Category Archives for Baroque Improvisation

Autumn Leaves in Classical Style

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Playing open chords, bar chords and bulky block chords can get quite boring after a while. And it also can prevent us from seeing and creating independent lines within the harmonic progression of a song. This is because we tend to think of the overall shape of the chord, not the individual chord tones. And the bulkiness of some chords prevents us from being able to move certain notes up or down to create a melody. It can also prevent our development of voice leading (smooth movement between lines) as we sharply jump from one chord to the next, unless we are aware of inversions perhaps.

If we want to play solo guitar (aka chord melody) in jazz, classical or other styles, outlining the harmony while playing a melody, then using 2 and sometimes 3 voices gives us the best options. It’s small enough to allow the freedom of movement of certain fingers but enough notes to reflect the chord changes.

An approach that I’ve found very useful as of late is to focus on the movement of one ‘voice’, so we’ll focus on the bass line. We start with an ascending bass line. A very important thing to be aware of is that each note of the ascending line can be considered chord tone in some inversion. This type of approach can be useful in creating a baroque-style version of the classic jazz standards and also for classical improvisation.

Let’s take the chord progression to Autumn Leaves: Am7 D7 Gmaj7 Cmaj7 F#m7b5 B7 Em. And we’ll start with the note A on the 7th fret D string. The line will ascend from there. So what we do is play A over Am7 which is the root. Then we look at the next chord and decide if our current note is also a chord tone. If it is we can stay on the same note. Since D7 also has an A in it (the fifth of the chord) we will stay on it. Then we will ascend to B (the third of Gmaj7) and so on. So the line goes A A B C C D# E. Each note is a chord tone of the current chord. We’ll stick to one string to emphasize the ascending movement.

Okay now we’re going to add a melody line. We’ve made the tune 3/4 time to help give it a Baroque feel.

The bass line is a bit faint in this image but it’s the same as the previous line!

Notice the repeating phrase/idea – basically a measure or so of eighth notes followed by a measure of quarter notes. Notice the melody uses chord tones on strong beats (and others). You can develop this idea by doing a similar thing in reverse – for upper voice do an ascending ‘bass line’ and create a melody in the bass. Move this around the fretboard and try doing it for the entire song. You can use this for improvisation as well, as you think of the chord progression and smooth movement of one voice, while adding melodies in the other voice(s).

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PARTIAL TRANSCRIPTION:Baroque Improv Part 4 by Ted Greene

Here’s a minute or so of transcription. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to finish this one so here’s a nice set of things to learn. Notice lots of I’s IV’s and V’s!

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Harmonizing a Melody

An amazingly effective way to get started improvising is to harmonize a given melody (or use this in your compositions). By that I mean finding the right chord to fit the chord progression that gives you each melody note in the upper voice (ie. the highest note in the chord is the melody note).

Since most songs use a combination of minor and major chords we will start with those. In the following PDF, I have provided a series of minor and major chords in various inversions. Each chord has a chord tone as the highest note which will be our melody note (non-chord tones as melody notes to come later).

We use A minor as an example of a minor chord and E major as an example of a major chord. For other minor chords you just shift the shape up or down the neck. When you play each inversion, be aware of what the melody note is (name of note, whether it’s the root, third, fifth) and what the other 2 notes are (name of note and whether root, third, fifth).

Later we will discuss Dominant and Diminished chords but let’s start simple for now. Here’s the Melody Notes with Chords PDF.

Harmonizing a Melody with Chords

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The first four measures are the inversions of A minor. Play these ascending and descending. Each chord has a melody note on top, which is a chord tone so our melodies will consist of just chord tones for now. The second four measures are for the E major chord. These shapes can be moved up or down the neck to play any other minor or major chord – this is key!

Next on the second line in the PDF we have a melody with chords. Try and find the appropriate chord from the list in the first line which has that melody note as the highest note of the chord. Do this for each melody note. Then be able to play the melody in time and smoothly moving from chord to chord. Congratulations you’ve played your first chord melody!

If you need to look at the answer you can see it below. Please don’t look at this before you try it yourself. The work to find each chord is the critical skill you need to learn to do classical improvisation!

