~ improv ~

~ soloing through chord changes ~

~ diatonic arpeggiated lines ~

running the changes
spelling the witten chords

... generally there's 'over the river or through the trees' and this is 'through the trees ... '

In a nutshell. In creating theory discussions about Americana improv, making the general distinction of thinking 'over or through' the chord changes and form of the song simplifies the learning. That said, in most of our improv we combine the best of both approaches with musical style usually determining the balance of the two. Towards the folk side of our spectrum, more over the changes. On the jazz horizon, leaning towards 'through the changes' and almost by necessity.

style spectrum
over the changes

In a nutshell. In most circles of Americana musical artists and their audiences, if they can't here the chord changes in our improvised melodic lines, there's going to be issues. And when we 'side by side' two improvising artists, one right after another on the same chord progression, with one cat blowing 'inside' and through the changes while the other is 'outside' of the changes, our emotional reaction to the music often changes dramatically, as the difference is often quite startling in its effect. Compare the two approaches. Two / Five / One in C major, first 'inside' then 'out.' Example 1.

inside / outside
Two / Five / One

Hear the difference? Concord versus discord? Sounds fine versus what is that noise ? :) Yea pretty much. And while there's surely places for both approaches, if we can evolve through from inside to outside and understand the process along the way, we'll have the best of both. The ability to play over or through the written chords to make harmonious music as well as the ability to 'take it out' when the music calls for the crazy sorts of sounds to portray the zaniness of whatever.

concord
discord

Overview. In theory, to begin a way forward to develop some improv chops we examine two basic ways to go; over the chord changes or through the chord changes. Over the changes tends to be diatonic based and covers most of our improv in Americana musics. Click on the link to the right to explore this approach to the improv.

over the changes

Through the changes is mostly a jazz approach, as there are generally just too many non-diatonic pitches in the written chord symbols to apply one diatonic scale and still create nice and convincing lines over a song's chord progression. Not that it can't be done but there's just a lot of coolness that might be missed.

'Through the changes.' In improvising through the chord changes, we want to be able to hear the supporting chords in the single note melody lines we create. Many of our improvising instruments, such as the horns, cannot play chords like we guitarists can, they rely on a solid reflection of a chord's pitches in the single notes they string together to create their improvisations.

single note lines

The idea of 'through the changes' simply means we'll look at each chord as it comes along and see if there's not something a bit extra and unique in addition to the diatonic key center of the song. A pitch or two that will better define the harmony of the moment that we can turn into something cool in our single note lines.

diatonic key center

The core skill to thoroughly master here is to spell out the letter name pitches of the chords in the music you create. These we use to play 'correctly' through the chord. Termed an arpeggio, once the theory process is in place to spell our chords, we simply pay some dues and rote learn what we need. In doing so we create a solid resource to improv through the changes.

spelling chords
arpeggios
rote learning

Combining both. Most of the improv we hear in any style really is a combination of these two approaches. For while great melodies have come from both ways exclusively, in a combined approach we simply get the best of both. Once hip to the ideas in these discussions, start to take apart your own favorite melodies and don't be surprised if you find a combination of a scaler, linear shaped lines sounded 'over the changes' with intervals or arpeggios that take us exactly through the pitches of a supporting chord. Best of both combined is the goal.

melodies

A rule of thumb. The basis of improv theory here is to think from the root pitch of whatever is happening harmonically at that point in the music. We can apply this to both pathways. Creating lines 'over' the changes with pentatonic and diatonic colors, the root pitch is generally the key of the music.

pentatonic colors
diatonic colors
the root pitch
key of the music

In improvising 'through' the changes, depending mostly on style, each new chord can present us with a new root pitch; which when all strung together creates the bass line for chord progression of the song. As in early rock n' roll 12 bar blues form tunes? Exactly. Each of the three principle chords are arpeggiated in turn; we're playing through these changes amigos :)

bass line stories
12 bar blues form
the blues

Learn this lick here if you don't yet know it. It's the basis for some boogie woogie piano (left hand) and a classic Americana bass line. For up and coming cats looking to gig you'll get some mileage out of this, it's the basis for tons more and it shares well with others. Thinking 12 bar blues in G. Example 1a.

boogie woogie
shares well

Learn this lick here if you don't yet know it. It's the basis for some boogie woogie piano (left hand) and a classic Americana bass line. For up and coming cats looking to gig you'll get some mileage out of this, for it's the basis for tons more and it shares well with others like minded. Thinking 12 bar blues in G.

boogie woogie
shares well

Quick review. That 'through the changes' improv is based on spelling the pitches of the supporting chords, let's pause a moment and go through the process. Without too much explanation and detail, we need all seven pitches of the diatonic scale to create the basics of functional harmony for improvising through the changes. The links to the right go deeper into the theory. Click off to explore if you see something of interest to review. Continue here for the 'diatonic update.'

