My goal in this post (and others) is to teach you how to learn for yourself. So instead of just teaching you specific things I aim to teach you how to go about the process of learning. This will allow you to develop a learning system. Here we are talking about learning the language of jazz through the music itself.
Transcribing music is the most direct path to learning a style, such as jazz improvisation. Imagine trying to learn French from a book rather than imitating real French people. But if you’ve already transcribed an entire solo and even learned it note for note you might be wondering how this will help you improvise your own solos. I’ve been able to play amazing solos at high speeds but that didn’t translate to improvising my own solos. While transcribing a whole solo will develop your ear, the trick is to take one phrase and work with it for a while until it is fully absorbed into your playing. We often bounce around to different topics and so nothing new gets into our playing.
The basic steps I follow for transcribing are:
-find a solo I like for a song I am working on (eg. Roland Kirk’s version of Blues for Alice)
-transcribe a phrase (one you like or one over a trouble spot in the tune). I highly recommend and own Transcribe! software (affiliate link)
-sing (even if you’re a bad singer like me) and learn how to play the phrase on your instrument. Sing at a slower tempo if it’s really fast.
-understand how the phrase works (more on this below)
-take the idea and use it in different songs and over different chords
-twist the idea and make it your own (more on this below)
Here’s Blues for Alice by Roland Kirk. The first 2 measures of the solo at roughly 0:40-0:43 will be analyzed.
Here’s the phrase transcribed:
Understanding How the Phrase Works
When I analyze a phrase I look at the chord(s) and for starters what notes are on the strong beats (beats 1 and 3). Sometimes these are anticipated (on the previous ‘and’ beat, eg ‘and of 4’). Sometimes there are no notes on the strong beat. In this case we have no note on beat 1, but the next 3 notes are a descending scale fragment that targets C on beat 3 (the fifth of F6). This is a perfect example of Forward Motion by Hal Galper. I have that book and highly recommend it (affiliate link).
Next we have another 3 note fragment starting on ‘and of 2’ and approaching the E of Em7(b5) on beat 1 of measure 2. From E we play D (minor 7th) and then the C# over the A7 (major 3rd). This is another common device and strong harmonic movement – a ii V moving from the min7 of ii to maj3 of V which is a half step movement.
Then instead of descending from C# down to Bb (b9) Roland Kirk transposes it up an octave to the Bb then descends to G (min7) then up chromatically to the A, at which point we’re on the Dm7 on beat 1 of measure 3. Hopefully you’ve followed me during this analysis as it’s pretty straightforward.
How to Make it Your Own
There are a variety of things you can do to use these ideas in your own soloing. You might come up with some of your own:
-target other chord tones besides the 5th (C) over F6 using a 3 note descending approach
-try ascending to the chord tone C (and others) instead of descending as Rolank Kirk did
-Use the E, D, C# (root, min7 over ii and major 3rd over V) idea over other ii V ‘s
-anticipate the chord tones (play one eighth note earlier than strong beats)
Transcribing has other values as well, as you learn to imitate your idols even every nuance, develop technique, develop your ear and so on. When you find yourself frustrated with your progress, try to remember to get back to the basics – imitating the master’s and twisting the ideas for your own purposes.
Transcribing is a much more direct path to learning than many other methods (scales, arpeggios, etc) and is incredibly inspiring. Looking for shortcuts to learn guitar can be a sign that you’re not willing to put in the required work, or it can be a logical desire to seek the most efficient path.
This is my melodic solo on Tommy Lee’s Louder. We can learn a few things in this song such as double stops and melodic development. Get the tab and explanation video below.
You can buy the lesson video and tab in PDF and Guitar Pro format where I show you note by note how to play it and why it works.
Here’s the Metal Mayhem tune:
Here are the 3 backing tracks that you can use when practicing the Metal Mayhem solo. One has no solo guitars, one has no rhythm guitars and one is a remix. You can purchase them below:
Learn how to play this song note for note! You can buy the tab and you get both PDF and Power Tab file formats below:
Go here for Metal Mayhem backing tracks.