Work this out in other keys. Just transpose the chords (simple i V progression) to another key. Determine what interval each melody note is in relation to the chord. In our example melody we have 5th (E is 5th of Am), root, major 3rd, root, minor 3rd, major third, root.

Also we can use the same chord progression but alter the melody. You might be surprised how many songs use the same series of chord progressions.

Hopefully by now you can appreciate the incredible power of this type of approach!

Harmonizing a Melody – Answer

This is a free lesson but if this lesson has touched you in some way you can donate what you feel in your heart. Suggested donation is $4.99. 10% of your generous donation will go to Music for a Cure Charity for kids with critical illness.

Milking a I-V progression

As songwriters, improvisers and guitarist we can often overcomplicate things. Trying to learn too many things, trying to use overly complex chord progressions in our songs and improvisations. Here’s an example by Chopin to show how beautiful a song can be with just 2 chords, Db and Ab7!

This tune by Chopin repeats a I-V progression for over 5 minutes! Notice how it starts out sparse and becomes more complex building tension, with lots of chromatic or ‘outside’ notes. But the bass line is the same for almost the entire piece. I’ve include the bass line on guitar below the video.

Berceuse by Chopin Bass Line

So try writing a song or improvising using this simple progression. Remember that there are many things you can do – target each chord tone of Db (Db, F, Ab) and Ab7 (Ab, C, Eb, Gb). For 2 notes together you can combine root and 3rd, root and fifth, root and minor 7th, 3rd and fifth, 3rd and 7th as well as the inversion of these. Study the melody of this song and see what Chopin did (eg chromatic approaches).

Please check out my Baroque Improvisation Course if you’re interested learning more of this.

What Exactly is Improvisation?

What exactly is improvisation? I’ve been obsessed with this question for many years, not just what it is but how do we go about learning and teaching it? Many musicians are confused about what improvisation is – one of the biggest misconceptions is that improvising is playing something that has never been played before. While that may be true for the entire improvisation (say during a 5 minute song) as a whole, it is definitely not true for parts of the improvisation. This is especially true for more technical genres such as baroque and jazz which require a certain amount of technical facility. If you don’t believe this try improvising over Giant Steps at 300 bpm, especially if you’ve never seen that chord progression before.

In jazz you often play solos over fixed chord progressions. If you are advanced enough to reharmonize chords on the fly you will be improvising even more so, but often you’re choosing paths to take in your progressions such as cycle of fourths, descending minor thirds, tritone subs and ascending diatonic progressions, to name a few. And when you play you often recall things that you liked, that you know sound good.

So when we improvise both chords and melody such as in baroque improvisation we:
-can choose what key to start in
-choose where to go diatonically from the root (IV, V, cycle of fourths, etc)
-choose which key to modulate to (if any), and this can be done repeatedly
-choose a melody
-choose when to play the melody in the bass or upper voices
-choose how long to play and when to end the improvisation

Sure I could start to record myself, play some chords, get a repeated loop going and then improvise things over the chords. This could entirely be improvised, although bits and pieces of melodies, patterns, arpeggios could’ve been practiced before. But for challenging jazz progressions, or baroque improvisation you often need to have practiced certain things ahead of time – like having a moving bass line while the upper voice is stationary, playing difficult counterpoint lines, working out how to change keys effectively and so on.

It is clear that just playing existing pieces will not make you a good improvisor (just look at all the classical musicians who can’t improvise and probably don’t understand what they are playing other than the initial key of the piece). It is also clear that just grabbing an instrument and making stuff up is not what we are after as it is usually too unstructured, especially for specific, difficult genres.

It is also clear that learning scales, triads and arpeggios all over the neck is not enough to make you a good improvisor either. But you do need a certain amount of knowledge so you are not just ‘cutting and pasting’ a series of phrases together. So a certain amount of improvisation is using our ability to recall previously practiced ideas.

