For today’s post, I want to offer a bit of “learn from my mistakes” advice, specifically related to jazz improvising.
I started working on jazz soloing about 30 years ago. I’d only been playing a year or two at that point and, frankly, I didn’t know what jazz was. I just knew that playing jazz meant you were cool.
I began learning from a book whose title I’ve forgotten, but it was something like “Scales and Sequences.” Basically it was collection of scales and patterns and it would say things like, “When playing over an augmented seventh chord use the whole tone, Phrygian dominant or the super Locrian scales.”
I dutifully learned some of the scale shapes and tried to apply them to music. I would record myself playing a jazz progression and then attempt to apply the advice in the book. This usually led to the following internal dialogue while playing.
“Here comes a D minor chord. Okay, gotta find that D Dorian pattern. Or I could use the fourth mode of the harmonic minor scale for a more exotic sound. Wait… crap, now we’re on a G7 b5 chord! What do I use? Um, I think the Lydian dominant scale works. But the only shape I know for that pattern is down on the neck, far away from where I’m currently playing. Argh. Now we’re on a C maj 7th. The books says sophisticated players use the Lydian scale here. Ahh! Why does this suck so much?!”
The problem with this method was that it forced me to make decisions all the time. This was unlike rock soloing where I could use one scale throughout the song.
I struggled with this for years. Many years. I still occasionally struggle with it. But over the past ten years or so I’ve started to realize a few shortcuts.
Play the Shapes
Several years ago I started watching/listening to the playing of a guy I knew up in L.A., folk/country musician Tracy Huffman. Tracy’s playing wasn’t particular showy, but he could consistently knock out solid, well-developed solos. I found a lot of what was doing was not so much playing scales but playing licks based on the chord shapes of whatever chord he was playing over. He would approach a chord tone from a half step down, or play various country music licks in which you hammer on to a chord tone from somewhere below it. (Hendrix did a lot of this; so does Keith Richards.) What Tracy clearly wasn’t doing was frantically thinking about the various scales he could be playing over whatever chord he was on. And you could hear this lack of mental distraction in his playing.
To use this approach you need to be comfortable with the CAGED system. This is being able to play any major chord using its C shape, its A shape, its G shape, its E shape and its D shape. This link explains it pretty well.
At the time, I was playing with a gal, Dafni, who did a lot of early jazz music. So I tried Huffman’s approach with her music and found it worked quite well. It wasn’t particularly exotic or sophisticated, but it sure was a lot easier than frantically grasping at dozens of different scales in the heat of the moment.
I want to just make a side note here: This larger idea of eliminating the decision making process from the “heat of the moment” in your solos is key. You don’t want to be thinking analytically while soloing, rather you want to be in the moment. You need to offload the analytic stuff to your practice time.
Play the Basic Scale
As the years went on and I continued playing jazz I noticed one thing. A lot of tunes, particularly standards, may have sophisticated, non-diatonic chords (e.g major chords that should be minor, altered chords like b5s, #9s, or various diminished chords) but the melody of the song is purely diatonic (e.g. no “outside” notes.) I started wondering, “Can I just improvise over the song using the basic scale?” If a song is in F major can I just use the F major scale, even if the song has lots of jazzy, non-diatonic chords?
The answer is, “Sometimes. More than you might think.” Pick out standard like “Honeysuckle Rose” or the rhythm changes and play through it using just the major scale. It’s pretty functional. There might be a few places that sound a bit off, but they don’t scream, “mistake!”
Why is this? I think the human ear is just more forgiving when you play the root scale over non-diatonic chords. For example, take the key of C. The chord built off the E note in that scale should be, by diatonic rules, an E minor chord. But it is often turned into a dominant chord (containing a major third), usually when leading to an A minor chord. If you play the straight C major scale over that chord you may end up playing a minor third (G) over the major third in the E7. But it really doesn’t sound that bad. (The “minor over major” sound is the basis of the blues after all.)
The point here is that instead of thinking, “Okay, got a dominant chord coming up, better play the whole tone scale. Or maybe super Locrian? Argh, now we’re on a minor chord. What’s a good Dorian pattern? Crap!” you can just think, “This song is basically in C so I will play the C major scale.”
You can even simplify things even further and play the related pentatonic scale. Instead of playing the C major scale, play C major pentatonic (also known as A minor pentatonic.)
You can, of course, combine the “play the basic scale” approach with the “play around the shapes” approach and get some cool sounds without taxing your brain.
There’s are limits to these ideas. You won’t get a lot of the cool little dissonances etc. that we associate with jazz. But you will give your brain a break.
Now, there are some/many exceptions. Some tunes really do require you to shift tonal centers and scales But not every bar (unless they are crazy experimental fusion tunes.) More like every eight bars or so.