by Mark Heinemann
Copyright 2001 Mark Heinemann. All rights reserved.
key are you in?
Thats a good question to ask yourself
when you are about to jam. What key am I in? Rock and Roll pieces are usually
in one key. If you have this information then you know what scales will work over
the chord changes you are jamming on. One indication is usually the first and
last chord of a song are the primary or root chord of the key. For example, if
you begin and end with a G chord then chances are the song is in the key of G.
At this point you can decide to use major, minor or pentatonic scales as your
point of departure.
Major, Minor, Pentatonic
Scales are the fabric which melodies
and chords are cut from. All three imply each other. A chord progression in the
key of G was built from a G major scale. G A B C D E F# G, the notes in a G chord
are G B D, notice how all three of those notes are contained in the G major scale.
pentatonic scale is a five note scale that can be found in many traditional musics
from around the world. You will find it at the heart of Blues, Jazz, Rock, Country
and other American musical forms. It is truly a global scale. The pentatonic scale
is built from the 1,2, 3, 5, 6 of any major scale. Ie. In the key of C the notes
are C D E G A. Usually the pentatonic scale can be applied in at least two different
places when you are working on a song and both give it a distinct flavor. By the
way the trademark of Allman Brothers, Dickey Betts and Duane Allmans
solo style was their ability to use the pentatonic scale when soloing. One location
gives it a more easing going, country kind of feel, the other location has a more
biting blues flavor. Heres the reason why. If we are in the key of C and
we take a Cmajor chord the notes are C, E, G. When we look at the C major pentatonic
scale the notes are C, D, E, G, A. This scale gives it a country type feel. Notice
how the notes of the C chord are contained in the C pentatonic scale. Now if we
play a C minor or Eb major pentatonic. ( they are both the same) the notes are
C,Eb,F,G,Bb it gives it a minor Blues feel. There are a couple of reasons for
The Eb clashes against the E natural of a C major chord.
This is called the minor third. And the Bb gives a flatted seventh feel as if
we were playing a C7 chord instead of a C triad. So you have two or three options
when relating with that major key.
- Play the
exact notes in the scale of C. Those notes are c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c
- Play the pentatonic scale which is built on the 1, 2, 3,
5, 6 of a scale. In the key of C that would be c, d, e, g, a
that C major scale and flat the third, and the seventh, now construct a minor
pentatonic using the 1, b3, 4, 5, b7, or C, Eb, F, G, Bb
minor pentatonic is related to the key of Eb/Cminor. Remember and the Aminor chord
has A-C-E in it. Notice that they have two notes in common. C and E.
could Eb, F, G, Bb, C. Notice that it has the exact same notes as the C minor
pentatonic and that is because Eb and Cminor are related to each other. And the
reason we use this scale is because this is the minor blues sound we are wanting.
An Eb or Cminor pentatonic has the flat 3 and the flatted 7 built into it. This
works well against a regular Cmajor Chord.construct a major pentatonic starting
in the key of Eb and use the same formula for a major pentatonic which is 1, 2,
3, 5, 6
Hey does all this seem confusing? It can be,
but you have to keep in mind that learning theory and learning how to improvise
is a process that takes a long time to absorb. Its harder to describe on
paper than it is to hear it audibly. When you hear it, then it will all make sense.
There are many fantastic musicians who do not know anything about theory or even
how to read music. Theory is just there to help you let out your solo. It isnt
a substitute for music.
Now if you happen to be playing a
song in a minor key like A minor for example; remember that the Aminor scale has
the same notes and is contained in the C major scale. They are the exact same
notes its just that they have different starting points. Have you ever heard
of the relative minor. The chord Cmajor is made up of C-E-G and the chord Aminor
which is built from the Cmajor scale beginning at the 6th degree or
A is made up of A-C-E. Notice that C and Aminor have two notes in common which
is C and E. This is why they are realated and why A minor is the relative minor
of C major. Remember that music is like an ocean and there is a constant flow
of waves which you could think of as being the harmonies and scales intersecting
and blending with each other. So there is nothing hard and fast. When in doubt
you have to trust your ear. The ear is the best judge of all. Something could
look good on paper but if it doesnt sound good then thats "All
As improviser you are the Grand experimenter
and wizard and these are basic tools which will serve you to find your own tricks
and what sounds good to you.
and Chromatic Tones
Passing and chromatic tones are the
notes that you normally dont play when you are playing a scale in a key.