groups of pitches
scales into arpeggios
arpeggios into chords

A parent scale. We start the process by deciding the key of the music. C major is our initial choice as we've no accidentals applied to the pitches. Examine the chart for the pitches of C major through one octave. Ex. 1.

key centers
scale degrees
the octave interval
scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
C major scale
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
C

Evolving a scale into its arpeggio. The next step is to turn our stepwise scale pitches into its arpeggio; created by expanding our scale into a full two octave span and simply skipping every other note and working our way through all of its pitches. This creates our chord tones. Example 2.

stepwise
arpeggio degrees
chord tones
arpeggio degrees
1
3
5
7
9
11
13
15
C major arpeggio
C
E
G
B
D
F
A
C

The arpeggio. The arpeggio is the 'chord scale' used by any instrument that cannot play chords when they want to sound out the pitches of the chords in a song. As guitarists (and for piano players too) we can do both; sound out the arpeggios in succession to hear a chord or, stack up the pitches and sound them together. Here is the arpeggio and chord from the first scale degree. Example 2a.

And that's the theory. In this last example we get the basics of soloing through a chord change. We sounded out the arpeggio pitches and then stacked them up and sounded them together as a chord. Everything else we'll do will follow along this basic theory guideline. Too easy? In theory yes but in practice depending and on circumstances, a bear of a challenge and then some :)

A chord on each scale degree. As most songs use a couple of chords or more to support the melody, in getting our arms around all this we can expand our chart to spell out the seven diatonic chords of any given key center; we simply build a unique chord on each scale degree. These become the diatonic chords of our song's chord progression. This provides the gist of the chords for most of our music. Examine the letter names and sounds of our seven diatonic triads, One through Seven, in C major. Example 3.

scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
C major scale
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
C
arpeggio degrees
1
3
5
7
9
11
13
15
C major arpeggio
C
E
G
B
D
F
A
C
One
C
E
G
.
.
.
.
.
Two
D
F
A
.
.
.
.
.
Three
E
G
B
.
.
.
.
.
Four
F
A
C
.
.
.
.
.
Five
G
B
D
.
.
.
.
.
Six
A
C
E
.
.
.
.
.
Seven
B
D
F
.
.
.
.
.

It is from these seven triads that we make up our chord progressions. Depending on the style of music we're working in, we'll do any number of different things to best support our melody and create variety. These often include; adding the 7th, adding additional color tones, creating inversions of the triads, finding melodic ideas, arpeggios and chords that live in between these seven diatonic positions through chord substitution.

chord progressions
adding the 7th
color tones
inversions
chord substitution

Hear the changes in the line. In this next idea we simply arpeggiate these seven chords in a new sequence. Can you 'hear the changes in the line?' Hint; it doesn't start on the One chord. Example 4.

Able to catch the progression by ear? The progression goes like this; Four, Three, Two, One, Four, Five, Six, Seven, One. Try again if needed. Hearing the changes, melodies, intervals and all of it falls under the academics of 'ear training.' It's a fair amount of the work involved as we develop as music theorists. 'Hearing the theory' is a goal many pursue over the course of their careers.

ear training

The long view. Can I convincingly improvise a single note melody that clearly carries the progression of the harmony too? As the harmony evolves through styles and artistic evolutions, our degree of challenge evolves also. Add in brighter tempos and we're right back to busy and up to our elbows with stuff to shed and drive deeper into our rote and muscle memories. Many many love and cherish this unending artistic searching. Again, if there's a secret to unlocking this theory, it is learning how to spell out the letter names of the chords we have in our songs and then them find them on our guitars.

evolution of style
spelling chords

A common start point. For many styles, the blues is a part of its basis; theory wise, in history and in performance. So we can use the blues and its pitches, chords, form and time to initiate and create a study strengthen this 'through the changes process.'

Presented here as I learned it decades ago from an Emily Remler 'Hot Licks' video, it's cool in that it makes us juggle all of the components at once, thus strengthening key aspects of our chops. We couple this with gradually adding new chords into the 12 bar form, each new chord needing to be outlined in the single note line.

And while this heads us in a jazz direction mostly, it is a good way to begin shedding 'through the changes' for it puts us on familiar ground with a predictable form that creates our own ideas we can use on the bandstand.

