Chordal Kung Fu

December 21, 2005

“People light up when I play this stuff,” says GIT (Musicians Institute) instructor and author Jean-Marc Belkadi, describing the typical reaction of students who hear him throw a blast of chords into the middle of one of his solos. “I’m not talking about playing chord melody, where you’re literally harmonizing a theme with various voicings. I’m talking about using chords in your solos, improvisations, and lead guitar riffs totally on the fly, whether you play blues, rock, R&B, or jazz.”

Sharing musical examples inspired by Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, George Benson, Pat Metheny, Kevin Eubanks, Grant Green, and several other jazz legends, Belkadi hopes this Master Class will help GP readers gain insight into the under-documented art of soloing in two-, three-, and even four-part harmony. “What is the logic behind these techniques?” Belkadi asks rhetorically. “Is there a system I can learn? How does it work? Which chords can I use and why? What is the mentality being employed? Can I use my comping skills within my solos? These are questions my students ask me all the time, and the answers are often simpler than they expect.”

Let the demystification begin.

Beefed-Up Blues

In the right hands, the blues scale never gets old. Some guitarists have built amazing careers off its six notes (the root, b3, 4, b5, 5, and b7—or, for instance, G, Bb, C, Db, D, and F, in the key of G). That said, if you like adventure, there are myriad ways to dress up your workhorse blues-based leads in snazzy new colors. One way is to harmonize them with parallel melodic motion. “This lick sounds impressive,” says Belkadi, playing Ex. 1. “It sounds like a bunch of hipster jazz chords, but if you listen closely, it’s really a simple blues lick in the top voice that has been harmonized.”

The blues lick in question is the highest note of each chord. First, play the single-note melody by itself. (It occurs almost entirely on the first string, dipping to the second only for the last eighth-note of the first complete measure.) Then, add the harmony notes to each pitch. “You’ll see I’ve simply built a 13 chord below each note,” details Belkadi. “Except for the last grip in bar 1, it’s the same fingering each time. This parallel harmony gives the line a totally different emotion than it would have by itself, and there are several other chordal approaches you can try. For instance, you can get an extremely cool Wayne Shorter-type sound by applying suspended harmonies below a C blues lick, like this [Ex. 2].”

If you like that entrancing quartal sound, be sure to play through Ex. 3, in which Belkadi shows you how to expand on the parallel-motion approach by harmonizing nearly every melody note with two different chords. “This is another Wayne Shorter thing,” shares Belkadi, “though it is probably also inspired by Joe Diorio and Ted Greene. These colors work beautifully in a C minor blues tonality, and have a very full yet completely open sound.”

Completing our arsenal of blues scale harmonization approaches is Ex. 4, which demonstrates how put meat on the bones of a single-note blues line using beefy dominant chords. “The concept is easy once you get it,” encourages Belkadi. “Alternating Bb and A 9 and 13 voicings fatten up your descent down the A blues scale.”

Chromatic Tactics

A simple way to add chromatic notes to an ordinary progression is to squeeze chromatic neighbor tones between each chord [Ex. 5]. “But I also take a lot of inspiration from McCoy Tyner and other pianists,” shares Belkadi. “This is a total Herbie Hancock thing [Ex.6]. Let the open A string ring and play the rising voicings over the top. The hammer-on/pull-off in each chord adds a nice flourish. Or, if you want to end this type of lick on a comfortable G7 blues maneuver that every guitarist knows, try this [Ex. 7]. Barre the chords with your 3rd finger, perform the single-note slides with your 1st.”


Just as a huge frozen pond is a great place to learn to ice skate, modal jams—grooves based primarily on one scale or tonality—are great musical environments in which to test your knack for soloing with chords. The first modal approach is to stay within the given scale. For instance, in the key of A minor (or its relative major, C) there is no limit to the number of intriguing chords you can come up with, as proves Ex. 8. In this phrase, you’ll see several open-voiced grips that remain diatonic to (that is, use only notes from) the C major/A natural minor scale.

“You can also build chordal lines from less common scales,” adds Belkadi, proving his point with Ex. 9, which houses an enchanting group of F harmonic minor clusters. (Tip: This maneuver is tailor-made for the Ellington/Mills/Tizol classic “Caravan.”) “Or, check out E Phrygian [Ex. 10]. Let the low-E string ring throughout so your ears stay rooted in that Phrygian sound, or you may hear these harmonies in the key of C major, which is made up of the same seven notes.”

Them Changes

Of course, chordal stabs can also work brilliantly in music with a set pattern of chord changes, which is why typical II-V-I progressions—pivotal cadences in many jazz, pop, and soul songs—offer a great place to get started in this practice. Ex. 11 would be a standard II-V-I in the key of D major—if it hadn’t been modded by Belkadi. “Here, we’re not just playing neighbor notes,” observes Belkadi. “We’re surrounding the Em7 and A13 grips with neighbor chords—chromatic approach voicings—making the journey to the resolution chord, D6/9, an exciting one. Or, try a less chromatic II-V maneuver using an altered dominant [G7#5] chord as our V [Ex. 12].”

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