There are 7 key tones and five passing or chromatic tones that do not belong to
that key. How can you use those other five notes. The chromatic scale was one
of the great advents in the history of Jazz. Charlie Parker was a big proponent
of this. You could pick a destination point and maybe that destination point was
a key tone or a color, or chordal extensional tone like a flat 9, but you could
get there without having to worry about the key tones. You could slide through
all 12 tones and it would sound good. The chromatic scale is a characteristic
sound that you can hear in Jazz playing.
Passing tones are
a way you can avoid predictability when you are playing a solo. It is possible
to circle around your destination point or key tone by preceding it above or below
by a half or whole step. The unexpected can be a welcome element in improvisation.
As an exercise try playing on a piece using only key tones and then try adding
chromatic or passing tones as a means of approaching those key tones.
Chord changes are built from scales. Chords are
groups of three or more notes, usually songs are built out of sets of chord changes
that relate to the key you are playing in.
If we take the
Cmajor scale CDEFGABC and build a chord or triad starting with every note. Counting
1, 3, 5 beginning on each note we have a series of chords that are a mix of major,
minor and diminished. C is one, E is 3 and G is 5 This is a Cmajor chord. If we
begin our triad on D, D is 1, F is 3 and A is 5, this is a D minor chord. And
if you continue up the rest of the scale you will have Eminor , F major, Gmajor,
Aminor and B half diminished. This pattern of chords built on every degree of
a scale repeats in every Major key.
This is a great clue because
most songs are built in keys and unless the song modulates or goes into another
key the chords will probably belong to this standard pattern. So!!! If chords
are built out of a scale then it follows when you are jamming over chord changes
you can use the scale over those chord changes that the chords were originally
built from. Chords, Scales, Melodies are all interrelated and they bounce back
and forth between each other.
are different forms of the same chord. Its a way that you stack the notes
in the chord, thats all it is. Simple. How this comes in handy in your tool
belt is when you are accompanying someone it gives you extra options for playing
the same chord. You are no longer limited just to one position.
of the C major chord and its inversions is C-E-G- is root position,
is first inversion and G-C-E is second inversion.
you are playing over a set of chord changes and you dont have a lot of confidence
in your knowledge of scales and which ones will work over the changes you can
always use chords and inversions to fashion a full bodied chord solo. Remember
that to solo you dont need a flashy set of fast notes, but something soulful,
simple and heart felt. Once I went to a Bluegrass Jam and most of the songs were
played at a very fast tempo. I wasnt in shape to play the songs at that
pace, but what I did when it was my turn to solo was play a chord solo at half
the speed as the accompaniment rhythm and the solo stood out in contrast to all
the other fast noted solos. It made a nice statement.
are all the notes of a chord played in succession, one note at a time. The word
arpeggio is derived from harp. If you have ever listened to harp music, that is
one of the signature sounds of the music. You will hear a chord being arpeggiated
one note at a time. Sometimes very fast. Sometimes slow.
help to give the impression of vertical motion in music. A lot of times when people
improvise ( especially Guitar players) it is more horizontal and based on scalar
movement. When you add in arpeggios it gives the music more depth and height,
you are able to use more full range of your instrument. One other really helpful
thing about arpeggios is if you are ever playing over a set of "Changes"
that are unfamiliar to you, you can always play the arpeggio of the chords in
question and it will always sound good. Or you can just visualize the shape of
the chord and then hit those notes in any order you please. This is something
that Charlie Christian did when he played. It can take some of the work out of
the improvisation and it can even free up some possibilities because then you
will be able to visualize extensions like 13ths as well.
much any musician learned from those who came before. They are carrying on a tradition
of learning from those who came before. Unless you are an exceptionally bright
gift and can totally forge a new style there is some background of people or teachers
that came before who were instrumental in helping to create your style. Even some
of the most brave musical explorers such as Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Karl
Heinz Stockhausen, Pharoah Sanders all had to come from some place.
what happened was they entered into a period of apprenticeship where they learned
how to play their instrument technically and then studied and applied what they
learned to tried and true compositions before creating their own style. Some of
this involves learning the sounds and the licks of the masters that came before.
