Saturday, September 12, 2015

Chord Shapes - Getting the Most Bang For Your Harmonic Buck

Q: Hi Chris, I am having a really hard time remembering chords. I just got into college and am playing in the Jazz orchestra. I have never really played too much Jazz and I can't come up with the chords quick enough. I got myself one of those chord books but there are too many to remember. Should I just learn one or two of them and use those all the time? Even when I do know the chord, my classmates tell me that the voicing I use isn't really right. Do you have any advice for me?

A: Yes, I totally understand where you are coming from. Your question brings back memories of my college days where I struggled with the same things. This is what I can tell you:

The chord voicings you choose depend on several different factors:

1. Situation - Playing in a Big Band is a lot different than playing with a trio, especially if there is a pianist involved. There are two approaches here. First is play super simple. Don't worry about the tops and bottoms too much, the middle is fine. Look at the example below for a ii-V-I in C, I'm just playing two notes per chord and both the notes are only the 3rds and 7ths:

    D-7  G7  Cmaj7

I'm just playing the b3 and b7 for the D-7 chord, the b7 an 3rd for the G7 chord and the 3rd and 7th for the C chord. This kind of thing will totally keep you out of trouble and out of the pianists way. The improviser is happy too because you aren't dictating what he has to play as well. If I had played a G7(#5,#9) chord here, the soloist would be stuck playing altered and if the pianist played some different chord, it would cause all sorts of chaos and you would be getting stares from him. I'm not in the way of the bassist so he is free to do whatever bass players do. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Crazy Scales and Chords

Q: Hey Chris, Aside from the major scale, melodic minor, harmonic minor, and
harmonic major - are you aware of any scales that can be harmonized into interesting modes of unique flavor? I imagine I can come up with a few with two half steps in a row, but that seems like the middle note would just act as a passing tone, right?  Or could complex harmony exist with a scale with three notes in a row?

Thanks, Josh

A: If you mean harmonizing to chords, The half/whole diminished scale does some interesting things. It has a bunch of major triads in it so there are various slash chord things you can do. It is symmetrical so it doesn't turn into modes though. 

If you want to talk about harmonizing to chords, let's talk first about the half/whole diminished scale. It is a symmetrical scale which makes it unlike all other scales (the other symmetrical scale is the whole tone scale, all whole steps).

Here is a standard pattern for the scale:

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

6 Chords Explained

Q: Hey Chris, thanks for all the great content on both your blog and your site. I’m also going to get both your books as well. I have a question: I’ve been listening to and trying to play some of Brian Setzer’s big band stuff lately. What is the deal with the 6 chords? You don’t hear them so much in other genres but Brian seems to love them. Is there anything I should know about these chords? 

A: Brian is really a great musician. I have the greatest appreciation of him because he has really come a long way. I mean, he was great back with The Stray Cats but he has really stretched a lot with his big band thing and you can tell he has really been studying over the years - Pretty rare with successful musicians. Anyway, getting to your question regarding 6 chords.