Beyond Blues: "Chicken" Blues
Investigate the 16-measure form found in "The Chicken" and learn to successfully navigate through the changes.
• Learn to develop soloing strategies over nontraditional blues forms.
• Understand how to combine different melodic approaches.
• Create improvised solos that combine arpeggios, scales, and chord fragments.
This series of columns was always conceived as a conduit for techniques and concepts that let you push past the old 12-bar form you’ve heard at oh-so-many jam nights in bars and clubs.
For the last few lessons we’ve looked at note choice and how we can use music theory to expand our practice methodology. We’ve covered scales, arpeggios, and phrasing to take your playing beyond the blues you may know and love. This month we’re going to take it easy and let you use what you’ve already learned while working on another key concept for jamming musicians.
So far in this column we’ve focused on the dominant 7 chord and various ways to outline it, so now I’m going to introduce you to an easy chord progression that you’ll be able to work up pretty quickly with some other musicians.
Originally composed by saxophonist Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, “The Chicken” would go on to be a funky fusion standard often played by the late, great Jaco Pastorius. There are endless renditions of this fantastic tune to check out, including the classic version recorded by Jaco on The Birthday Concert, along with various YouTube versions from the likes of John Scofield and Mike Stern. It’s also a favorite of Guthrie Govan’s fusion group, The Fellowship, which I’ve seen played a lot, and there’s a cracking version recorded by the criminally unknown Shaun Baxter called “Chicken Soup,” which can be heard on his seminal album, Jazz Metal.
We’re not going to learn the melody here, but instead follow the jazz practice of borrowing a chord progression and using it as the basis for a new tune. A piece that incorporates a new melody over an old chord progression is known as a “contrafact” (check out a list of contrafacts here). Now, let’s take a look at the chord chart in Fig. 1 and then we’ll break it down into manageable chunks.
Hopefully as the tune starts out, you’ll feel like you’re in familiar territory. The first six measures are identical to a standard blues, as we’re playing the I chord for four measures (Bb7) and moving to the IV chord in measures 5 and 6 (Eb9). This means you can treat this section like any other blues, and everything we’ve covered so far will work great here¬. Arpeggios, minor pentatonic scales, Mixolydian mode, and using the Super Locrian scale to resolve to the IV chord—these all have a place.
In measure 7, we take a turn beyond blues and move down a half-step to D9 instead of back to the I chord. Then we jump down a fifth to G7 and up a fourth to C9. There’s no need to panic though, as that’s just a simple cycle we looked at in a previous lesson [12 keys, 5 Shapes and the Blues]. In measure 12 we have a break where normally the band plays a descending unison melody, but in our example we’ll just play a blues fill. We end the form by moving back to Bb7 for four measures. I know that’s a lot to take in, so before you move on, just take a minute to play through these chords.
Now let’s look at how we can tackle that melodically. If you take a look at the first solo (Fig. 2), I’ve written something very simple that focuses on the minor pentatonic scale.
The first four measures contain nothing but simple minor pentatonic and blues scale phrasing which sounds great on a track like this. Sometimes it’s important to remember that even with everything we learn, the best thing can often be to just play the minor pentatonic scale with a good blues feel.
Over the Eb7, D7, and G7 chords, we’re just playing notes taken from the arpeggios. If you’ve spent time working on the arpeggio shapes we’ve covered before, this shouldn’t cause any real concern, but if you’re not yet comfortable, go back and check out the previously mentioned lesson.
The C7 chord sits with us for quite a while, so I’ve decided to treat it like a new key center and use the minor pentatonic scale (C-Eb–F–G–Bb) to give us a bluesy feel. Take note of just how much space I’ve left—something like this is great for the first chorus of a solo. I’ve ended the solo with a short chordal idea that outlines the Bb7 chord.
Although the idea behind this column is to expand your jam repertoire, I know lots of you are going to want to work on something challenging, so here’s another solo (Fig. 2) with some more demanding licks to learn.
This solo is a little more complicated, but still nothing you won’t be able to get down with a little bit of practice.
Measure 1 starts with an idea based on shape three that fits in the major pentatonic scale, though it’s very similar to a lot of the vocabulary we’ve looked at in this position. The second measure changes things up with a switch to the blues scale for a darker sound.
I bring in a new influence in measures 3 and 4, proving that going beyond blues doesn’t mean you need to be a jazz player, as this idea is clearly inspired by a Brent Mason country lick. The first half of the lick fits nicely around the Bb7 arpeggio you know and love, while the second part shifts up the neck to a Bb triad pattern that moves down to Ab and then resolves back to Bb.
For the Eb7 chord, we start with a cool little motif that gives us time to prepare for the second bar of Eb, which uses a string of 16th-notes and chromaticism before landing on the 5 (A) of D7. Over D7, we repeat the same motif used on Eb before moving to a very Clapton-like minor to major pentatonic phrase.
To contrast with the first solo, for the C7 chord I’ve decided to stick a little closer to the 7th tonality (rather than forcing the minor pentatonic), so notice how the phrase begins with a bend up to the b7 and then moves down to the 3. This idea is then developed in the tenth measure, where I add some chromatic passing tones before restating the original C7 idea, only this time we end on the bluesy b3.
I’ve ended with the same phrase from the first solo to illustrate how you can stitch these ideas together to spontaneously create new and exciting solos.
It’s worth mentioning that this is by no means a complete guide to soloing over this tune and there are numerous other ideas you can explore if you want to get real beyond. Try playing some Lydian dominant over the Eb7 and a bit of Mixolydian b6 over the D7 chord and see what you think of that. Just remember, this is still blues-based music, so don’t underestimate the power of a good blues lick.
Levi Clay is a London-based guitar player, teacher, and transcriber. His unique approach to learning keeps him in constant demand from students the world over, and his expertise as a transcriber has introduced his work to a whole new audience. For more information, check out leviclay.com.