A lick is usually two or more notes repeated in a pattern
that can be played over a set of chord changes. Often times the lick can be played
and several chords can pass by especially if they are simple and not too complicated.
I like to think of improvisation as being a series of street lamps or sign posts.
You know that they will occur but how you get there is the fun of it and the unexpected.
Licks can help you get from one sign post to the next or they can even be the
sign post itself.
Even the greatest of improvisers and composers
have their signature licks. Listen to B.B.King, Bach, Mozart. They all have certain
things that they do in their pieces over and over, that are almost predictable.
To play spontaneously and create something totally new is a very hard thing to
do. Its worth striving for but you cant just help but move towards
what is familiar. Leroy Jenkins a well known avant-garde jazz viiolinist I worked
with said he always tried to create something new when he played. He too, had
signature licks that he repeated in every piece. That lick was so much a part
of him that if you heard it once you knew it was him. Who can forget Elmore James
signature lick when he puts the slide up to the 12th fret in dust broom.
How many pieces did he play that lick in and yet it sounded so damn good.
Genre has signature licks that when you learn that style of music you will also
learn those licks. Licks can take the wondering out of your mind, I wonder what
I need to play here. You can just go to that lick and know that it will work.
All the great blues masters that I know of have built on the traditions and masters
of the past. You can hear it in their playing and when they play those licks its
as if they were paying homage to those who came before as well as keeping an ear
towards the future. Because, what eventually happens is that you get to a level
where you can create your own licks and sometimes spontaneously and in the moment.
Unless you are playing by yourself, improvisation
is usually done with more than one person. Here in lies one of the major beauties
of improvisation, it offers the opportunity to communicate sensitively with others.
You can be highly developed as a musician but your ability to solo is only as
good as the rhythm section underneath you. That is the role of a good ensemble;
to lift and support the soloist so they are left free to fly to the heavens.
One of the most important experiences with improvisation
happened for me when I was 21. Through a work study program at school I got the
opportunity to apprentice to Carman Moore, a composer based in New York. In addition
to doing clerical work for him I was able to play in his ensemble pieces which
were a mixture of straight notation and structured improvisation. Carman always
hired the best players. Some of them I had read about or was aware of their recordings
for years. There I was just a kid and shaking in my boots and in awe of these
musicians. What an honor it was to be able to play along side of them.
When it came time for me to solo the ensemble was so supportive,
it was like I was being lifted up by the most gentle and responsive musical cloud.
I will never forget that experience. All of the players are extremely gifted as
soloists but they also know the art of being a team player. The better the musician
is the easier it should be to play with them.
If you listen
to the great bands from the past, the Beatles, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the
Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the direction of Nicholas Harnoncourt, Phish,
the Grateful Dead, Count Basie, Sly and the Family Stone, War, Lunasa. The list
is endless, but what the key element in all these groups is a profound commitment
to making good music together. This requires sensitivity and a responsiveness
in the moment. A willingness to set yourself aside, to make a sacrifice to take
a lesser role in order to help someone else shine, and the ability to find joy
in the role of being a supporter.
The Duke Ellington Orchestra
is a classic example. All the men in that band were past masters of their instruments.
But together they worked to come up with a fantastic blend of instruments and
music where their sound was unified. They were able to play as one unit. Just
listening to the ensemble playing is a treat in itself but then if you add some
of the worlds best soloists to play on top of the musical bed this outfit was
creating they were able to take the music to an even higher level.
is a huge key to this. To play with others doesnt require a lot of notes.
It takes the ability to always ask yourself what is going to make this music swing
the most. And that might mean just playing a very simple part on a percussion
instrument. Often times a simple repetitive part can be the most effective for
cohering and unifying a body of music.
