All of us interested in improvising in the jazz idiom need mental tools of simplifying jazz harmony. The concept I would like to discuss in this article, which I think can help in understanding harmony and chord substitutions, is that of the three diminished families. But before we examine the three diminished families let me put our discussion into context.
When we zoom out of western harmony we can generally detect 2 areas: The area of harmonic tension and the area of harmonic release. Generally speaking, harmonic tension is represented by dominant chords very often joined by minor 7th chords (Gm7-C7, Gm7b5-C7#9,) while harmonic release is represented by major 7th or 6th type chords (Cmaj7, Cmmaj7 Cm6,).
Jazz musicians have enjoyed using the diminished sound as a substitute for the dominant 7th chords (tension areas) due to its property of carrying the necessary amount of inherent tension. The 2 tritone intervals that exist in the diminished arpeggio represent the backbone of harmonic tension in our western tonal harmony system and constitute a powerful tool in improvisation.
It’s worth noticing that the minor third interval -the basic building block of the diminished sound- fails to convey the major sound quality which is defined by a major third interval. However, the diminished sound can be used effectively in order to lead into major chords, implying the 5 of a major chord. This creates nice movement in our lines, an idea jazz guitarist Joe Pass discusses in his 1991 ‘Jazz Lines’ video lesson.
So, the diminished sound can satisfactorily convey the minor and dominant sound qualities and that’s why it is very often used on the 2-5 area of a 2-5-1 progression. Here is the idea:
1st DIMINISHED FAMILYThe first diminished family is defined by the diminished arpeggio: G, Bb, C#, E (Tritones: G-C# and Bb-E) And the equivalent diminished scale which is basically formed by chromatically approaching each of the diminished arpeggio notes: F#-G-A-Bb-C-C#-Eb-E The diminished arpeggio and the equivalent diminished scale relate with these minor chords: Gm, Bbm, C#m, Em We can convey these minor chord qualities satisfactorily by playing the above diminished arpeggio from the root of these chords. When we do that we provide the root, the minor third, the flat 5th and the 6th (all of them nice and valid) The diminished arpeggio and the equivalent diminished scale also relate with these dominant chords: C7, Εb7, F#7, A7 We can convey these dominant chord qualities by playing that same diminished arpeggio one half step above the root of these chords. When we do that we provide the flat 9, the major third, the fifth and the flat 7 of every chord (all of them nice and valid). So, no wonder we come across these 2-5 progressions in jazz: Gm7 C7 Bbm7 Eb7 C#m7 F#7 Em7 A7
See these 5-1s as belonging to the same family. When we conceptualize these 5-1s as a family we can immediately see why substituting Bbm7-Eb7 for Gm7-C7 works (jazz theorists call this backdoor substitution-the idea of using a 2-5 a minor third above your original 5-1) and why substituting C#m7-F#7 for Gm7-C7 also works (the famous tritone substitution-the idea of using a 2-5 a tritone away from your original 5-1).
The point is that we can convey the harmony of these 2-5s just by using the four notes of the same diminished arpeggio. This is a great starting point for improvising. Try to apply rhythmic patterns on just these four notes and I am sure you’ll see the interesting ideas you can come up with. If we now choose to use the equivalent scale then we skyrocket our potential, since a treasure of melodic material lies within the diminished scale. Check this yourself on your instrument.
If we approach the tension areas of a new tune using this approach we narrow our choices of melodic material on harmonic tension areas down to three. And this is true not only for strictly diminished lines. Take the popular Cry Me a River lick, a melodic fragment that all great jazz players have incorporated into their playing:
Strictly speaking you wouldn’t call this a diminished line right? But the last 3 notes of the phrase do belong to the diminished scale of our first Diminished Family, so you could actually treat it as melodic material belonging to the first diminished family, as the G minor chord also indicates. Of course, you can expand this idea further by organizing melodic ideas you already know based on their resemblance to one of the three diminished families.
Jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker was a master of the diminished tool. If we master the diminished concept and go beyond than just going up and down the scale, not even experienced ears will be able to understand our mental source of improvisational ideas. Thinking diminished does not necessarily mean sounding diminished! What we are doing is setting up a mental framework.
