Harmonics rule in this arrangement of “We Three Kings,” played as a jazz waltz with a strong swing feel.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Create melodies using natural harmonics.
• Explore the nuances of open Em7 tuning (E–G–D–G–B–E).
• Develop a jazz-waltz feel.

Click here to download PDF notation and an audio MP3 of this arrangement.
Harmonics rule in this arrangement of “We Three Kings,” played as a jazz waltz with a strong swing feel. Your groove and sense of swing are very important to this arrangement. I strongly suggest you practice it with a metronome. The first thing we want to do is tune our 5th string down a whole-step to G. This creates an Em7 (E–G–B–D) sound when all the open strings are strummed, and since this arrangement is in the key of E minor, it will give us the notes we need.

The vamp that first appears over the first four measures is played entirely with harmonics at the 7th and 12th frets. The purpose of the vamp is to set up the feel of the arrangement and to help divide the A and B sections. I play the 7th-fret harmonics with my first finger. The 12th-fret harmonics I play with my second finger. I seem to be able to get a bigger tone and less buzz by using my second finger. Use what works best for you. I’m lightly touching the strings, but not lifting my finger while I play the harmonics.

The A section is also played almost entirely with harmonics. In order to bring out the melody, play with confidence and pluck the melody notes slightly harder than the other strings. In measures 12 and 14, we combine both harmonics and fretted notes. In order to make the notes sound more uniform, you can play the natural notes on the top of the fret so that you’re slightly muting the note with your fingertip. It’s a little tricky, but fun to try. I’ve left quite a bit of space in the A section for the harmonics to ring, so you really need to internalize the groove to make it swing.

The B section has a little emotional lift—like you’ve crossed a tightrope and made it to the other side. You may need to hold back the volume a little to help match the A section. I play a hammer-on and pull-off triplet with my pinky in measures 19 and 27 that helps to push the song forward. In measure 30 (the last measure of the B section), the move up the neck is designed to get you back into position for the vamp at the end.

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One way to jazz up your blues playing is to focus on the mighty 3rd.

When I hear great musicians solo over a jazz-blues progression, I have the feeling their lines and ideas are making the chords change. It sounds like these players are leading the way, rather than merely reacting to the changing chords. To achieve this, these savvy players often start and end phrases with chord tones, and by doing so, they define the harmony with their solo.

One way to jazz up your blues playing is to focus on the mighty 3rd. Since a chord’s 3rd defines the harmony as either major or minor, and this note is largely absent when you improvise with a minor pentatonic scale—the default choice for most guitarists for blues solos—it’s a good place to start.

Here’s why: If you play only a minor pentatonic scale over a typical jazz-blues progression, the 3rd is missing when you solo over the I chord, the IV chord, the #IV diminished, the V chord, and even the VI, if you take the common approach of playing that chord as a dominant 7th. Starting an idea on the 3rd does a lot to establish the harmony.

The following examples focus on Bb7 with all the ideas starting on its 3rd, D. Each step should be fairly easy. I recommend singing or humming the ideas while you play them, as this really helps to internalize the information and puts it in your ear, as well as under your fingers. Try as many rhythmic variations as you can. After you have the idea under your fingers, you’re ready to improvise freely over a jazz-blues progression using the new idea along with your current vocabulary. Only move to the next step after you’ve mastered the idea and can use it as your own.

To really focus on the essential part of this concept, I set a few parameters for myself. First, I start all my phrases on the 3rd. Second, I want to play the root and 5th above and below the 3rd when they’re in reach, and finally, because we’re mostly working with dominant 7th chords, I always play a b7th.

In Fig. 1 you can see how we can take these rules and create some short melodic fragments that work great over Bb7. Keep in mind that just because a musical idea is simple, it doesn’t take away how useful it can be. Set up a vamp and then try working out these phrases in different positions and octaves all over the neck. Download Example Audio 1...

A great way to expand on these ideas is to incorporate all four notes of the given 7th chord (root, 3rd, 5th, b7th) in your line, but still focus on starting with the 3rd. In the first two melodic fragments of Fig. 2, we add the 5th to the root and 3rd, and then work the notes of the entire arpeggio into the last two phrases. Download Example Audio 2...

Now we’re getting somewhere. The goal for any improviser is to connect the chords smoothly and create a melodic line that works. Sometimes that involves stepping out of diatonic harmony and adding some chromaticism. In Fig. 3, I’ve combined several ideas from the previous examples to create a line that moves from Bb7 (the I chord) to the Eb7 (the IV). Download Example Audio 3...

After you’re comfortable with the ideas over a Bb7, it’s time to start playing them through the changes of a typical jazz-blues structure. Take it slow and keep things simple. Listen to the music of Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, and Jim Hall to hear how motifs can be used not only in blues, but also other more complicated forms. With a little practice, you will be on your way to defining the harmony in your solos.

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