Same Chords-Different Jobs

When improvising over chord progressions, most players have a tendency to use one or two scales for the basis of their solos (the blues and pentatonic scales). This is taking a ‘scalar’ rather than ‘chordal’ approach to improvising.

This is all well and good for the most part and will work for many situations in rock and blues. It does however limit us to playing the same runs and licks over and over again but in different keys. This can lead to predictable solos and stagnation. To get out of this cycle of playing the same, safe solos we need to approach improvising in a different way.

Taking a chordal approach to improvising means that the melodic lines we play are based around the chords that make up the chord progression. This is a much more logical way to approach soloing, and when we apply some simple chord theory with this principle, we find that there are endless new ways to improvise over standard chord progressions.

First of all, we need to go back over some old ground. It is very important that you understand the material covered in the Working Inside Keys chapter. There, we covered the formulas that dictate what chords can be used in any given key. This formula came out to be:

Imaj IImin IIImin IVmaj Vmaj VImin VIIdim

When we applied this to a practical example (the key of Gmajor), we got the following results:

Gmaj7 Amin7 Bmin7 Cmaj7 D7 Emin7 F#min7b5

A chord progression combining any of the above chords would be in the key of Gmajor and we could comfortably solo over them using the Gmaj pentatonic or Eminor scales.
The reason for this is due to the rules that dictate harmony. The chords above were not generated at random; the notes that make up all of the chords in Gmajor all belong in the key of Gmajor.

A simplistic way to look at chord harmony is this: Each chord has a specific job to do in the key of Gmajor. They are either II chords or a V chords and so on. When used against each other, the melodic effect caused by the chord change will give a combination of dissonant and consonant resolutions. This is why a II V progression sounds different to a IV I progression.

Now let us look at the chords in a different way. If we compare the keys of Gmajor and Fmajor, we will see that both contain the chord of Amin7.

Key Chords
Gmajor: Gmaj7 Amin7 Bmin7 Cmaj7 D7 Emin7 F#min7b5
Fmajor: Fmaj7 Gmin7 Amin7 Bbmaj7 C7 Dmin7 Emin7b5

In the key of Gmajor, Amin7 is the II chord but in the key of Fmajor, it is the III chord. If you looked at the key of Cmajor you will find Amin7 to be the VI chord. So we can say that when you see a minor chord in a progression you can treat it in three ways:

  1. As a II chord in the key a tone below.
  2. As a III chord in the key a maj 3rd below
  3. As a VI chord in the key a 3rd above.

This gives us 3 ways in which we can apply a major scale to a minor chord. If you played a Gmaj scale, a Fmaj scale and a Cmaj scale over a Amin7 chord, you would hear three very distinctive effects. To create an interesting change in a melodic line when you come across a minor chord in a progression, try playing one of the three major scales to change the job of the minor chord (you are in fact, changing keys when you do this). Only do this for as long as the chord lasts in the bar, since the major scale you are now using will probably clash with the parent key of the chord progression.

As a minor chord can be viewed differently when related to other keys, so can all the other chord types. In the next section we deal with the most common ones.

The Major Chord

Looking again at the chords that can be played in a given key, you will see that the major chord appears in three places: as the I chord, as the IV chord and as the V chord. Due to the laws of harmony, we can expand the major chord to become a major7 in the case of the I and IV chords, and a dominant 7th in the case of the V chord.

We can also use simple chord substitution to replace the maj7 chord with a dominant7 chord in a progression. If you look at a simple I IV V chord progression, you will see this in effect. Therefore when we see a major, major7 or dom chord in a progression, you can consider it to be:

  1. A I chord (in the key of the same name).
  2. A IV chord (in the key a 4th below).
  3. A V chord (in the key a 5th below).

And you could switch into one of three major keys for the time measure that the chord lasts.

Note Note:If you apply music theory in the strictest sense, a I IV V chord progression actually changes key with every chord change. Each chord is actually considered to be a V chord in the key that has its root a 4th above. This is because the V chord will always be a dom7th chord.

The only chord yet to be covered is the diminished and min7b5. As this is a rather special chord it has to be treated in a rather special way. I will be including a section about using diminished chord in the near future.

It is enough to say in this section that you use the diminished chords mainly as passing chords, linking together progressions in a chromatic way. This is also true of the Augmented chord, although in reverse. As a rule, if you are ascending in a chord change, use a diminished passing chord. If you are descending, use an augmented.

i.e., C7 C#dim Dmin7
or Dmin7 Db+ C7

Putting it into Practice

It would be foolish to think that when soloing over a piece of music you would have the time to think of all the possibilities that you could play for each chord. What we should try to do is experiment with this method in the hope that it will train your ear into hearing different sounds, tonalities and melodies. After a while, these new melodies will become instinctive and effortless. The aim is to be able to open up new sounds to you. Not every solution you try will sound good, not every one you try will be useful but just by experimenting with a chordal approach will make you think more about the way you improvise.

I would advise making a tape with a 4 minute loop of each type of chord in different keys, and play over them using the chordal approach we have just mentioned. Solo over a Amin7 vamp using only the Cmaj scale, then use the Fmaj scale and then use the Gmaj scale listening to the way the different scales sound over the chord.

Once you have got used to playing major scales, try to use the relevant minor scales and even the blues and pentatonic scales. For Amin7, use the Dim scale and then the Emin scale. Try out the D blues scale and then the E pentatonic scale. This should help key in your ear to new sounds and tonalities, ones that you would not have come across before. Above all, have fun and just let your imagination lead the way.

Copyright Dale Churchett © 1995. All Rights Reserved.