So, here are the other two Diminished families:
2nd DIMINISHED FAMILYThe second diminished family is defined by the diminished arpeggio: Ab, B, D, F (Tritones: G#-D and B-F) And the equivalent diminished scale: G-Ab-Bb-B-C#-D-E-F The diminished arpeggio and the equivalent diminished scale relate with these minor chords: Abm, Bm, Dm, Fm …and these dominant chords: Db7, E7, G7, Bb7 And these are the 2-5 progressions that are formed: Abm7 Db7 Bm7 E7 Dm7 G7 Fm7 Bb7
3rd DIMINISHED FAMILYThe third diminished family is defined by the diminished arpeggio: A, C, Eb, F# (Tritones: A-Eb and C-F#) And the equivalent diminished scale: G#-A-B-C-D-Eb-F-F# The diminished arpeggio and the equivalent diminished scale relate with these minor chords: Am, Cm, Ebm, F#m …and these dominant chords: D7, F7, Ab7, B7 And these are the 2-5 progressions that are formed: Am7 D7 Cm7 F7 Ebm7 Ab7 Fm#7 B7
Remember that this is just one mental tool of simplification. There are other great tools like visualization, especially interesting for us fiddlers since our in instruments are symmetrically tuned in fifths. We will discuss the power of visualization in another article. Don’t neglect to play back up tracks when experimenting. Good luck and let me know what you think!If you found this post helpful and inspiring, the smallest contribution will encourage the author to continue writing and sharing his ideas. Thank you!
This session is a short introduction to the major pentatonic scale. This scale is widely used by musicians all over the world, so it deserves our attention early in our sessions. Pentatonic scales are made of 5 different notes and are extremely useful and interesting. This is because they seem to have an innate musical meaning and they tend to sound more as ‘real music’ compared to the heptatonic scale we have all heard and sung many times in our lives: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Whatever musical style you are into, the simplicity, openness and inherent musicality of the major pentatonic scale will always enrich your playing.
Its general formula is 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, supposing that the major pentatonic scale is named after the 1 note. The G major pentatonic scale then is G, A, B, D, E. Familiarize your left hand with the fingerings for all 12 major pentatonic scales. Ideally, you should learn to play the scale using the whole range of your instrument. If not, I would at least strongly recommend playing scales and arpeggios starting on the lowest note available. How high up on the E string you want to go depends on your intentions and stylistic needs.
Keep in mind that for every major pentatonic scale there is an equivalent scale called minor pentatonic built out of the same notes. The relative minor pentatonic scale is always found one and a half step lower than the root of the major one and its formula is 1, 3, 4, 5, 7. Once we learn the major pentatonic we immediately get the minor one for free. So when we say G major pentatonic (G, A, B, D, E) we also mean E minor pentatonic (E, G, A, B, D) and vice versa. It is basically up to us whether we’ll be thinking major or minor. Let’s agree that in this session we’ll be thinking major.
Tips on using the Major Pentatonic Scale
Suppose our guitar friend is playing a D major chord. A typical application of the major pentatonic scale is to play the scale building it on the root of the major chord, in this case D major pentatonic. Sounds like this:
Don’t forget that if the chord changes to Bm we can use the same scale. (D major pentatonic=Bm pentatonic)
We can use ideas and structures that are built on a different root than that of our chord we want to play on. One example is playing our scale 2 semitones lower than the root of the major chord. This is especially effective in modal tunes where the harmony moves to the major chord built on the 7th degree of the scale. When this happens we can play the same major pentatonic on both chords creating two different colours. Here is how the C major pentatonic scale sounds when our guitarist alternates between D and C major chords:
You can find a good example of this idea in mandolinist’s John Reischman Cd “Up in the Woods” in “Ponies in the forest”. This is a tune in D major where he is using sounds from the C major pentatonic scale (2 semitones lower than the root) on both D major (the 1 chord) and C major (the 7 chord). Let’s see our contribution to the harmony when we play C major pentatonic against a D major chord:
C note is the flat 7th. D note is the root. E note is the 9th. G note is the 4th. A note is the 5th. We can find this harmonic environment in many tunes like Salt Creek, Red hair boy and June apple.