12 bar blues
Emily Remler

A common start point. For many styles, the blues is a part of its basis; theory wise, in history and in performance. So we can use the blues and its pitches, chords, form and time to initiate and create a study strengthen this 'through the changes process.'

blues through the changes

Included here as I learned it decades ago now from an Emily Remler 'Hot Licks' video, it's cool in that it makes us juggle many key components at once, thus getting at and strengthening key aspects of our chops. The process starts with a three chord blues and gradually adds new chords into the 12 bar form, evolving the changes in a jazz direction. Each new chord needing to be outlined and 'heard' in the single note line we create.

So even while this heads us in a jazz direction mostly, it is a good way to begin shedding 'through the changes' for all of our styles. For it puts us on familiar ground with a predictable form and the big four swing, which we can find and use in all of our styles and we generate our own ideas we can then share on the bandstand.

big four swing

Jazz improv. This last paragraph sums up a central part of the theory of jazz improvisors, old school ones for sure. Plus this whole process usually happens in faster tempos in the jazzier musics. Faster just usually makes for more exciting and that applies to our thought process as well. For those so inclined, the combined thought, physical and spiritual process of improv with the language of jazz is a very exhilarating thing to do :)

old school

Even in theory; no limit. Beginning to see yet another 'endless pathway of unlimited exploratory coolness' for your music? It opens right up before our artistic senses with just a wee wee bit of understanding of the structural theory of our musics. Many great improvisers started out as youngsters and had a knack for what they naturally liked to do and with practice and mentoring got very very good at. There's also the pathway of dedication to the art and the time put in that all may follow, working to master the art through this most basics of basics; sing the line, play the line. And this any of us might do, work at and get better and better.

sing the line play the line

Handed down to us. The following picture is taken off the music stand of a dear friend here in Alaska. Early on in their career had the opportunity to take lessons with Jackie McLean, who in his early days had spent time with many of bebop's finest including Charlie Parker, whom he subbed for occasion. During a lesson he described his process of 'reading through the changes' as a way to improvise and spoke of how this was a common approach for many players of his generation and circle of musical friends. The penciled in words at the top of this chart are Mr. McLean's own. Sums it all right up :)

Review. Soloing through chord changes gives us an opportunity to improvise single note melody lines that aurally captures the emotional character and direction of the chords of a song.

For most our styles; folk on through to pop, we're in a diatonic environment. And if we use the correct associated pentatonic group, we're really forever golden. Our responsibility mainly to find the melody of the song, riff on it and conjure up some mojo to get it all going on as a soloist.

environment

For as my buddy Stu once remarked, 'in the songs I play there's really only a couple of choices where the chords can go Joe.' This in reference to his soloing in mostly country swing, the blues and rock stylings. Soloing over the changes. Even so, when Stu's working the magic and the diatonic Six chord chord going to Three in the turnaround is a major VI7 and not the diatonic minor vi-7, chances are good he'll somehow nick that major 3rd of its triad, moving 'outside' the diatonic realm for just a brief moment. For this 'altered' VI chord from its diatonic minor presents an opportunity to expand 'through the change.' And after doin it gillion times or so, this wee bit of a harmony window potentially adds something new to the view for Stu to share.

something new
tuning our notes

Through the changes becomes more of a necessity in jazz as; tempos accelerate, there are more chords altered from their diatonic basis, there are chord cycles within progressions diatonic to other keys and the complete changing keys or modulation is very very common. In these sorts of challenges, arpeggiating a chord's pitches wins the day. The theory basis of this is developing the ability to spell any chord in relation to its own key center and its parent scale or mode.

modulation
spell chords
key center
parent scale
mode

Their eventual rote memorization of their pitches and fingerboard shapes gradually become assimilated through shedding. We theorists can explore the idea of 'chord type', which allows us to create three 'categories of chords' that facilitate the learning process. That any chord in our lexicon can be one of three 'types' can truly reduce the amount of shedding dramatically.

rote memorization
chord type

Here in Essentials, learning melodies is the key to our improv as we can discover all of our music theory in an already completed artistic form. We can extract any bit of melody coolness and run it through near endless theory sequences or 'filters' that potentially expand any motif into complete works of art. That in listening to accomplished soloists we often hear just that; a continuous stream of melody created from bits and pieces of other written melodies. This is also one part of the reasoning that encourages jazz artists to learn songs in a couple of keys, if not all twelve, creating a 'database' of ideas or as termed in the old days, a 'bag of licks.'

learning melodies
sequencing
filters

The blues can be a sure fire way into developing strength for soloing through the changes for the evolving guitarist. With its solid 12 bar form, three four bar phrases, over the last century or so nearly every nook and cranny has been explored. Thus today we inherit a solid library of chord substitutions that make good sense when located within the form. Once established in the blues, we'll find other working spots for these chord substitutions in other forms, songs and styles of music.

blues chord substitution
form in music
songs
styles of music

"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.