Thursday, September 27, 2007

Phrygian Harmony

Q: What would you consider to be the "dominant" and the "subdominant" chords in the Phrygian mode? Is there a "leading tone" chord i.e. in Major, we have diminished chords; what is there in Phrygian?

A: Regarding the modes, I don't imagine it useful think in diatonic systems so to speak. This works great for the major and minor scales but not so well for the modes. Regarding the harmonized major scale, a I-IV-V or Tonic-Subdominant-Dominant progression (C-F-G or Cmaj7-Fmaj7-G7), harmonically has a lot of strength, it ends with a perfect cadence, meaning a major or dominant chord resolving to a major tonic chord. But if we were to use the same system (using C phrygian for example), making the iii chord (of Eb major), the tonic or i chord, we would get a Cmin-Fmin-Gdim progression (i-iv-vo), which is rather lame. Yikes! A diminished vo chord!

You sort of have to change your way of thinking when dealing with modes. Modes don't work well harmonized for long progressions. Usually one chord for a measure or a few measures leading to something completely unrelated is the norm. It is more important to think more about the quality of the chord and pay close attention to what the chord is with its "modal" extensions added on. In other words, a measure of a Csus(b9) chord is a way more effective use of modal harmony than a long chord progression of chords diatonic to C phrygian (Eb major). Sometimes shorter progressions work fine. As an example, a Cmin-Db or Cmin7-Dbmaj7 chord progression works fine for phrygian.

I suppose that a Cmin-Dbmaj-Bbmin progression would work. But in all reality the more chords you were to add in, the weaker the phrygian tonality would become. If you really wanted a phrygian type sound, it would seem best to use a sus(b9) chord. Let's say you have a C progression you are working in and you wanted to work in a phrygian sound, it would seem better for you to replace the I chord with a Csus(b9) chord to create a real phrygian texture. You may even extend it for a bar of two or create a vamp before falling back to your C major progression.

Regardless, you should experiment. If you wanted to harmonize the C phrygian scale, this is what you would get:


If you were to consider these chords as borrowed from phrygian and imported them to C major you would get this: i-bII-bIII-iv-Vo-bvi-bvii

You do sort of see this thing from time to time. You often get the bII and bIII in major keys and of course the minor iv chord (although the latter two usually considered borrowed from C minor).
Experiment and see what your ear likes.



Sunday, September 9, 2007

Scales or Arpeggios?

Hi Chris,
I argue with my friend everyday about the same thing.

Q: He says that when soloing you only need to play arpeggios over the changes, I say that that way of thinking is old and nowadays musicians use scales. What is the proper approach, scales or arpeggios?

A: Ha! Musicians always argue about this. But the truth is that there is not really a right and wrong, but there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

Arpeggios: the advantage here is that you don't have to worry very much about playing wrong notes, if the chord changes are Dmin7-G7-Cmaj7, you can play the arpeggios of the chords and you are pretty much safe. You can also superimpose other various arpeggios to create more interest, a standard one would be a B diminished triad over the G7 chord. Bdim = B-D-F-Ab, played over a G7 chord would supply the extensions 3-5-b7-b9 creating a G7b9 sound. This kind of approach was very common for for Jazz, all the way up until modal music became popular. It would have been treacherous to attempt plaing scales over fast changes, you would run the risk of missing chord tones and the changing keys every measure or so wouldn't leave you any time to consider the proper fingerings. It would seem a lot easier to simply connect the dots using arpeggios. And that is pretty much what took place all the way through Bebop with the chord changes flying by at breakneck speed. I suppose the disadvantages to this approach would be the difficulty in expressing ones self, after all, a G7 arpeggio played by you or me, is pretty much the same thing.

Scales: Jazz tempos became faster and faster until they just couldn't get any faster and that is when things began to change. Modal music was born. I suppose Miles Davis and some of his contemporaries decided that all this connecting the dots with arpeggios at lightning speed had gotten old and were frustrated with the lack of ability to express themselves musically. So they started to write music with bars and bars of the same chord. For example, the song "So What" from Miles' "Kind of Blue" CD was simply 16 bars of Dmin7 followed by 8 of Ebmin7 followed by another 8 of Dmin7. To Jazz musicians in those days, it must have been quite a challenge to play over such long sections of the same chord. I mean, up to this time they played arpeggios, they couldn't simply play a Dmin7 arpeggio for 16 bars. So musicians started experimenting with the modal scales and the chords harmonized from them. Scales gave musicians more options in improvisation. Because of this, harmony became more complex as well, min7 gave way to bigger minor chords such as min9, min11, min69, min11, etc. This this would lead to more interest in other modes, not only from the major scale but from the melodic minor scale as well. Eventually, like Bebop before, the chord changes started moving by faster as well, but this time the chords were more modal and the improvisers more modal in their choices.

Conclusion: Each player leans a little more one way than the other. While Joe Pass played mostly arpeggios, John Scofield chooses scales (although both of these fine players cross over as well), they both sound great. In all reality, both approaches are important and both should be utilized to their full extent. Think about the Blues, if you were to play a minor or major pentatonic for your whole solo, it would sound pretty lame. It would get boring after a little while. You have to outline the changes in your solo, and this can prove quite an undertaking using only scales. Outlining the changes with arpeggios paves the way to a better solo. And of course blowing through a scale from time to time adds some excitement to your solos as well. Become an expert at both.

Modes of the Melodic Minor Scale


Monday, September 3, 2007

Major Scale Patterns

Dear Chris,

Thanks a million for your informative site which over the past few months has built my knowledge of theory substantially. However, there is till one thing I don't understand with the 5 positions of the major scale.

Q: I have worked out that one is the 'stock standard' major scale or first position (pattern 4, I think?) and that some of the other shapes turned out to Phrygian, natural minor and Dorian, but its still not clicking with me as to where each position is used. I am aware that ie the dorian for the key of c major is just d to d over a dmin, phrygian e to e over e min etc, but there are a couple positions of the major scale (patterns 3 and 5) that im not sure where to use. I hope this question makes sense.....thanks in advance for your time,

warm regards,


A: We as guitarists tend to think in fingerboard patterns rather than notes which sometimes can be problematic. Remember, a major scale is a major scale no matter what the fingerboard pattern looks like. Anywhere you can use one of them, you can use the other four as well (and should).

As an example, let's say you have to play over a Dmin7-G7 chord progression. Obviously, the scale needed here is the D dorian mode, which is simply a C major scale. Any five fingerboard patterns of the C major scale will do here. I imagine you are looking at pattern 4 of the C major scale and thinking to yourself that there is a D on top so this scale is the dorian mode because you can start on it. But the truth is it doesn't matter what note you start on as long as the chord over which you are playing is a Dmin7 chord. I mean think about it, when improvising, would you always start on the root? The root would actually be a somewhat boring note to start on so as long as it is the proper major scale, start on any note that suits your ears.

More information on modes: