Improvising with Chord Tones | Hub Guitar

Improvising with Chord Tones

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Most improvisers will eventually discover that it's not always enough to just play a single scale over multiple chords. Many songs use a lot of different chords, and sometimes the chords don't all fit within one scale. So if you use only one scale to improvise through a tune, you might end up playing a lot of notes that sound wrong.

So as you start to encounter these situations, a new improvisation approach is called for. You want to play the notes that fit each chord, while also finding a nice and melodic way of tying them together.

Each chord is usually made of only 3 or 4 notes. And no matter how simple or complex the music is, in order for the melody to sound like it make sense, it really needs to target those chord notes.

Playing notes not in the chord definitely sounds good sometimes, especially if those notes are in the overall key that the song is in. But in every key there will be certain notes and certain chords that just don't fit together. One example is when you've got a I major chord and you play the fourth pitch of the key. This is an example of why being aware of chord tones is important even in relatively simple music.

That sounds a bit bad. Even jazz players don't like it, that's how bad it is. So if you use that note on that chord, it should probably resolve very quickly to the third. But truthfully, most improvisers will generally avoid it. Some people even call it an "avoid note".

One great way to practice being aware of the chord tones is to play specific chord tones over a progression. For instance, you can put a track on and then play along with only the chord roots, then only thirds, only fifths, or only sevenths. You probably will also need to practice naming those chord tones, too. You can do this without a guitar; just practice looking at chord charts and spell out the notes in each chord.

Once you can do that, you'll be ready to play them.

I'm going to show you a few examples. This is a chord progression in C major and I'm going to show you how to play the roots thirds, fifth and seventh.

Once you've got that down, you can practice improvisation using this idea and start targeting those chord tones, mixing them together. Instead of playing a scale and hitting some chord tones incidentally, you're playing chord tones and hitting scale notes incidentally.

Most music has melodies and improvised solos that are closely related to the notes in the chords. For instance, if the chord being played is an Fmaj7 chord, at that moment the melody will most likely use tones that exist in the chord: F, A, C and E.

While many other tones can be used to “fill in space”, to create tension, or increase interest in the melody, it’s important to understand that chord notes often form the basis of the melody and improvisation.

We can practice using chord notes by learning how to play chord tones from individual chords as the chords pass by. This relies on our ability to quickly spell those chords, which means to look at a chord symbolA symbol representing multiple notes to be played as a chord, such as Cmaj7, D7, or simply “F”. (Cmaj7) and identify what notes are in it (C–E–G–B). This in turn relies on the knowledge of major scales and of chord formulas.

Let’s try this technique with a typical chord progression in C.

Example Chord Progression

Playing the Roots of the Chords

The chord symbols tell us all we need to know. Let’s start by playing the roots of the chords, in a melodic way (on a high string or fret). This should be easy since the roots of the chords are identified in the name itself.

Playing the Thirds of the Chords

Now we’ll have to spell the thirds of each chord in order to play them. We can do this by using the root of the chord, thinking about the major scale for that root, and then asking ourselves if the chord calls for a major third or a minor third. Since this chord progression is all in the key of C, we can also just count up from the root of each chord to the next tone a diatonic thirdAny note two scale steps away from another, regardless of what kind of third it is. E to G is a diatonic third in C but E to G♯ is a diatonic third in the key of E. away from the root—the note two notes higher in the C scale from the root of the chord in question.

Play the Fifths of the Chords

Repeat this process for the fifths. This isn’t very hard because they’ll all be perfect fifths, as there are no chords in the progression with an altered fifth. You can even visualize this by using the root notes and playing the note a perfect fifth above every time.

Play the Sevenths of the Chords

Finally, play all of the sevenths of the chords. The sevenths will be either a half step below the root of the chord for a major seventh chord, or a whole step below the chord for any other chord.

Putting it All Together

By combining the chord tones with other notes from the scale, you can create a melody that targets the notes that appear in the chords. This will help you to play with more confidence and clarity.

Backing Track

This backing track follows the chords used in the exercise in the key of C.

Note: the track has double the harmonic rhythm as the exercise (each chord sounds for two measures). This is intended to make it easier to play along with.

Key Exercises

This lesson is continued in Play Smart: How to Connect the Chord Tones.

As the creator of Hub Guitar, Grey has compiled hundreds of guitar lessons, written several books, and filmed hundreds of video lessons. He teaches private lessons in his Boston studio, as well as via video chat through TakeLessons.

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