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June 2008 · Bimonthly

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Improvising Over Chords

by Paul Anastasio

As we work towards learning to improvise well over changing chords it sometimes seems as though we are working at cross purposes. On the one hand we want to retain some continuity throughout an improvisation, and part of doing this is taking advantage of the fact that the scales of the I, IV and V chords in a tune use almost the same notes. Let's say that we're in the key of A. There is only one note that differs between an A scale and a D scale. The A scale has a G#, whereas the D scale has a G natural. The E scale also has only one note that's not in the A scale -D#.

It is indeed possible to improvise over the I, IV and V chord changes using only the notes of the scale of the I chord. However, the other side of the "cross purposes" I mentioned earlier is the idea that the listener would often like reassurance that you as an improviser actually know both the chord of the moment and the scale that most closely fits that chord. Even though the scales for the I, IV and V chords use almost the same notes, each chord has a different set ofb chord tones.

In an A chord the chord tones are A (the root), C# (the third scale degree, and E (the fifth scale degree). In a D chord, the three chord tones are D (the root), F# (the third scale degree) and A (the fifth scale degree). In an E chord the chord tones are E (the root), G# (the third scale degree) and B (the fifth scale degree).

Analysis of fiddle tunes more often than not shows that the melodies consist of chord tones of the chord of the moment (the chord being played at the time) on the strong halves of the beats, with non-chord tones (often drawn from either the scale of the chord-of-the-moment or the scale of the 1 chord) on the weak halves of the beat. To me one the most important things about building an improvisation, regardless of style, is choosing notes that sound as though they "fit" the chords being played. After I learn a melody, again regardless of the style of the tune, the next thing I do is learn to arpeggiate the chords of the tune, running up and down the root, third and fifth (and other notes as well, if they are in the chord) of each new chord as they come along.

This can be difficult and time-consuming, but once I've done that I really know the harmonic underpinnings of the tune. After I've learned to arpeggiate the chords of a tune, then I know at any point in that tune where my "safe" notes are (they are simply the notes that are chord tones of the chord-of-the-moment). By building a solo that includes a bunch of these chord tones on the strong halves of the beats it should sound as though I'm really in the driver's seat on my improvisation.

Now to give a tune continuity you can take advantage of the fact that the scales of the three basic chords use almost the same notes. An interesting thing about the V chord (we're discussing the key of A so in this case the V chord would be E) is that if you play the notes of the E Mixolydian mode (the major scale with a flatted seventh scale degree) over the E chord that will make your improvisation sound as though you were improvising over an E7th chord, giving an added "push" back to the I chord.

While it sounds at first as though it's almost impossible to reshape your thinking each time the chord changes, the fact is that with each new chord comes a new set of chord tones ("safe" notes). Even if we use the same scale for all three chords the listener is probably going to get more enjoyment out of a solo that makes liberal use of the chord tones of the chord of the moment. That makes an improvisation sound consonant and "right".

Without knowing chords and where the chord tones of each "chord of the moment" are on your instrument there is a very real danger of creating drifting, unfocused solos that sound like random "noodling" around the scale of the I chord. Music is built on chords and we as improvisers can exploit chord and scale knowledge to build consistently better solos.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Anastasio All Rights Reserved Used by permission of the copyright holder.

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About the Author

Initially classically trained, Paul Anastasio soon began exploring the world of fiddling. In the mid-1970s Paul studied and performed with Joe Venuti. Beginning in 1978, Paul toured with Merle Haggard, Asleep at the Wheel, Larry Gatlin, Loretta Lynn and many others.

Paul is the owner of a small CD label, Swing Cat, writes a regular column for Fiddler Magazine and also teaches privately. He has made thirty trips to southern Mexico, recording and studying a beautiful local fiddle style.

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