Another use of the major pentatonic scale is on dominant chords, the third of the 3 big families of chords. Dominant chords are major chords with a flat 7th. Again, as in major chords you can play the scale building it on the root of our dominant chord. So if we had a D7 chord we can play the D major pentatonic scale. Although our scale does not provide the important 7th degree of the dominant chord (the note C), it is still a major scale and sounds fine. Another idea that works well within a jazz context is to play the major pentatonic scale whose root is one step lower that the root of the dominant chord-same thing we did with major chords. For example, on a E7 chord we could play D major pentatonic (D, E, F#, A, B). Here our contribution to the harmony is as follows:
D note is the flat 7th (good starting note…) E note is the root F# note is the 9th (nice to land on…) A note is the 4th B note is the 5th
I find this sounds better on dominant chords which do not resolve to the tonic (1 chord). But this is just me, so follow your own taste. When our dominant chord does resolve to the tonic (the 1 chord) in a 5-1 resolution, then we can basically use the major pentatonic scale built on the 1, on both 5 and 1 chords. So if our guitarist is playing D7 that leads to G major we can play G major pentatonic sounds on both chords. So, the beginning of the jazz standard Sweet Georgia Brown for example, follows this progression (in the key of G): E7-A7-D7-G. Now, let’s apply these 3 ideas. I ‘ll be playing-thinking D major pentatonic on E7 (one step below our root), A major pentatonic on A7 (typical application) and G major pentatonic on both D7 and G since D7 leads to the tonic key of G. You will listen to this progression twice. Sounds like this:
We can also use the major pentatonic scale to create a more bluesy colour. We can do that by playing the major pentatonic scale built one and a half step above a major chord root. For example if we are playing in G major environment we can play Bb major pentatonic. Our contribution then is:
Bb note is the flat 3rd C note is the 4th D note is the 5th F note is the flat 7th G note is the root.
Let’s apply this idea on a typical swing progression in the key of G. The progression in our example is Em-A7-D7-G6 and you will listen to it 4 times. I am going to treat all 4 chords as being in G major environment. In the beginning I am going to play some simple G major pentatonic material, and then I will play the Bb major pentatonic at the end. Listen to the blues effect:
Flat 3rd and 7th are typical blues notes. We provide them by playing Bb pentatonic on G major. The blues will be discussed in more detail in a future post.
These are a few suggestions on how to start using the major pentatonic scale. We need to keep in mind that what sounds nice to our ears is also a matter of context, judgement and interpretation. However, due to its inherent musical meaning the major pentatonic scale is an interesting area for experimentation in our pursuit for nice sounds. One way to look for these sounds is to spot an important harmony note or groups of notes (usually 3rds and 7ths, or extensions like 11#, 9, b9) and then see which pentatonic scales are these notes part of. The combination of emphasising these key notes, the inherent meaning of the scale and your taste will yield some good results.
Watch this demonstration of the pentatonic scale by Bobby McFerrin.
Trying to become a better musician is like walking up a beautiful mountain. The higher we get the nicer the view is. We know that the view is already worth all our efforts and patience and we can imagine that higher up the view is even greater. Along this path of musical development we are desperately looking for shortcuts that will accelerate our progress and will offer us a greater view of the musical world. These shortcuts are nothing more than mental frameworks that organize our work and provide useful answers. I want to share a few thoughts on the notion of technique as a mental framework that can be sterile and perplexing. I would like to suggest techniques as a mental framework that is more fertile and liberating.
Technique is an abstract concept. Just like ‘music’ is an abstraction of the real action of playing music, technique is also an abstraction of all our playing mannerisms. This concept of reification (turning an abstraction into a concrete thing) lies in the heart of the philosophy of Plato and often provides us with a distorted world view. It may be a crude example, but think of a farmer from mountainous Crete and a London businessman both being regarded and treated as ‘Europeans’. Or think how we -here in Europe- mentally treat a Texan farmer and a San Francisco hippie as ‘Americans’. So, what is wrong with ‘technique’ in music?
