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Playing It Safe – 

Improvising Over Chords Without A Net

 By Joel Mabus

 

Improvising is all about taking risks.  Let it be said that without taking any musical chances, an improvised solo will lie pretty flat.  But on the other hand, going out on a limb can sometimes result in a crash – getting lost and never returning to safe ground is no fun either. No fun for the player OR the listener.

A great improviser is nearly always going to be a person who has had a lot of experience in taking chances. One learns this craft by being bold and fearless – and sometimes falling on one’s face.  That as a given, there are a few strategies that take some of the risk out of the process, especially for the beginning improviser.

Here are three bets for “playing safe.”  Please keep in mind that these are just guidelines. There are plenty of ways to break these rules and make great music.  But to give some shape to your “noodling” these three guideposts will give you a way to start making sense of the improvisation process.

LET’S ASSUME, FOR OUR EXAMPLE, we will be playing a simple song in the key of C major.  The melody never leaves the realm of the C scale, and the chords are all the natural harmonic triads extended from the C scale:

C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, B°

(I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, VII°)

 

¨       The three major Chords are the
I, IV, V – C, F, G.  They will likely be used the most in a “major key feel” song.

¨       Their relative minors, respectively
vi, ii, iii – Am, Dm, Em,  may be used as substitutes, or might be an integral part of the song structure. 

¨       The VII° (B,D,F) is usually thought of as an extension to the V (G,B,D) chord, making it a V7 (G,B,D,F).
THUS  B
° is can be thought of as equivalent to G7.

 

SAFE BET #1 – Whenever you are improvising over a chord (triad) it is always a safe bet that you may play any of the 3 notes that make up that triad. Of course that includes those notes from other octaves as well.  

So while on the C chord, you can play the
notes C, E, & G safely.
While on the F chord, you can play the
notes F, A, & C safely.
While on the G chord, you can play the
notes G, B, & D safely.
When on an Em chord, you can play the
notes E, G, & B.
So forth with all the chords.  
NOTICE THIS:  When the chord is G7, you can play the three notes of the G chord, G, B, & D  -- AND/OR – play the three notes of the chord, B, D, & F.

SAFE BET #2    When the chord is a harmonic extension of the Key – it is usually a safe bet that you can improvise with the pentatonic scale of the root of that chord. (Major Pentatonic scale for a major chord; Minor Pentatonic scale for a minor chord; a diminished pentatonic scale for the VII°)

When on the C chord, you can play the C major pentatonic scale notes: C, D, E, G, A.
When on the F chord, you can play the F major pentatonic scale notes: F, G, A, C, D. 
When on the G chord, you can play the G major pentatonic scale notes: G, A, B, D, E. 
When on the Am chord, you can play the
A minor pentatonic scale notes: A, C, D, E, G.
When on the Dm chord, you can play the
D minor pentatonic scale notes: D, F, G, A, C.
When on the Em chord, you can play the
E minor pentatonic scale notes: E, G, A, B, D.
When on the chord, you can play the
B diminished pentatonic scale notes: B,C,D,F,G.
NOTICE THIS: The G7 chord can be thought of as a G, plus the. Combining both pentatonic scales yields SEVEN notes that are safe to play: 
  G,A,B,C,D,E,F (G as tonal center) or

B,C,D,E,F,G,A (B as tonal center) 

(The B as the tonal center creates the tension that we usually associate with the “dominant seventh” chord.)

 

SAFE BET #3 – One step further, you can use the seven “church modes” to improvise from the diatonic (7 tone) scale. The actual notes remain the same – the scale notes of the key you are in – but the “tonal center” (the note you would call “one” or “DO” or the “root”) changes. The note that names the chord becomes the new tonal center.

When on the C chord, you can play the
Ionian mode – C,D,E,F,G,A,B.
When on the Dm chord, you can play the
Dorian mode – D,E,F,G,A,B,C
When on the Em chord, you can play the
Phrygian mode – E,F,G,A,B,C,D.
When on the F chord, you can play the
Lydian mode – F,G,A,B,C,D,E.
When on the G chord, you can play the
Mixolydian mode – G,A,B,C,D,E,F.
When on the Am chord, you can play the
Aeolian mode –A,B,C,D,E,F,G.
When on the chord (or G7), you can play the
Locrian mode – B,C,D,E,F,G,A.

 

Memorizing the names of each mode is not important, but changing the tonal center to correspond with the chord is! Try each of these modes over the appropriate chords. Start simple – just the first five notes (DO, RE, MI, FA, SOL). Then try those five notes forward, back and forward again.

When that is comfortable, try the upper end of the scale in a similar manner (DO, TI, LA SOL, etc).

 

 

 

©Joel Mabus 2001

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