Probably the most effective way to learn to improvise is to learn short phrases and understand how they work, whether they are single note solos, or baroque style chord melodies. Make up variations. So you might learn a phrase that is a I IV V I progression for example. Then you need to understand how to modulate to other keys. So you might go from the I chord and try to modulate to the relative minor (C to Am), or the dominant key (C to G) or the subdominant key (eg. from Dm to Gm). So for any key you can decide when to modulate and where to go. Within each key you can learn I IV V I progressions or use the cycle of fourths for example. This is surely enough to get you going!

Please check out my Baroque Improvisation Course if you’re interested learning more of this.

TRANSCRIPTION: Baroque Improvisation Part 1 by Ted Greene

Here is the late Ted Greene showing us how to improvise in the Baroque style:

Using Enounce MySpeed to slow down the videos and literally tens of hours of transcribing and rewinding I was able to finish part 1 which is 9 pages! Subscribe on the right sidebar to get the tab. Ted Greene Baroque Improv Part 1. I added explanation notes as well and while there are many key changes, I did change the key signature on occasion to reflect the main key and to reduce the number of accidentals. Don’t be discouraged by the first part where Ted does a one finger bar across different frets!

Here’s the transcription to Baroque Improvisation Part 1

Note: With Guitar Pro 5 the tablature is king so there may be issues with the musical notation regarding accidentals. If you play the tab and understand what key you are in you should be fine. You may want to move the fingering around to suit your preference/ability. Please send any corrections to me and I’ll update the file.

Baroque Improv – Modulating keys by 6ths

Modulating to new keys can provide freshness to our improvisations and will also emulate what the masters like Bach were doing in their compositions.

We can play in the key of C and modulate to the key with root a diatonic sixth above it which is Am. Then we can modulate within Am to the F major key, then to Dm, then to Bb major then to Gm and so on.

For each key we will use a IV V I progression which is also very popular with Bach. We will use 1st inversion (3rd in bass) for both the IV and V chords leading to the root inversion of the I chord. So the bass movement has an ascending scalar sound.

I put the notes together for easier viewing but you want the notes to ring (sometimes 3 notes will be ringing together). There are 2 separate lines are work here so be sure to replicate that. In the first example be sure to bar the C major triad on the high 3 strings so that the notes can ring. Here’s an example (be sure to work this out for all the other keys and make up your own melodies):

Please check out my Baroque Improvisation Course if you’re interested learning more of this.

PS. This idea was inspired by the late Ted Greene. I am so grateful for his teachings.

Understanding J.S. Bach’s Chord Progressions

I would guess that the vast majority of classical musicians have no idea what they are playing and how each composition works. Some might recognize the key, and see scalar or arpeggiated passages. But it is difficult enough for anyone just to learn many of these pieces! In other words, performers need to focus on developing the technical facility by learning the various etudes, scales, arpeggios and related techniques. Baroque improvisation, which was once prevalent has pretty much disappeared in current times, although a rare few are continuing the artform.

So it was a pleasant surprise to find this harmonic analysis of Bach’s Minuet in G. Even though it’s a fairly simple tune, you can learn a lot by understanding the chord progression and which melody notes were used over each chord. Note the chord names added to this score. Look at the bass notes and the melody notes and how they outline each chord.

Note that the bass notes (in bass clef) are usually chord tones, but not always the root. Other chord tones are used for smooth bass line movement and voice leading concepts. Also note the I IV and I V movement which are very common.

In the second half of the piece (page 2), note how a key change from G to D is achieved (note key changes to the V chord is very common!). This uses the concept of pivot chords. When we play G which is the I chord in key of G we can consider it also to be the IV of D major. Then we play a D major (I of D major), Em (ii chord) then A (V). While the first 3 chords G, D and Em can be from the key of G, it is this ambiguity that allows us to change keys. The real surprise comes with the A major chord which should be Am in key of G (we raise the C to C#). We can see how the 8th measure on page 2 ends on D making the key of D fairly obvious.

We will use this knowledge in future posts and via my Baroque Improvisation Course.

Bach Two-Part Invention IV – Harmonic Analysis

When I was younger I was really intimidated by JS Bach and his compositions (I probably still am to some extent). All those sharps and flats, and challenging pieces to play, never mind the overall elitist feeling of classical music and it’s admirers. And the rules and etiquette about playing classical guitar with proper positioning, fingernails and rest and free strokes.