When I lived in Vermont
I played upright bass in a bluegrass band. I had never played that style of music
before and when I began I played it more like a jazz player. I wasnt content
to play a few notes, I wanted to play moving lines that were constantly walking.
One night something clicked inside of me and I played very simply and just the
roots and fifths of the chords. That night our group took off and became much
tighter and rhythmically precise as a unit. A large part of this is because I
was able to set aside my musical ego in that moment to play something very simple.
Simple and yet strong in its musical effect.
and collaborative playing is based on a simple formula. How can we work together
to present something that is beautiful and how do I let go with what I want and
instead find out what we want. When "We" becomes the most important
guiding light in an ensemble the music reflects that quality.
Dynamics, timbre and color are special seasonings
that you can add to your solo and are the mark of a sensitive player. If you played
at one volume all the time then there would be a sameness to your sound. It might
even sound boring. If on the other hand you took a phrase or even just one note
and you worked it and played with it so that there was phrasing and shape, that
is the kind of thing that pulls the listener in. An example would be to play one
passage in pizzicato style and to follow that section up by "biting the strings"
creating false harmonics while using the pick and striking at the same time with
your finger nail. Or you could start very softly and crescendo to a louder volume
only to become soft again.
These are two different things
here. Color and timbre is the actual sound you can produce from your instrument
and dynamics is the volume and emotional intensity that you put into a piece of
music. If you can keep both things in mind the music will begin to sparkle. At
the heart of this is learning how to be in the present and sensitive to every
possibility. These seasonings give life to the music. One great master of timbre
is Jeff Beck. If you listen to one of his old albums with Jan Hammer called Wired
you will be amazed at how many sounds he can get out of that instrument. Jimi
Hendrix was another one. How about Arthur Rubinstein playing the Chopin Nocturnes?
It seems to be just a piano but how did he get so many different sounds and textures
out of it! Part of the reason is that he was deeply in tune with every aspect
of music performance and nothing was left undone. He wanted to put his very personal
touch on every note of the music.
When conductors are putting
the Orchestra through its paces, this is in some ways the ruler that they
are measured by. How well was the ensemble playing and what dynamics were they
able to pull off in their interpretations of a well known piece.
music is already written out, those notes are fixed on the page so you cant
change them, but what you can change is the color and dynamics. As an exercise
listen to 2 if not 3 conductors playing the same piece, I guarantee you that no
two are alike. One version can capture the feeling and original intent of a composer
perfectly and another version can leave you cold. The same is true with improvisation,
there are many players who can play fast over chord changes but often it feels
like wall paper with some uninteresting patterns and when everything is said and
done they fade in the wood work. Often as a general rule, less is more.
of your melodies
The melody is one of the most powerful
forms of expression that we have. People love stories and a good melody is one
of the best story tellers. This is one of the reasons that people have loved Tchaikovskys
musics; he wrote melodies from the heart. Because it is easy to play many notes
fast, the vocal or story like quality of a melody can be easily lost. You are
not in most cases actually singing the notes, but this is something that you want
to keep in mind. Does my improvisation tell a story and is it understandable?
If you can imagine singing it while playing this can give you a sense of space
and breath, two very important aspects of soloing. Giving something time to unfold
instead of cramming every second of sonic space with more notes. All those notes
can lessen the impact of what you play. It would be like listening to someone
talk quickly over and over. That would make things tire very soon. There is a
time and a place for speed and pyrotechnics but not at the expense of good musical
phrasing and again the main thrust of the composition. You want to always be asking
yourself, does what I am playing serve the composition.
you can even practice singing what you play. See how close you are, does your
voice and the melodies that you play match up. Are they one and the same note.