First, I think ‘technique’ is almost a non-musical concept. It bears no organic relation with all the elements that make musical meaning to the human ear like repetition, melody, pauses, dynamics and interaction. These musical elements can be honored and practiced with minimum technique. Furthermore, the notion of technique cannot really explain why I enjoy playing music with my buddy who picked up the guitar just 2 weeks ago. Percussionist Ken Hyder has said in an interview that ‘technical virtuosity does not interest me as a player’ (…) ‘the aim is to create magic moments, and magic moments are often created with the minimum use of technique’.
Second, the notion of technique has no universal value whatsoever. It may refer to different things around the world. What’s more, appreciating music is very often style-sensitive. A classical virtuoso will never be able to play a single note in the jazz idiom and a reggae singer will most likely sing bad opera, unless they both spend time internalizing the particular expressive devices and techniques of jazz phrasing and opera singing. We would never criticize them for their bad technique outside their musical territory. Different musical idioms use different playing and interpretation techniques and it is these techniques that most often define the unique sound and character of a musical tradition.
Third, I feel the concept of technique is more tied with the linear and deterministic view of learning I have discussed in a previous post titled ‘How people learn and what it means for us musicians’. Progress is non linear and asymmetric involving jumps, spins and turns. Deliberate practice on the other hand encourages the idea that you need to practice something first before you are able to play it. I think experience tells otherwise. My weak memory suggests that I have not actually practiced most of the things I can play. They were quietly developed and shaped while I was satisfying my childish curiosity listening and playing my favorite music. I was not in a ‘now I am working on my technique’ mode. What we can do with our hands and mind develops in a much more complicated way than the linearity implied by technique.
Finally, let’s look at the music of Django Reindhardt and Stephane Grappelli as an example. Their 1930’s recordings largely constitute the foundations of the gypsy jazz tradition. Django himself had to come up with his own unique technique of playing the guitar after his 3rd and 4th fingers were paralyzed in a fire accident. By using only his index and middle fingers of his left hand he came up with unique lines, chord inversions and a soloing mentality that eventually defined the Gypsy Jazz sound. Grappelli on the other hand improvises playing only in 1st and 3rd position most of the time. His improvisations are made of notes that can be hit by a technically intermediate violinist.
In addition, they certainly did not play perfect in any sense of the term. No matter how much forgiving these old recordings are, you can still hear imperfections and misses. What makes their music great is not the idea of a polished final product. It is their innovative approach, the musical accidents that happen and the risks you hear them taking while they are looking for that one live take they would eventually put on their record. I could simply say that their music is basically human and honest. In that sense, it has great artistic value.
For these reasons I have started to believe that thinking in terms of techniques is a lot more fertile and liberating. The concept of techniques comes in handy while learning and accounts more effectively for what goes on in the musical world. I find it more helpful in organizing my work instead of generally thinking ‘now I am working on my technique’. It can offer more tangible answers to the question: what can I really do on my instrument? When I listen to my favorite musicians I notice that they either have the ability of creating an interesting variety or they are very good at doing one single thing. A single technique may be a musician’s stylistic hallmark. There are many great musicians who became well-known just because they introduced that one single thing or technique they were good at. Being good at ‘something’ has real musical value. It helps us build our musical identity and provides us with the power to share and communicate our music.
I have to say that this discussion touches more on improvisational music than Paganini’s caprices. When attempting to play music exactly as written then the concept of technique turns into something more objective and confirmable. I am just weighing the abstract concept of technique against self-expression and the enjoyment of music. Many music educators question the dominance of technique during the learning process. The idea of a polished performance often grows at the expense of expression, musicianship and enjoyment. It eventually tends to objectify artistic performance and its appreciation. Eddie Prevost explains the admiration of technique as a broader political issue. He says that ‘obsession with, and admiration for, technique merely reflects the ethos and values of the new elitism which is gaining strength in our world’. (In ‘Improvised Music: Some answers to some questions’ in Contact, a journal of contemporary music 33, p. 14, year: 1988)
In a nutshell, I personally find the concept of technique a bad verbal and mental tool for understanding, appreciating and learning music. If there are people playing music without even having a word for it (Swahili) then we could definitely live without ‘technique’.