After recently becoming aware of the potential for classical music improvisation, my interest in baroque music has resurfaced. Ted Greene improvised baroque-style music and not only that usually on a Fender telecaster!

Okay back to the analysis. I usually look at the key signature to see what key we’re possibly in – its either the major or the relative minor. Here’s the piece (I suggest you buy this if you’re interested – for guitar something like 15 Two-Part Inventions for Solo Guitar:

Bach Invention 04 a4

First thing we notice is there is one flat, so this would indicate F major or D minor. The melody starts with a D and in the second measure we see a C# so this tells me it’s likely D minor. C# is the raised 7th indicating a harmonic minor scale and also an A chord which is the V chord of D minor (V chord is often major in a minor key, corresponding to raised 7th degree of minor scale). With only two notes it is sometimes difficult to determine the chord, but we can also use the logic of chord movements such as i V and cycle of fourths.

So measure one looks like Dm chord (i), then A chord (V), measure 3 looks like Dm with a D and F on beat 1, beat two is F and A, beat 3 is A and D (3 notes of Dm chord). Measure 4 is back to A7 since we note the C#, G, and A/C# on beat 2. Measure 5 is Dm again with D/F on beat one, A/F on beat 2, D/A on beat 3. Measure 6 is back to A7 with E/C# beat 1, and G/A beat 2. Measure 7 is Dm with D/F on beat 1. Then we go through the cycle of fourths (Gm, C, F, Bb, Edim, Am, Dm) for measures 8 to 15 since we have on the first beat – G/Bb, C/E, F/A, Bb/D, E/G, A/C, D/F). Note the Am instead of A major. Since we are moving into the relative major key (F) we want to weaken the sound of Dm to make the transition more smooth.

From the Dm we discussed in measure 15 we ascend to the iidim chord Edim then down another fourth to Am (v chord) then down a few quick fourths in measure 17 – Dm, Gm, C and then to F major in measure 18 which is a switch from the relative minor key of Dm to F major. Notice the pace slows a bit in measure 17 to accentuate the C chord, which is the V of F major.

Then we alternate between F and C from measures 18-22 until measure 23 where we have a D7 chord. Then D7 in measure 24 (F# and C beat 1), then to Gm (G/Bb) then C7 (E/Bb) then F (see the cycle of fourths?) in measure 26. Note the B natural added to the F chord – this is cancelling the Bb which in essence moves us to the key of C or Am. Since we have a G# in measure 27 it’s likely Am. So in measure 26 the F which would be the I chord in key of F is shifted to a VI chord in key of Am.

That should keep you busy for a while! I’ll let you complete the analysis if you are so inclined.

Other things to note – the use of themes. The intro melody is repeated in the bass in measure 3 and back again in the upper part in measure 5. And this idea is repeated in different areas throughout the piece on different scale tones. And often when one voice is using sixteenth notes the other voice is eighth notes, so the focus can shift between the two voices. Sometimes they both move together in sixteenths which is more challenging on the guitar.

The reason for this analysis is to help us improvise our own Baroque pieces on the fly (use the chord progressions and other ideas), as well as those of you who want to compose your own masterpieces!

If you like this lesson, check out my Baroque Improvisation Course.

Baroque Improvisation

Here’s some tab of Ted Greene’s video on Baroque Improvisation part 1.

The first line is basically F#m (i) to C# (V) and B (IV). With only two notes it’s sometimes hard to tell as there are many possibilities. The second line is an ascending diatonic movement starting with F#m. The third line shows an ascending bass line (movement in the bass this time) and note the use of the melodic minor (raised 6th and 7th degrees which are D# and E#). For more on this amazing topic you can watch all Ted’s video and also sign up for my online guitar coaching program or just the Baroque improvisation course.

Try taking progressions like IV V i or ascending the diatonic scale or cycle of fourths (C G Bb Eb Ab, etc) and add your own melodies. Try moving bass lines smoothly by using triad inversions.