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Installment #2 - Arpeggios Part 1

One trait I hear a lot among less experienced jazz players is a lack of harmonic foundation in their lines. Unless the soloist intends to forgo the harmony, as in free or "outside" playing, he or she should be able to reference the harmonic structure of the song, and communicate it to the listeners. In jazz parlance this is called "making the changes." Creating an interesting solo will always be a challenge, but learning to "make the changes" is not particularly difficult conceptually, and the basics can be executed in a few months with a bit of practice.

Most jazz improv books and methods start with scales as raw material. For improvising on most standard jazz tunes, however, I believe it's more effective to start with arpeggios. The reason is that arpeggios, AKA "chord tones," are the melodic "glue" that hold a solo together.

To begin, you'll need to know two fingerings for each of the following chord types:

 1. maj7
 2. 7th
 3. m7
 4. m7b5

 I suggest learning one fingering with the root on the 6th string, and the other fingering with the root on the 5th string. These are some of the most common "jazz guitar chords," and most any chord book will have them.
 Next, pick one chord and figure out how to play a one octave arpeggio for it, in the same position on the fingerboard. In other words, if you're playing a Cmaj7 chord based on the 3rd fret, learn to play a one octave Cmaj7 arpeggio (C E G B C) around the 3rd fret. (Hint: The arpeggio fingering should contain notes from the chord fingering.) If this arpeggio is brand new to you, your first order of business is to learn the notes, slowly and securely. Play it going up, and play it coming down.
 This next part is of paramount importance. In practice, play the chord first, then the arpeggio, then the chord again. Each time you practice the arpeggio play the chord before and after. You are learning several things here. You want the chord and arpeggio fingerings to be associated automatically, so that you can physically play them quickly and without thought. A second or so later while you remember the fingering is too late in the rapid-fire world of improvising. You also want to develop the ability to hear this association, so that when you a hear a Cmaj7 chord being played you can outline the chord, again quickly and without thought. This will only happen by reinforcing the chord-arpeggio relationship slowly and deliberately in practice.
 Practice saying, or better yet, singing the names of the notes as you play them, AND the names of the intervals. For Cmaj7 you would play and say or sing C E G B C, then play the same notes and say or sing 1 3 5 7 1. This teaches you theory and ear training. Test yourself by playing a chord, saying a note or an interval, and then singing the pitch without playing it first by itself. You should eventually be able to sing any interval in any type of 7th chord on command.

Next, begin playing the arpeggio, not just practicing it. One of the most helpful procedures I know is to set up a one chord vamp, and practice soloing using only the materials you're learning, in this case the one octave arpeggio. I use Band-in-a-Box, but you can record your own vamps, or just play. Don't forget to play the chord from time to time if you aren't using accompaniment. Also, no cheating! Don't worry about scales and other notes right now. Some things to do to maintain interest:

  1. dynamics - play loud, soft, crescendo, diminuendo, etc.
  2. articulation - staccato or short, separated notes, legato or smooth, connected notes, and everything in between. Hint: for legato, think hammers and pull-offs
  3. rhythm - pretend you're a drummer, and these 5 notes are what you have to work with
  4. double stops - two or more notes at once from the arpeggio
  5. note order - 1 3 5 7, 1 5 3 7 5 8 (1), 3 1 5 3 7 5 8 7, and so on

As Mick Goodrick says, "they don't call it improvising for nothin'!" Use your imagination, have fun, and really learn those arpeggios. We'll talk next time about how to apply this to improvising on tunes.

© 2001 by Clay Moore; all rights reserved

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