Playing over chord changes Part Two

If you missed part one click here

We looked at the basic tools you need to play over chord changes in Part One, lets now have a look at the next level, which is how you can connect the chords in a progression together with what you play, or use them as a launching pad, tell a story etc…

In my opinion the first and most important thing is to use your ear – listen to every note you play. Personally I don’t think that preset phrases and musical formulas for playing over chord changes are a good idea, but some people find these useful. I think you’ll ultimately find it far more satisfying, if you use your ear and play what you really want to hear, instead of just following a formula. But you still need the tools to be able to do this.

So what I’m going to discuss here are not formulas or preset ways of playing over certain chord changes. All the methods I’m going to talk about, are based on the idea that you’ll be using your ear to decide what notes to play when, and how to phrase things.

Connecting the chords

There are a number of common ways to connect one chord to the next when you solo.

1) You can move a motif. A motif is a simple musical phrase that you can move around, up and down a scale. Or in this case you can move the motif from one scale for one chord, to another scale for the next. So practice taking a musical phrase and playing the same combination and timing of the notes, but move each note of the phrase up a note in the scale. Repeat this in all scales and positions. Then practice doing it in one scale and then repeating the phrase in another scale. Finally, practice doing this over chord changes.

2) You can pause before the chord change. If you listen to great improvisers playing over chord changes, you’ll hear that this is a very common thing to do. Of course it might get repetitive if that’s all you ever did, but it can create a sense of expectation, so that when the next chord arrives, and you start playing over it, it can have a lot of impact.

For a lot of modern players, the spaces between the notes can be as important as the notes them selves. 3) You can play up to the end of a chord, but then stop as the chord changes and wait before playing over the next chord. This is another thing that’s very commonly done. It lets the new chord speak. This can be particularly good if its a composition where some of the chords or changes create a strong mood or emotion. Letting them speak on their own sometimes, can add weight and context to your solo. 4) You can sustain a note across a chord change. For this you have to be aware of notes that will sound good over both chords. Its a nice effect though, because as the chord changes, the sustained note takes on a new sound and significance.

5) You can play continuously over the change. This requires that you can change scale in mid phrase without missing an 8th or 16th note. So you have to be pretty fluent with playing over changes and changing scales. Its an effective sound though, playing seamlessly over a change.

6) You can play the first part of a phrase over one chord and the the second part over the next chord. This is probably the most difficult of all the ways you can play over chord changes, but it can also be the most stunning. Its not usually something you hear more than once or twice in a great solo (if at all). It can sound like pure inspiration when you hear it being done and perhaps it is, but it can also be practised.

Practice playing phrases that take the question and answer form. ie: you play a few notes as a little statement, but which seems to need to go somewhere – this is the question part of the phrase. Then you play a second part to this little phrase or statement that seems to answer or continue the first, or perhaps it resolves the phrase. When you get good at this kind of question and answer phrasing, you can practice putting the question at the end of one chord an the answer just as the next chord comes in.

There are of course many other ways of making a single phrase span across chords, this is just one example.

The main thing, is that you can hear the phrase you want in your head, that you can sense how it should go. If you have this, then if you make an attempt at playing it, and if you get anywhere near close, you’ll probably have played something good, even if it wasn’t exactly what you had in your head. The more you practice this, the closer you’ll get to actually playing what comes into your head.

This is particularly true of this last way I discussed of playing over chord changes, but is really just as true of all the other ways. So it is important that you start hear phrases in your head.

One thing that really helps this, is improvised singing over chord changes. Sing what you’d like to be playing and see what comes out. What you first sing might not be what you’d like to hear. If you’ve not done this much before you may be amazed at how quickly what you sing changes as you move closer to what you’d like to hear.

People who’ve not done much of this, often find that the first thing that comes out when they improvise singing, are just major or minor triads. If this is what you get, but its not actually what you’d like to play, then you need to stop and let your imagination play something in your head. Try to imagine what you’d really like your playing to sound like. Then move your singing towards that.

So ultimately, you need the following three things to play well over chord changes:

1) A good knowledge of the theory of chords and scales.

2) The ability to see these on the fretboard.

3) A trained ear.

With all these things, its just a matter of sticking with it, and you’ll get there.

I give lessons via Skype, contact me about setting up a lesson here.

All content © copyright 2011 Mark Wingfield, Dark Energy Music Publishing