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Using triad pairs is simply an intervallic approach to improvisation. When used correctly, the technique can generate some very interesting sounds.

Using triad pairs is simply an intervallic approach to improvisation. The concept is fairly basic, and it’s fun and challenging at the same time. When used correctly, the technique can generate some very interesting sounds. Let’s get started.

First, we need to define what triad pairs are. You can think of them in simple terms as a pair of triad arpeggios that will be used for improvising. But how do we know which ones to use? Basically, any two triads generated from a diatonic scale that are next to each other are a good choice. For this lesson (and believe me this is just the tip of the iceberg), we use F and G triads to solo over a Dm7 vamp. The default scale for playing over minor-7th chords in jazz is the Dorian mode. In this example, we’ll select D Dorian, which contains the same notes as the C major scale. The triads in the key of C major are C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim. So all we have done is select two triads that are the same quality (major) and occur next to each other in the scale. So F and G are a great choice. The notes from these two arpeggios are F–A–C (F triad) and G–B–D (G triad).

What’s cool about this concept is that if you play lines that use the notes from these two triads in sequence, you will end up playing six of the seven diatonic notes from the scale without repeating any other notes. Also, you will generate lines with fairly wide intervals (lots of thirds and fifths) that are typical in modern jazz improvisation.

Watch the video lesson:

The first thing you need to do is get a grip on these triads, and all their inversions, everywhere on the fretboard. This is where you will find out how well you understand triads. If you struggle with this at first, that’s okay. Take your time and master the arpeggio shapes. Basically, there are two ways to approach this on guitar. Every guitarist should be able to play every triad with horizontal movement and vertical movement. Horizontal movement goes up and down the fretboard staying on the same string set and vertical movement stays in position while playing through the triads and their inversions. Check out and Fig. 1andFig. 2 to see how to use these two movements.

The following examples show how to organize the notes in these triads to create some interesting ideas. One byproduct of this technique is that your solos will sound more compositional, because motivic ideas and development will naturally start to occur. Motivic development creates form, and this sounds distinctly different from mindlessly running through a scale or playing some melody that doesn’t really seem to have a destination.

Both Fig. 3 and Fig. 4 combine a more melodic approach with some syncopated ideas, and demonstrate how these techniques can give your improvisation a very compositional quality. In Fig. 5, I use the inversions of the F and G triads to move up the neck and I add an Eb passing tone in the last measure. Download example 3 audio...

Download example 4 audio...

Download example 5 audio...

Basically, this concept is just a way to break out of running scales and playing scalar lines. It also forces us to be very accurate with our note choices, and in many cases will expose how little we actually understand the fretboard and triad shapes (with their inversions) across the fretboard. Good luck and have fun!

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How to excel at comping

Accompaniment. Complimentary. Complex. Composite. Compound. All good words to associate with “comping,” rooted in the sentiment of interconnected parts. A jazz band thrives as an ecosystem, with each element contributing its essential part of the combined activity. Jazz guitarists in the role of comping can provide the oxygen that fuels the fire of a soloist, or the comfortable spot on the lawn for the soloist to come home and relax. Whether it’s a cooking, up-tempo number or a restrained, elegant ballad, we need to be prepared to state the harmonic structure, the groove and the tempo with reliability. On top of all of that, it’s nice to voice chords thoughtfully so as to create a sense of melody while moving through a progression.

As tempting as it may be to play chords in all sorts of accented ways rhythmically, it is a greater gift to the melody player—and the soloists—to just lay it down simply. We’re talking half note rhythms here, or dotted quartereighths, or all quarter notes. Even all whole notes work beautifully, say, behind a bass solo. It works better for the overall good if we stay committed to a groove, rather than a disjointed series of jabs at the chords.

Drummers have a collection of “beats” that they offer for the variety of styles that get played during a given performance. We can ask them to play a shuffle, a jazz waltz, a swing, a bossa nova, or any one of the many Latin grooves. Guitarists need to be equally ready with a rhythmic pattern to play that is appropriate to the style. The big question among the rhythm section that comes before playing a tune is, “Is it swing eighths or straight?” You’ve got to know what that means, and find the respective one or two bar patterns that will help to propel an arrangement without rocking the boat.

A sparkling ring may be beautiful on its own, but it’s even more memorable when it’s presented as a gift in a lovely soft box. Chords exist to support a melody. If we do our job well, the melody lines will soar and shine without distraction. If we are interpreting a lead sheet, as opposed to an exact part, we can feel free to use tensions and substitutions that will deepen the musical statement that is being made.

When I was in Nashville a few years back trying out an acoustic guitar at one of the booths at the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention, a couple of sweet onlookers, full of many years of love, enthusiasm, and experiences with both the South and guitars, drawled out the following comment for me: “Nice holds.” It took me a minute, but I eventually realized that they were talking about my choices of chord forms (I had heard people refer to them as “grips” before, and that helped me to put it together). It is very important to collect as many “holds” as you can in order to accompany a melody creatively and thoughtfully. In doing so, however, it is equally important to study the chord forms, identify each note in the voicing, and how it functions in the chord. I am all for the visual aid of learning chords as recognizable shapes, but I also ask all my students to learn the details: make a chord diagram and then write the note names across the top of the strings, and the function (chord tone or tension) below each string of the diagram. In a movable form (no open strings) the note names will change as you move it around on the neck, but the numbers (the function of the chord) will not. One of many bonuses from doing this is a sharp awareness of the notes all over the neck as you encounter them while comping.