Eventually if you get good enough at this you can bring it to another step by
playing a harmony to what you are singing, and all of this in the moment. When
you sing as you play, or imagine yourself singing what you want to play it gives
everything a vocal quality which is easily understood.
the Final Frontier
What is rhythm? It is one of the most
important elements to playing and improvising music. Rhythm is the underlying
fabric and pulse which gives the impression that music is happening. Just like
a river or a creek flowing in a rocky bed rhythm is the thing that lets you know
that energy and motion are happening. Without motion and energy there is a static
landscape. To play music is to go on a journey to some place familiar or unknown
and rhythm is the locomotive that will take you there. Sometimes slowly at others
it can be very fast, but rhythm is what will take you there.
all have rhythm inside of us, our blood coursing in our veins or our heartbeat.
Not only is it inside us but it is constantly manifesting in Nature as we witness
the changing seasons, the heavens with the moon and the sun constantly on their
up and down voyage.
Good rhythm requires making a commitment
to landing accurately and squarely on the beat. It also takes a good ear to hear
what I call the melody of the rhythm and when things repeat and with what frequency.
To play in rhythm with others requires that we are not lost
in our own world, but listening to the whole and doing everything in our power
to hear the landing point of the beat and line up with that exact moment.
you solo there is a fine balance between the rhythm section and the soloist, where
the section is supposed to support the player so they can go off into the creative
heaven that is improvisation. At the same time the soloist should not totally
disregard what the rhythm section is playing. If you play bad rhythmically while
soloing that can tug at the whole fabric of the piece. Then the rhythm section
will have their work cut our for them because they will have to struggle to play
in rhythm while you are not.
When you solo, always try to
make some rhythmic contribution to the piece. Pretend that your guitar or piano
is a percussion instrument and that what you put together will make sense rhythmically
and will add something to the fabric of the rhythm section. Even if what you are
playing is very simple, it still can help to solidify the whole piece because
of its rhythmic strength. When I went to hear Gato Barbieri the great Argentinian
tenor saxophonist he had one of the better rhythm sections behind him and at the
same time when he played it always seemed to throw more fire into an already hot
Rhythm is the dance and dance is music. Music,
all music has dance in it and your job as musician is to find and release the
dance in any piece that you are playing. No matter what the style of music, at
the bed rock is the pulse and the pulse is the beat or rhythm and this is the
journey that music is. We are not bound to one location, with music we can ride
in our spaceship through the universe, travel anywhere we want to go. Rhythm is
the thing that will take us there. When you work on your rhythm whether it is
accompanying or soloing that is making a contribution to making that ride to the
new location a smooth one.
and the direction of your solo. Where are you heading?
is where listening to accomplished musicians can be very helpful because you can
see how they build their solos. Paul Kosoff late and great guitar player for the
English blues rock band Free did a classic solo on the song All right now. He
really took his time and built the energy until there was an emotional high point.
Eric Clapton is master of this. Beethoven did this in his symphonies, he kept
building things over and over. You could liken it to making love where he kept
it going endlessly and wouldnt let it end until it really was time to end and
finally after you believe there couldnt be possibly anymore invention or
new ideas, he brings it to the next level and there in that incredible place he
lets you in on one huge sonic orgasm. Ooh Baby!
part of the beauty of improvisation is that you can tell a story that has a beginning,
middle and end and you are the orchestrator and have the license to place musical
events in any order that you desire. Sometimes that means that you pick a point,
a note that you are aiming for and thats the thrust of a series of notes,
you travel to that destination point.
Dynamics is a huge part
of this. Do you start soft at first and then get louder, or is it the reverse.
Or do you work with a few notes at first to build to many and then return to a
few at the end. Its all up to you but in any event it is important for you
to make a decision even if it is off the cuff and feel some motion and movement.
If your direction is flat and the landscape that you are traveling over has no
scenic views then why travel there in the first place? When you play go to the
Bahamas, or to Brooklyn or Europe or to the Moon and stars and then back home
again if you want to.
One thing that I want to add to
this is that when I improvise I always, somewhere in the back of my mind am concerned
with how this solo will serve the composition. This is what I feel should be at
the core for every improvisation. How will what you play help take the composition
to the next level. Giving yourself over to the whole and being less concerned
with what you can achieve as a player. The result will almost always be satisfying
and if you can make a significant contribution to the composition then that will
help transport the listener to give them a good listening experience, and why
else would you want to play music; the goal has got to be about communicating.
to Make Mistakes and Courage to Keep Going
You have to
be willing to try stuff out if you are going to become a good improviser. Not
everything you play will work, there will be plenty of off color notes. This is
something you can count on. The good side of this is coming to realize that unlike
most mistakes in life, musical ones are committed and then they vanish into thin
air. If you have a good attitude about this then you will be able to profit from
the unexpected good fortune of hitting wrong notes. Just imagine having a perfect
game of pool where everything falls into place and lines up perfectly. It takes
many years of practice and many scratches and combinations that dont go
The good players that I know are not flustered by their
mistakes. They know that they are human and when they drop a few notes, they dont
freeze. Instead they keep moving on as if it never happened. They have a commitment
to this wonderful impression or magic called music. Where they trust in their
intentions to communicate and get their thoughts and feelings across. Jeff Trastek
who works with me in my Guitar quartet is the epitome of this. He is willing to
take risks and at the same time he doesnt stop his momentum or get cowed
by the fact that he made a mistake. He keeps going and moving and exploring still
trying to rhythmically propel the music forward.
It is a natural
thing for musicians to want to stop once they have played a wrong note, because
there it is for everyone to hear. But the truth is that it probably sounds better
than you think. As players we are often more tuned into our mistakes than what
went well. Listeners, or people who arent playing are usually more tuned
into the music as a whole and they dont fixate on what is not right.
really good players can take a mistake and make it appear as if this was something
that they really intended and they might even go so far as to flaunt the wrong
note and turn it into part of the composition. There just is no other way to develop
as an improviser than to play a lot of good and bad notes and eventually the good
notes will far outweigh the bad.
With all of the concepts
in this tool belt it is good to remember that it will take years to master them.
One of my first teachers Mike Gari a jazz player said that " if you can do
it in a jam session then you can do it again". Meaning that you may not know
what you did, but if you did it once then you can do it again. All of these concepts
can be explored endlessly and a whole chapter could be written on each one.
Dose of Soul
Technical prowess has some value, because
it does enable you to have the tools to express your feelings through your instrument.
But it is not the end, it is only the means. The most important thing always is
to have an opening for your soul to blossom out. Listen to some of the great music
makers like Bob Dylan, John Lee hooker just to name a couple. Both are not very
technically gifted but when they play music there is so much feeling and soul
that pours out of every note. In this place technique really doesnt matter
that much. I would always rather work with people who are less gifted technically
but have heart and desire and their bags are packed to travel to some unknown
and new destination. Soul is the common language. And there is soul in every style
of music. In that special place where soul lives there is no difference when B.B.
King plays an extended unaccompanied solo or when Isaac Stern plays a cadenza
in a concerto.
With soul comes a willingness to put our innermost
beliefs on the table for the world to hear. In some ways working with improvisation
is a very safe arena to do this. That is why there are people who can be shy or
introverted but when they play music it sounds like the lions roar. Improvisation
is an acceptable place to do this. It requires some soul searching and life experiences
to know what we believe in. What do you believe in. Where do you make your stand?
Not all improvisation needs to be so heavy or thought provoking. A lot of it is
intuitive or light and playful. But if our system of beliefs provide the foundation
for what we express and communicate then this is a good thing to be willing to
bring forth when we take a solo. Improvisation is a place to become an explorer
and have new experiences where we can learn about ourselves. Through trying what
we know and by taking risks we can have experiences that increase our capacity
to feel and discover new parts of ourselves as well as developing communion with
others. This language is universal and one of the reasons that people from all
over the world are able to communicate with each other, free of the barrier of
language. In the world of improvisation there can be instant give and take and
the joy that comes with that.
Alone or in collaboration with
others improvisation is a place where we can learn about ourselves and a place
where we can grow. If we all have one life to live then what a special thing it
is to come into contact with something that can help strengthen our lives. All
it takes is the willingness to roll up our sleeves and give it a try.
Copyright 2001 Mark Heinemann. All rights reserved.