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


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