This is a video lesson based on the previous 2 lessons about playing over chord changes.
In the previous lesson Playing Over Chord Changes I talked about laying out chord tones on strong beats (1 and 3) and then approaching them with a triad that ‘encircles’ the target chord tone.
In part 2 I take the same basic chord tone outline but do a few different things to approach the chord tones. Over the Fm7 we do the same thing as last time but then approaching the Bbm7 we descend from the root (F) down to the 5th (C) then up to the min7 (Eb) then to the Db (3rd of Bbm7). Also note we have added an anticipation so we play the upcoming chord tone on the ‘and of beat 4’. Also note the Db is approached from below and above.
Same thing basically happens over the Bbm7 at the end of the measure. We encircle the upcoming 3rd of Eb7 (G). Notice it’s slightly different from what we did over the Fm7. First we did F, C, Eb, Db which is Root, 5th, min7th to min.3 of Bbm7. For Bbm7 we did Bb, Ab, F, Gb which is Root, min7, 5th, #5 to maj3 of Eb7 (G). So at this point you have 3 ways to approach chord tones.
For a fourth way to approach a chord tone that works great over dominant 7th chords, check out measure 3 over the Eb7. The idea can be broken down into two pieces – from maj3 to root (G to Eb), then from Eb to the Ab (3rd of Abmaj7). The idea is G, F, Gb, E, Eb (maj3, maj2, #9, b9 to root) then to Db, Bb, B to C which circles the chord tone with a chromatic ascent. The first part is a bit out there with the #9, b9 – it take a while for you to get used to this if you haven’t heard that before. I like to think in 4 note groups including the target tone.
So now you have 4 ways to approach chord tones. Try writing our chord tone outlines (use 5ths and 7ths as well in various combinations) and then approaching them with these 4 techniques. Mix and match, add anticipations, compress the rhyhtms (delay the start and then add a triplet for example). Most of all have fun!
Improvising over chord changes can be daunting if you’re used to using blues and minor pentatonics over rock/blues progressions. But for jazz, country and for better outlining of chord changes, we can use chord tones and approach notes.
In the example sheet music/TAB at the bottom of the page I’ve used the first few chords from All The Things You Are, but this can be applied to any changes. These ones move in the cycle of fourths. First we target the minor 3rd of the chord then the root for the first two measures using half notes. Beats 1 and 3 are typically seen as the strong beats. According to Forward Motion theory by Hal Galper (affiliate link – I own the book too) these are actually end points rather than starting points. This changes how you hear a solo. So if these are the target points, we have 1 and a half beats with which to approach these strong beats, which gives us 3 eighth notes in this example (down the road we can use alternate rhythms and other approach techniques).
On the second line, we fill in the basic chord tones with approach notes, using arpeggios. Depending on how you look at it, these can be seen as major 7th arpeggios starting on the minor 3rd of the chord and ascending to the major 9th of the chord. For Fm7 that would be Ab ascending up to the G before landing on F, the target tone.
Note that the arpeggios are, and can be displaced by an octave to fit the range of your instrument or location on the neck. The arpeggios over the Fm7 have been displaced (after playing the target tone, the arpeggio is dropped down an octave), but over the Bbm7 the first arpeggio was not displaced. So note that Ab, C, Eb, G forms an Abmaj7 arpeggio with the last 3 notes displaced down an octave).
Another thing to note is that the two notes before the target tones (beats 1 and 3) encircle the chord tone (one note below and one above). This results in a strong resolution.
Also note the movement of the target tones themselves. We go from Ab down a minor 3rd to F, down a major 3rd to Db and up a major 6th to Bb. So using octave displacement, we descend a minor 3rd. Not using octave displacement we ascend a major 6th (the inverse of the original interval).
Later I will be discussing using other target tones including higher intervals (9ths, 11ths, 13ths and alterations) as well as voice leading (smooth movement between target tones). Also using different approach techniques, rhythmic variations and other techniques to enhance the improvisations.
Work this example through the entire progression or other tunes, styles you like. A great book I own that uses lots of different melodic cells is Building a Jazz Vocabulary (affiliate link)