** As featured in issue 54 **
For the past couple of lessons we have been looking at Dominant Chords, both Static and Functioning. We looked at some scale and mode options over a Static Dominant chord, or “Vamp”, now we are going to do the same but with a minor chord. Having to play over a single minor chord for longer than a couple of beats is pretty common place. In fact whole pieces such as “So What” are based entirely around one or two minor chords. Therefore, its important that one is comfortable playing over them, with a few weapons under your belt to keep things fresh.
It’s interesting that many Sax players find it relatively easy to blow over a big set of chord changes, but quickly run out of ideas over a single chord vamp. The opposite is true for most guitarists, as we have seen doing that Be-Bop thing over changes is actually very tricky on the guitar, give us a single chord however, and watch us go!
The trouble is maintaining interest over a single chord is hard as there is no harmonic pull. We can play the same note over numerous chords and it will always sound different, there is no such luxury when we only have the one.
There are many different angles you can approach single chord soloing from, you could concentrate your efforts on rhythmic interest, or playing with a different sound/tone, here we are looking at using different scales and modes (as we did with the Dominant chord) to create a different feeling and mood. That last part is very important. Remember your listener doesn’t care what fancy mode you may be using, they just want to hear good music, so keep that in mind.
These scale choices all suit a different feeling, and style so use your ears and musical judgment to see what suits best. Remember, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should...! As always be sure to check out the video to hear them in use.
I have based all these licks around a static A minor7 chord, and so the first lick uses the classic choice of A minor pentatonic, the guitarists favourite! This lick has a little twist to it though, by using 3 notes per sting to create a more flowing intervallic, fusion type line. If you haven’t tried 3 note per sting Pentatonics before, then they can prove quite a stretch. Start higher up the fretboard to get used to it, before gradually working your way lower down the neck where the stretch gets tougher.
This Lick uses E minor Pentatonic. Playing a minor pent a 5th above the root gives a nice twist to the normal sound as it outlines the 5th, b7th, Root, 9th, and 4th (11th). Its a cool simple trick and will work in most situations, it also feels easy to do as the scale is very familiar to you. Some string skipped ideas are used here to keep things interesting.
Aeolian (Natural minor) is the next obvious choice after a root position pentatonic, and is used a great deal in classic rock and metal. Aeolian gets a bit of a hard time from some Jazzers because they don’t consider it as “hip” as Dorian (coming up next..). However, Dorian is becoming so over used (just youtube Dorian Licks etc) especially by guitarists that Aeolian offers a light relief from that sound, its sounds darker so will work well over a less up beat tune/feel.
As mentioned above Dorian is fast becoming everyones go to scale over a minor chord, and it sounds great. Unlike Aeolian, Dorian has a Major 6th interval, which brightens it up slightly and gives a more modern feel.
Phrygian, approach with caution! Tricky one to get working in a Jazz setting (with a single chord vamp). Its essentially a minor scale with a b2, but its that b2 that can cause all the problems. You really need to be aware of where that interval is all over the neck. Its great for creating tension or as a passing tone, but just don’t finish you line with it, or stick around for too long!
A personal favourite of mine, Melodic Minor. I hear this mode described all the time as a Major scale with a b3, but that doesn’t really explain its use, as you would never use it that way. A better way of thinking of it is a Dorian mode with a Major 7th. This makes much more sense as its primary function is over a MinMaj7 chord. It works great over a static Minor 7 chord though as the Dorian sound is evident, with the outside/tension that the Maj7th interval brings. As with Phrygian you need to know where this interval is, to keep it sounding cool rather than just plain wrong.
Delving a little further “outside” here we have a lick using E Super Locrian (Altered scale). When playing over one chord we can invent certain chord progressions that aren't actually being played, but outline their harmony with our note choices. Here I am thinking of a V – I movement, in this case E7 – Am7, and am using what we have learnt in the previous lesson (Functioning Dominants) an Altered line resolving back to the one chord. It sounds pretty cool, and this really is just dipping your toe into this massive subject, but if you understand the concept, then it opens up a whole load of options.
This final choice I wasn’t sure about adding, as it can sound a bit cheesy in a Jazz context. Harmonic minor. As we have seen when we looked at minor II V I progressions, it works well, but that big leap from the b6 to Maj 7th has a very obvious sound. The trick is trying to hide it, unless of course the music really needs “that” sound, then this is the perfect choice.
So there we have 8 licks to get you started, but more importantly understanding how I made these choices, and starting to think of your own ideas. There are countless options over a single chord, so its important you find what you like and what works for you. Try these ideas, experiment improvising using the given scale choices. Then start to think of other Scale, Mode, Arpeggio options you can use, its fun and there are some great sounds to be found out there. Good luck!