In a pro-career spanning 40 years and 5 countries, Cincinnati-born jazz guitarist Greg Chako has released ten albums and played countless shows around the world. His bi-weekly column, "Notes From The Desk Of A Jazz Guitarist” shares his expert tips on becoming a better player and person.
Spelling & Guide-Tones
When we are very young, we learn to speak by mimicking our parents. When we go to public school, we learn how to spell words before we learn to construct them into sentences, paragraphs, etc.
The process of learning our language parallels with the best way to learn our jazz playing too. First learning aurally, by listening and imitating, but then by ‘going to school’ (so to speak), and learning some basic theory.
I believe that one of the most important first steps for any budding improviser is to learn how to spell. By learning to spell, I mean to identify what each note of a chord is. For instance, if you see a C7b9 chord symbol, you can spell it as follows: 1/C; 3/E; 5/G; b7/Bb; b9/Db; or if you see a Cmaj7#11, you can spell it this way: 1/C; 3/E; 5/G; 7/B; #11/F#. The best improvisors can either ‘hear’ what each of these chord tones are, or spell them, or ideally they can do BOTH at the same time, thereby marrying the intellect with the completely aural experience.
Why do we care how to spell, instead of simply playing?
The answer is that spelling is the first step to throughly learning the musical language of jazz, a step that typically precedes making coherent and appealing musical sentences (phrases, motifs), paragraphs (songs, or longer sections), or books (albums of songs). Being able to spell informs our decisions as to what scale(s) or arpeggio(s) to highlight in our improvisations, and it can exemplify how good melodies and harmonies tend to work together.
THE most important chord tones to know are the ‘guide-tones’, because they are the two tones of a chord (I’m talking about 4-note 7th chords and not necessarily triads) which ‘guide’ the harmony. Guide-tones are the 3rds and 7ths of every chord. Often, just by hearing the 3rds and 7ths being played at the same time, we can ‘hear’ what the harmony is (what the chords are), even without hearing the root of the chord.
I implore all my students to learn to play the root, third, and seventh chord degrees of every chord, especially if they’re playing without a bassist, and if there is a bassist playing the roots of the chords, then at the very least, they need to be able to identify and play on the spot the 3rds and 7ths of any chord they encounter.
When we comp for a soloist with roots and guide-tones, we avoid potential conflicts with the upper-structures of the chords the soloist may be using. For instance, if you’re playing a C7 chord and you use only the notes C, E & Bb, then you give the soloist the freedom to play whatever ‘color’ tones of the chord scale he or she desires, without dictating the harmony by your chord voicing and/or being in a dissonant conflict with the soloists’ choices (i.e. he or she plays a natural 9th and you use a flatted 9th in your chord).
There is another advantage to using guide-tones as we comp. Because with the 3rds and 7ths of any ii-V-I progression, there is always a ‘common or shared tone’ between the chords. The 2nd note that does actually change only moves by a half step. Therefore, it is easy to play through standard chord progressions in one position of the guitar neck without moving your hand in position leaps up and down the neck.
For instance, in a D-7 G7 Cmaj7, the minor 3rd of D (F) is the same as the flatted 7th of G (F), and the flatted 7th of D (C) just moves down by a half step to the 3rd of G (B). When G7 changes to Cmaj7, the 3rd of G (B) is a common tone with the major 7th of C (B), and the flatted 7th of G (F) moves down by a half step to the 3rd of Cmaj7 (E). Economy of finger movement on the guitar is one of the key aspects of good playing, and we can take full advantage of it when we play guide-tones.
Since guide-tones inform us of the harmony, they are also the most important notes to be aware of while improvising, because by using them in our solos we outline the harmony well and hence, most accurately ‘play the changes.’
In fact, if you take a few moments to analyze the melodies of well known songs from the Great American Songbook, such as Bluesette by Toots Thielemans for instance (the examples abound - check it out!), you’ll see that the vast majority of the melody notes in popular songs are one of the two guide-tones; in other words, the 3rds and 7ths are integral and populous parts of these well-loved melodies. It stands to reason that if guide-tones are so effective in the melodies of masterful composers like Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Arlen, Mercer, etc., then they can be equally useful for us to improve our single-line improvisations by helping to make our lines more melodic and convincing.
So learn what the guide-tones are for every chord you encounter. Then find them on your guitar. Then use them for greater accuracy, economy of movement, and more effective playing through the chord changes.