If you are quick at chord tones in theory (quick: what’s the 5th of an A%maj7?) then you can use that to land on the chord form that has the 5th of A%maj7 (E%) on the high E string. The E string is a good sight line for me; you may be quicker at chasing the root around on whichever string it falls. If my chord is voiced on the middle four strings, so neither E string is being played, then my sight line will either be the A string or the B string (quick: what’s the 3rd of a B%maj7?). I know then that if I grab the form that gives me the 3rd in the bass, as long as I put in on D on the fifth fret of the A string, I’ll have the B%maj7 I wanted.

Listen to the chord tones and tensions as you practice. When you play with the band, you will recognize the places in the music for them. This is what makes comping as exciting as improvising.

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Inventory your playing and list your repertoire to get prepared for gigs and evaluate areas for improvement.

There are two kinds of practice: repertoire practice, and the other kind. We’ve examined the other kind here in months gone by, and there will be plenty more of that to come. This time, however, let’s get some repertoire practice underway and start booking some gigs.

“Wanna play some tunes?” “Sure, what do you wanna play?” “Uh, I don’t know, what tunes do you know?” “Oh, I don’t know, I know a lot of tunes, really. What do you like to play?” “Well, do you know Stella?” “Uh, let’s see… (noodle noodle)…Um, how ‘bout a blues? Do you know any blues heads?” And on and on it goes.

It turns out that knowing a song and being able to play it are two entirely different things. As a jazz guitarist, it’s important to know the following four aspects of a song: 1.) Melody (playing “the head”); 2.) Chords (comping); 3.) Melody and Chords Together (playing a chord-melody solo); and 4.) Improvising (taking a solo over the chord changes or harmony of the tune).

These four aspects of a tune are all related and helpful to each other. While not all tunes will fall neatly on the neck as a chord-melody solo, learning to express at least some of the chord quality behind a melody will give you the best understanding of the song. The more fully you understand a song, the better you will be able to improvise on it. The better you have the melody down, the better you can interpret it freely and refer to it in a solo. The better you know the chord progression, the more confident you can be while soloing and playing a chord-melody solo.

Write it down
There’s nothing like seeing something in writing to make it seem so much more official. To illuminate exactly which songs you “know” and enjoy playing in different ways and in different ensemble contexts, let’s get a few lists going. It might start with one song in one category, or you might find that you have several songs already at your disposal, but the important thing is to begin. I recommend one piece of paper with three column headings across the top: HEADS, CHORDS, CHORD SOLOS.

Take an honest inventory of your playing. We’re talking about memorized melodies and chords here. Songs you can play if you have a chart in front of you can go on a separate list—that’s worthy, too, but not quite in your repertoire. It will be a good feeling to discover that you actually can play the head to “Stella,” for example, and you just didn’t realize it. You might surprise yourself to know that in fact you do have the chords to “Donna Lee” memorized quite easily, you just need to work on the melody some more. Write it all down in the proper place. Watch your list grow.

Go through fake books and try playing songs you’ve heard for many years, but you’re just not sure if you know the changes. Try not to look unless you really get stuck. Then try it again. Write it down. Just learned a new song last night on the bandstand by someone calling out the chords to you? You’ll probably never forget it. Write it down in your comping category. So you worked out a comfortable fingering for the head to “Billie’s Bounce?” Write it down. Then go over it a few times every day to be sure. (That’s likely one you can add to the chord category, as well, if you know the modified 12-bar blues form).

It seems that if we learn a song without having read it from a written part, we will never need a chart for it. If, however, you have always used a chart for a song that you’ve played again and again, you’ll need to wean yourself from it. Try going chart-free during a practice session. More often than not, you’ll impress yourself by knowing at least one part of the song: the chord changes or the melody. You’ll be able to visualize the phrases and the form as you play. You’ll gain freedom and a deeper understanding of the tune by playing it intuitively rather than relying on exactly what’s on the page.

I used to watch and listen to jazz guitarists play tunes all by themselves as if they had just decided to pick up the guitar that moment and see how it goes. I couldn’t imagine how those gorgeous voicings and reharmonization ideas were just flowing out so effortlessly. Then, dawn broke. There, as if written on the sky, I saw so clearly what had been going on: they had practiced! Be creative and reach for the unexpected harmony when making choices in a chord-melody solo. Take your time and craft it and let it build in a way that you like. Listeners will appreciate that, too, when the time comes to perform the piece.

Make notes to yourself as much as you need to. Many players and arrangers for solo guitar performance write out their chord-melody arrangements in notation for other players to use and perform. Again, the power of visual representation is considerable. Write your ideas down for future reference, either your own or someone else’s. Then play it, play it, play it. Add it to your chord solo list. The longer that part of the list gets, the more comfortable you will be at playing solo gigs, duo gigs and even trio gigs. Whatever role you are called upon to play as a guitarist, you will be prepared. It will say so right there on your list.

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