Scales can lead you astray

OK so you want to play faster than you can think. Scales are the way to go! You can vary them a bit by playing them in thirds (up two down one) and keep going (up three down two…). Then do the same stuff with all the other scales – the harmonic and jazz minors, which is what you get when you play the ascending melodic minor the same way downwards. Some blues scales? OK. How about something more exotic? Go for it!

After years of daily workouts like these, you can blow people away without having to take your left hand out of your pocket.

But what about playing along with the chord changes? I hear you shout.

If you listen to some teachers, they tell you to use this scale, use that scale.

But wait a minute! I’m trying to get you to play what’s in your head. Like singing in the shower. At no stage in that process do you “use” a scale. Perish the thought!

Besides, everything you have been told makes no sense.

Play C major over C major, and D dorian over Dm7.

What’s the difference?

D dorian uses the same notes but goes from D to D 

So that means I play a phrase in C that starts on D?

No, no, no, you try to keep it varied. Just use your… inspiration. 

Now I can really hear you scream!

So today I want to show you a different way of thinking about those pesky things. I want to talk about a thing I call chord focus.

Pick out any song from any song book and look for altered notes, sharps, flat and naturals in the melody. Discard passing notes (ones that move by a halfstep to land on a regular note). Now check out the chord that underpins those notes. You will see that 9 times out of 10 the altered note is the third of the chord. With some reservations…

Going into more detail here: a non-passing accidental sharp (or natural when the key sig is full of flats) in the melody can nearly always be harmonized as the third of a dominant seventh.  Take the first line of All of Me:


Imagine you only had the melody to go by, without those chord symbols on top. That G-sharp in bar 3 is telling you I’m a third of a dominant seventh chord, so you play E7.  But if you think that means you should be playing in E mixolydian over it, think again!


That F-sharp and C-sharp will sound oh-so wrong!

OK a couple more years of theory will tell you why that’s wrong.  Something to do with preparing the A minor chord that follows on the next line. But there is a much simpler way to understand it. And it is what intuitive improvisers are doing without even thinking about it.

The French name for accidentals is “alterations”. And in fact that is all that has happened here. One note has been altered!

So should we just stay on the C scale with a G-sharp instead of a G? Or an E phrygian mode with a raised third? Don’t even think of it that way! Forget scales and modes.

All the intuitive player needs to know is the focus of the chord – in this case the G-sharp. It’s the note that invites him and leads him into the chord, the note he wants to orbit around.  Instinctively he will avoid doing that in a way that shifts the focus on to a different note. He also won’t want to change its function. He won’t want to make that G-sharp be mistaken for an A-flat (by playing it in an F minor arpeggio for instance – save that for bar 26). Think surrounding notes.

Its like a coloring book. The chords are there and you color them in. You color in the horse. You don’t change the horse into a bear, or daub it beyond recognition. My mentor, Chris McGregor, showed me that the soloist should enhance the chord that the band is playing, or at least try not to detract from it.

Follow me on Twitter @jazzpanflute

About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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