Louis Electric

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Beyond Blues: Altered-Scale Secrets

Beyond Blues: Altered-Scale Secrets

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Advanced
Lesson Overview:
• Develop soloing strategies for V-I cadences.
• Learn about chord extensions and alterations.
• Understand how to incorporate the Super Locrian scale.

Click here to download MP3s and a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

This month you’re really going to reap the rewards of any time you put into my last lesson on dominant 7 arpeggios shapes and the CAGED system, as we’re going to move on to altered sounds and the V-I resolution.

There was a little confusion last month from some readers who (rightly so) pointed out that the chord progression we looked at wasn’t ever going to come up in the blues. It’s really important to understand that while the progression will probably never come up in full, picking any two measures of the progression gives you a V-I movement which is the absolute pivotal harmonic movement in all Western music (it crops up twice in a 12-bar basic blues and as many as 12 times in a bebop-influenced blues). If we were to take four consecutive chords you’d have the B section of "I’ve Got Rhythm" or any "rhythm changes" tune (sometimes referred to as the bebop bridge).

In the most basic form, 99 percent of all music boils down to tension and resolution. As a real simple example of this, if you play the chords C–F–Dm–G–Am you’ll find that the music doesn’t sound finished, you’re waiting for it to continue. That’s because I’ve ended it with an interrupted cadence, the V-VIm movement which could be likened to a comma in language. If I told you to repeat the progression but instead end on a C (C–F–Dm–G–C) suddenly the song feels complete because we’ve gone from the V chord (G, built from the 5th degree of the C major scale) to the I chord. This is known as a perfect cadence and is the strongest form of resolution in music. Even just the root movement of the V to the I carries enough weight that it remains strong through hundreds of years of culture.

When we pad out the harmony to 7th chords, in the key of C we would have Cmaj7–Dm7–Em7–Fmaj7–G7–Am7–Bm7b5. These chords obviously sound a little more complex than the previous triad harmony, but the rules established are still present. Cmaj7, Fmaj7, Dm7, G7, and Am7 still sound unfinished, and ending on the Cmaj7 gives us a sense of completion. What we have now is a dominant 7 chord, which naturally occurs on the 5th degree of the scale. This chord contains some real tension that wants to be resolved—even though we may not hear it that way, after listening to blues-influenced music for a century. Specifically there’s a diminished fifth interval between the 3 and b7 of the chord. When the major 3 raises a half-step and the lowered 7th drops a half-step, the chord resolves perfectly to the tonic C major chord.

The way we can take this concept a little “beyond” is to say to ourselves, "Okay, G7 to C sounds good because of tension and resolution, so what happens if I add even more tension to the equation?” The result is the altered chord.

At this stage, we’re not going to worry about correct extensions on secondary dominants, were just going to add a tension for effect. The four alterations at our disposal are the b5, #5, b9, and #9, and if we add any of them to our dominant 7 chord we’re going to create some real color. There really is a world of difference between Em7–A7–Dmaj7 and Em7–A7#5–Dmaj7. Give it a try!

So how do we use this altered sound in a blues context? Right now you may be thinking, “Levi, when I play blues, I don’t ever play a 7#5 chord.” The answer is simple: When moving from one chord to another, if it’s a dominant 7 moving up a 4th (or down a 5th), we can alter that chord—or pretend it’s altered. A great example of this in a blues would be measure four moving to measure five. In the key of A, we’d normally have four measures of A7 before moving to the IV chord (D7) in measure five. If we play the chord as A7 for three measures, but then alter it in the fourth measure to prepare for the resolution to D7, we’ll have a slightly more jazz-influenced blues.

Now that’s a lot of theory and we’re running out of space, so lets move on to how this can help us solo with a little more sophistication. The reference track at this point is always Robben Ford’s “Help The Poor.” It’s a flawless example of this concept in action because this minor blues in D features an A7#5 (give it a listen, it’s hard to miss) and during Robben’s two-chorus solo, he first chooses to ignore the chord, but on the repeat he opts to outline it with a fantastic altered lick that still grabs me every time I hear it (2:54).