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Installment #7 - Practical Application

Back when I began to study jazz improvisation and the guitar in earnest, I developed the idea that all great jazz players must be walking encyclopedias of exotic theories and techniques, and that by cracking these esoteric codes I'd be able to play like them. Gradually I learned an important fact - it's not how many theories you know that counts, it's how well you apply what you DO know. What's more, often it's not the complex theories that yield the biggest payoffs, but the simplest and hence most practical ones. By mastering a simple concept you will almost always find that you gain knowledge and skill in related areas with little or no extra effort. Let's take a simple concept to illustrate, a basic chord substitution.

If you have one measure of C7 in 4/4 time, you can add interest to that chord by substituting Gm7 for the first two beats.

|C7  |  becomes: |Gm7 C7|

Theoretically you can look at it a few different ways - as a ii V, AKA a m7 chord resolving to a 7th chord whose root is a 5th below. You can even see the Gm7 as a C11 chord (C7 plus the 9th and the 11th), resolving to a C7. Despite these theoretical convolutions it's a dead simple concept on its own, especially if you practice a few common guitar "grips," such as Gm7 to C9 with the roots on the 3rd fret. Next, let's take this simple concept and give it a workout on my favorite idea lab - the 12 bar blues.

A 12 bar blues in C might go something like this:

|C7  |F7  |C7  | % |F7  | % |
|C7  |A7  |Dm7  |G7  |C7  |G7 ||

The obvious thing to do is begin adding m7 chords in front of the 7th chords, as follows:

|Gm7 C7 |Cm7 F7|Gm7  |C7  |
|Cm7  |F7  |Gm7 C7 |Em7 A7 |
|Dm7  |G7  |Gm7 C7 |Dm7 G7 ||

OK, so now you have many extra chords to flesh out this progression. How else can this work towards expanding what you know? Here's one easy example. If you're like me, you started playing guitar by figuring out blues and rock guitar licks. You probably know that most of these licks are based on something called the minor pentatonic scale, and that you can play a G blues lick over a G, a Gm, or G7 chord. A minor pentatonic scale in G consists of the following notes:

G Bb C D F

If you look closely, you'll notice that this scale is a Gm7 chord (G Bb D F) with one extra note, a C. Bingo! The G minor pentatonic works great over a C7 chord. Take the next logical step, and you can now play your pet Albert King or Jeff Beck G minor pentatonic licks over C7 (think C9). Even though the notes are the same, the application is different, and it yields a different sound - one that great players such as Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino use(d) to great effect.

Going the extra mile, you can see that this principle can be reversed, i.e., one measure of a Dm7 chord can be replaced by two beats of Dm7 and then two beats of G7.

|Dm7  | becomes: |Dm7 G7|

Where can this be applied? How about a modal tune such as "So What?" or "Impressions?" Listen to Wes's classic recording of "Impressions" to hear how he milks this idea in his chord solo. You can even take this a step further, and substitute G7 for the Dm7 entirely. Hint: higher pitched voicings often work better than bottom-heavy ones if you're working with a bass player. Or, try blowing on a G7 arpeggio over a Dm7 chord vamp. Don't be alarmed if this sounds strange to you at first. Give your ears a few days or weeks to adjust.

Here are the concepts reiterated:

* C7 can be replaced by Gm7 to C7 (don't forget to play this in all keys)
* Gm7 can be replaced by Gm7 to C7
* Gm7 can be replaced by C7 entirely
* C7 can be replaced by Gm7 entirely (I snuck this one in. Can you see why?)
* Any Gm7 line can be used over C7, including G minor pentatonic/blues licks
* Any C7 line can be played over Gm7

The ticket here is "application." It won't mean squat just reading it on paper, er, screen. If you take any concept like this and worry it for several days of weeks it will start to make sense on many levels. The beauty is you can take things that you already know, such as chord voicings and lines, and re-apply them in new and creative ways to double or triple what you are doing presently.

Happy practicing!