ear

"The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known."

Pete Seeger

Grout, Donald Jay. A History of Western Music, p. 10. W.W.Norton and Company Inc. New York, 1960.


Aebersold, James and Slone, Ken. Charlie Parker Omnibook. New York: Atlantic Music Corp., 1978. I know this is a troubling stand to take but I felt I had to and as jazz player, I based it on Charlie Parker's compositions in the Omnibook. Find a copy, count the number of tunes, then compare the number of major key to minor key songs. Any real book of popular American song, by a mix of composers, will follow along similar lines in this regard.regard.