Hallmarks of Greene's Style

Photo courtesy of Leon White

Throughout his life Ted Greene preached the gospel of harmony. Everything from blues to Baroque was fair game, and Greene made every chord move a teachable moment. Since his passing, many former students have made his handouts, arrangements, and lesson notes available through tedgreene.com. Nearly all the material consists of scanned versions of actual lesson handouts, and they feature Greene’s unique method for diagramming chords. Many of these documents are signed and dated, and contain what could be thought of as one of Ted’s Musical Commandments: “Don’t let the music die on the page.”

In this lesson we’ll look at two distinctly different (but sublimely “Ted”) ways Greene approached the blues. Fig. 1 is a gospel-influenced blues progression that makes use of many concepts that Greene illustrated in his opus on harmony, Chord Chemistry.

This blues in G starts with a I-IV progression in the first measure to establish the sound of the key. One of the most essential—and amazing—aspects of Greene’s style is his masterful command of voice leading, which is the technique of moving from one chord to another in the most musically economical way possible. To better understand this idea, think of each chord shape as a collection of individual voices rather than a “grip” or “shape.” In the first measure, notice how Greene keeps the common tone (G) on top while moving the lower two notes up to the next closest chord tones.

Creating a smooth and melodic series of chords, while still sticking to a harmonic framework, is like solving a challenging puzzle. In the third and fourth measures, Greene uses a scalar bass line (D–E–F–E–D–C–B) to set up a G7/B chord going into the IV chord (C7). Greene uses a dim7 chord in the next measure to create some tension before returning to the I chord in the sixth measure. A diminished chord is made up of a series of minor third intervals, and this allows any note to function as the root. The scalar bass line technique gets a reprise in measures seven and eight before the progression heads to the V chord in measure nine.

While focusing on economy of motion and outlining the harmony, Greene creates a somewhat symmetrical melody line over the V and IV chords, above the ever-so-slightly shifting the harmony underneath. Finally, in the last two measures he combines the previous diminished harmony with a masterful bass line to create a turnaround that’s as functional as it is sophisticated.

In Fig. 2, we see how Greene combines a traditional form with more extended harmonies and substitutions. The first thing you’ll notice about the voicings is that they’re almost exclusively played on the 5–4–2–1 string set. Greene was a devout fingerstyle player and these “split” voicings will expand your right-hand technique and suggest alternatives to typical jazz grips. When Greene originally presented this material, it was merely a bunch of chord diagrams on a page. Following his advice, I took those chords and added a more syncopated rhythm.

If you look at how Greene constructed these chords, all of them start on either the 3 or 7. Those two notes are the most essential harmonic elements because they define both the chord’s quality and tonality. The first harmonic twist is in the fourth measure where Greene inserts a IIm–V7 progression to create a stronger pull into the Bb9 chord in the next measure. The key changes momentarily to Ab in the sixth measure with a IIm-V7. The Eb13 in measure six keeps two common tones while the harmony gracefully shifts up for a return to the I chord in the next measure.

The eighth measure contains the standard altered VI chord, but this time its own altered V7 precedes it. In harmonic terms, this measure can either be thought of as simply a III7–VI7 progression in the key of F, or an added secondary dominant (V of VI). The final four measures begin with a dom7 chord built on the second degree of the scale. Usually in the blues form this would be a min7 chord, but Greene deftly adds a tritone substitution after this in order to let the lower notes of the chord remain while the upper notes shift. This sets up a proper IIm–V7 progression in the next measure before ending with a I–VI7–II7–V7 turnaround.