Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Can Guide-Tones Do For You?

    A previous post on this blog addressed the absence of melody in much of today's improvised music.  Then I went on to write another post on a method by Lee Konitz for using the melody of a tune to build a solo from.  In this lesson I will introduce a concept similar to Konitz's method, except we will use guide-tones as the support for a solo.
    Guide-tones are tones which clearly identify a chord's quality.  The most obvious guide tones are the 3rd and the 7th of a chord, and also the altered 5th (when the chord calls for it, i.e. a -7b5, Maj7#5, etc.).  The root and the unaltered 5th give no indication of a chord's quality and are therefore poor guide tones.

(Sorry I couldn't get the images to fit, but if you click on them you can see the whole image)

    In the example above there are three chords with good guide-tones.  The CMaj7 and Cmin7 chords are pretty straight forward with the 3rd and 7th as the chosen guide-tones.  The CMaj#5 chord has an altered fifth, so I chose to use that as a guide-tone along with the 3rd.

    Once you become comfortable with guide-tones, the next step is to take a chord progression and compose a guide-tone line over it.  This will provide a map for us to use to navigate through the changes.    A guide-tone line can be thought of as the skeleton of the progression, as each tone is a pillar in the support of the overall structure.  The line will also provide support for your improvisation.

    There are a few things to keep in mind when composing a guide-tone line:

  • Make sure you select appropriate guide-tones for the chords you are using.  Be sure to use obvious guide-tones as much as possible (7ths, 3rds, altered 5ths).  If the progression is static for a few bars, that is, repeating the same chord for a few bars, you can use other chord tones as guide tones (just make sure you establish the chord quality first).
  • A guide-tone line should be able to stand alone as a good melody in itself.  Try to aim for a smooth shape of the line, using mostly stepwise motion (move in whole steps or half steps).  If the next tone in the line is arrived at by a leap larger than a third, it is common practice to resolve to the next tone by a whole or half step movement.
  • Avoid moving in one direction the whole time.  Changing directions in the line adds interest.
  • Try to avoid using a lot of repeated notes, or your line might end up sounding static.
As long as the line flows smoothly and the chord qualities are clearly defined, it's a good guide-tone line.

Here I have composed a guide-tone line over a blues progression.  If you look at the fourth bar you'll see that I used the root and the fifth as guide-tones for the chord.  This is ok because the quality of the chord is clearly defined in the bar preceding it.  Also, you will notice some places where guide-tones are arrived at through an interval larger than a third which don't resolve by a whole or half step.  When  composing guide-tone lines, you will find that resolving by stepwise motion is just not always possible.

    A guide-tone line is quite effective as a support for an improvisation.  In fact, if you look at just about any solo by one of the great jazz cats such as Miles, Bird, Pat Metheny, etc, you will notice that guide-tone lines are all over the place.  Using a guide-tone line to support your solo will give it more "meaning" because it will actually reflect the harmony of the progression by outlining every chord.

    The first step to using guide-tones in your improvisation is of course creating a guide-tone line over the progression you are going to play in.  Once you have a line worked out, you need to play it lots of times to get it in your ear.  The goal is to know it to the point that you automatically hear the line over the progression without having to play it.  Be able to sing it over the progression.  I will reiterate that you have to play it lots of times.

    Once the you get the line stuck in your ears, it's time to improvise a melody based on the guide-tone line.  If the concept of guide-tones and guide-tone lines is new to you, then it is important that when creating a melody you use all of the guide-tones, and place them as close as possible to the beginning of the bar or where each chord begins.  From this point it's just like playing "connect-the-dots."  If you played the guide-tone line enough times to get it stuck in your ears, then your ears and taste will guide you to the right notes between the guide tones.  Actually, there really are no wrong notes when improvising this way, because the guide-tone line has such strong harmonic movement that it will compensate for just about anything you can put between the guide-tones.

    The following example is a melody I composed using the guide-tone line from the first 4 bars of the blues progression above.  To get the most out of it, play the line from the example above a few times to get it in your ear, then play the melody in the example below and try to hear the guide-tone line within it.

    I shaded the guide-tones to make them more noticeable.    You will notice that some of the guide-tones are anticipated by a half of a beat.  This is common practice in the language of jazz.

    If you practice this method for a while you will eventually be able to come up with guide-tone lines on the spot and be able to improvise over them.  Using guide-tones to build solos will make your improvisations much more convincing and coherent.  Just as with any other instrumental method, you will not gain anything from just trying this out once.  It is something that needs to be practiced again and again for it to sink in.  So grab your axe and start practicing!

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