For born-and-bred rockers, it’s pretty
darn tempting (not to mention gratifying) to
blast through the blues’ three-chord construct
in mindless “full shred ahead” mode, riffing
on a pentatonic minor scale ad nauseum. But
logging some serious shed time conquering
the art of playing on top of the changes—a
classic jazz approach that crafts lines based
on the tones of the underlying chords—can
turn the same old blues into a whole new ballgame
and offer new chordal and melodic
contours to your sound no matter what stylistic
stomping ground(s) you call home. So
grab your hollowbody jazz box, (or vintage
Tele, or cutaway Breedlove acoustic, or Ibanez
7-String, or Line 6 Variax) and explore some
new ways to make I-IV-V come alive!
A good point of entry for a jazz indoctrination
is mastery of some tasty new chord
shapes. Don’t be freaked out by numbers
greater than 7. Think of 9ths and 13ths as 7th
chords with extra color. They’re all derived
from the same scale and jazz musicians will
use these extensions interchangeably.
Imparting the wisdom of blues classics
like Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader” or TBone
Walker’s “Stormy Monday,” Ex. 1 builds
a riff with an A7 chordal stab followed by a
chromatic-leading-tone slide into the 13 (the
F# on the 7th fret of the B string). Note that
the second chord is a rootless voicing of an
A9, and that the A13 refers to the overall
harmony of the entire lick.
This same phrase transposed over the
IV chord is the basis for Ex. 2. The F# in the
previous measure is now the 3 of the D9.
Dig how the 3 of the A9—the C# on the 3rd
string— drops down to a C, which is the 7
of the D9. This little half-step drop is a can’tmiss
way of implying a I-IV change.
Most guitarists know the classic E7#9 that
opens Ex. 3 as “the Hendrix chord” but jazzers
were hip to this grip long before Jimi ever kissed
the sky. Using a sliding 7#9 voicing to suggest
a V-IV-I cadence this is a tasty way to nail the
last four measures of the 12-bar vamp.
Once you have the above examples solidified,
plug them in to their corresponding
harmonies (Ex. 1 over the I chord, Ex.2 for
the IV, and Ex. 3 for the turnaround) to complete
a sweet-sounding 12-bar comp.
New and exotic chord shapes sound pretty
rad when played block-style but they can also
serve as the lattice for crafting intricate,
melodically adventurous single-note lines as
well. The E9 four-finger spread that kicks off
Ex. 4 is a useful tool for playing jazz, blues,
rockabilly, or Western swing. Here, it is arpeggiated
high to low, then bumped down a
whole step to spell out a D9 before morphing
into a more traditional A minor pentatonic
lick. When played up to tempo, you should
clearly be able to discern the underlying VIV-
I-V turnaround harmony even though the
line is almost entirely derived from single
notes. Heed the suggested fingerings to stay
on top of the rapid-fire position shifts in the
first two bars.
Set over the I-IV-I-I motion typically found in
the opening four bars of the blues, Ex. 5 makes
heavy use of chromatic leading tones. The Bb
to B nudge that helps delineate the 3 of the
implied G13 in bar one is replicated as an Eb
to E kicker for the C13 in bar two. For bars
three and four, reach for the D on the first
string with your pinky to nail the tricky lick.
This allows you to replicate the Bb to B leading-
tone approach—now up an octave—with
a smooth-as-silk first-finger slide.
Listen to single-note-line jazz guitar masters
like Grant Green and Charlie Christian
to catch the vibe of Ex. 6, a phrase that also
spans the first four bars of the 12-bar blues.
The funky swagger of bars one and two is
copped from a Bb minor pentatonic scale
with a lowered 5 and 6 added. The D in the
3rd measure nails the 3 of the I chord, then
in the 4th measure comes the kicker—a
brief detour to the key of Eb to outline a
Fm7 to Bb7 to Eb progression. That’s right—
a classic II-V-I jazz turnaround!
For Ex. 7, let’s stake out some minor
blues territory. Bar one suggests an E alt
(short for altered) chord. This is an E7
chord with all the diatonic extensions, plus
some non-scale chord tones such as the
#5, b9, #9 and #11. This exotic-sounding
line starts on the root of E before ascending
to the b9 (F), the 3 (G#), the #5 (B#),
and the #9 (G). It eventually resolves to
the E on the 5th fret of the second string—
the 5 of the Am I chord—but not before
feigning one half-step above and below this
target pitch. These colorful chromatic dance
partners can be woven around any given
note and are often referred to as orbit tones.
Modally-based blues forms such as
Miles Davis’ “All Blues” or Charles Mingus’
“Nostalgia in Times Square” let the
first four measures of the 12-bar pattern
function as an extended vamp. This expansiveness
works out especially well in 6/8
allowing the creation of long flowing
melodic ideas like the descending sequence
in Ex. 8. Cool move alert—by changing all
the Ebs in this run to Es, you can imply a
chord substitution of Fmaj7 for the F7. Now,
go practice ’til ya turn blue!
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