Joe Diorio's Intervallic Designs

“Because of the varied experiences I have had (playing music), I have arrived at a point where diatonic harmony, chord symbols, key signatures, key centers, or similar devices no longer have any hold on me.
By Jesse Gress ,

“Because of the varied experiences I have had (playing music), I have arrived at a point where diatonic harmony, chord symbols, key signatures, key centers, or similar devices no longer have any hold on me. I have become liberated, freed from the weight of thinking of music as opposed to just playing it. Bear in mind this took 28 years.”

Thus spake jazz guitar guru Joe Diorio—my G.I.T. class of ’79 called him “the Pope”—in the introduction to his groundbreaking book, 21st Century Intervallic Designs – Ultramodern Sounds for Improvising [REH Publications, 1978], which contains a hundred or so melodic lines, or “designs,” characterized by wide interval skips used by Joe “as a point of departure from diatonic music.” In addition to free-style playing, Diorio began incorporating his designs into songs with chord changes, and “found a way to sound inside and outside at the same time.”

Nearly four decades later, Diorio’s approach still sounds futuristic. Listen to any of his numerous recordings and you simply won’t believe your ears. This primer to intervallic playing offers an introductory look at a few of Diorio’s designs, where they originate, and how to use them. Though Diorio’s designs came directly from his intuition versus mechanical formulae, ironically, we must resort to said mechanics to even begin to understand them. So before we head to outer space, we must first explore inner space.


Any given chord shape or arpeggio is comprised of several intervals. For instance, a root-position major seventh chord (R-3-5-7) contains two perfect fifth intervals played a major third (four frets) apart, and a root-position minor seventh chord (R-b3-5-b7) is built from two perfect fifths played a minor third (three frets) apart.

We’ll begin by extracting the resident fifth intervals from two different arpeggios: Gmaj7 rooted at the third fret, and Am7 rooted at the fifth fret. (Tip: Both arpeggios can be reduced to form standard chord voicings, such as R-3-5-7, R-7-3-5, R-b3-5-b7, and R-b7-b3-5.) In the case of major seventh chords, the lower fifth contains the root and 5, while the upper fifth supplies the chord-defining 3 and 7. With minor seventh chords, the lower fifth maintains the root and 5, while the upper one forms the b3 and b7. In this manner, Example 1a and 1b’s Gmaj7 and Am7 arpeggios can each be sectioned into three pairs of fifth intervals (5-over-root plus 7-over-3, and 5-over-root plus b7-over-b3), which may be played harmonically as partial chord components, or broken into single notes to form melodic lines. Get to know them.

The same rules also apply to perfect fourth intervals, which are essentially upside-down, or inverted fifths. Major seventh chords house two fourth intervals played a major third apart (root-over-5 plus 3-over-7), and minor sevenths contain two fourths played a minor third apart (root-over-5 plus b3-over-b7). Referencing the previous arpeggios, Ex. 2a reveals the two pairs of fourths inherent to Gmaj7, and Ex. 2b uncovers the two pairings found in Am7. Of course, all of these fifth and fourth configurations are transposable to any major or minor seventh chord, but, as we’ll soon see, they can also be used to create dominant and altered dominant seventh sounds.


Take a few minutes to get familiar with the five chromatically descending root-over-5 fourth intervals shown in Ex. 3a, their octave transposition in Ex. 3b, and their ascending reversed order in Ex. 3c. On their own, none of these sound particularly melodious, but arpeggiating each interval and playing the set over a standard IIIm7-VI7-IIm7-V7-Imaj7 progression as demonstrated in Ex. 4a starts to reveal their full melodic potential. Here, the descending fourths from Ex. 3a outline the 5 and root of Bm7, the b9 and b5 of E7, the 5 and root of Am7, the b9 and b5 of D7, and the 5 and root of Gmaj7. Pretty cool, eh? Now play it again using Ex. 3b’s octave-lower fourths. (You can also try reversing the notes in each fourth to root-5.) For the altered dominant sounds in this case, we’re simply treating the VI7 chord as a bIIIm7 (Bbm7 for E7alt) and the V7 chord as a bIIm7 (Abm7 for D7alt) by moving each previous interval down a half-step. Also take note of how some of Ex. 3c’s ascending fourths produce a more “outside” tonality, which theoretically shouldn’t work, but does so by sheer momentum.

Replacing the VI7 and V7 chords with flat-five substitutions—a common device in jazz harmony—results in a Bbm7-Bb7b5-Am7-Ab7b5-Gmaj7 progression that can be used interchangeably with most of the following examples. This is illustrated in Ex. 4b, where we also displace the descending fourths back by one eighth-note to create a new melodic contour. Examples 4c and 4d follow with two more melodic permutations—one that doubles every note of each interval, and another that begins similarly, but reverses the order of notes every two beats.

Now, let’s do the same thing with the sets of 3-over-7 fourth intervals notated in Examples 5a, 5b, and 5c. All previous rules apply with one exception: The same fourth interval is played twice in a row both at the end of the descending figures (over the V and I chords) and at the beginning of the ascending figure (over the IIIm7 and VI7 chords). Apply the same permutations from Examples 4a-4d as well as those of your own design.


Moving on to perfect fifth intervals, we’ll continue our D.I.Y. approach using the same chord progression, first with the two sets of 5-over-root voicings shown in Examples 6a and 6b, and then with the 7-over-3 and b7-over-3 shapes depicted in Examples 7a and 7b, where, once again, as with 3-over-7 and b3-over-b7 fourths, the same fifth appears twice in a row over the V7-Imaj7 chords when descending, and the IIIm7-VI7 changes when ascending. Examples 8a and 8b take things a step further by extending the IIIm7-VI7-IIm7-V7-I progression to two bars, and combining alternating 5-over-root and 7-over-3 shapes. (This also works with fourths, or any combination of fourths and fifths.) Apply all previous permutations and dig the results.


21st Century Intervallic Designs contains numerous elongated line forms built from fourths and fifths separated by other intervals such as major and minor seconds and thirds. Many of these designs can be started on any major or minor chord tone. Ex. 9a presents one such shape that begins on the root of Gmaj7 and yields an ascending R-4-5-R-4-5 motif followed by a descending R-4-2-5-R-5 line. Fingered identically but played four frets higher, Ex. 9b starts on B, the 3 of Gmaj7, and creates Lydian-flavored 3-6-7-3-6-7 (ascending) and 3-6-#4-7-3-7 (descending) designs. Similarly, Ex. 9c, which begins on D, the 5 of Gmaj7, yields Ionian-based 5-R-2-5-R-2 and 5-R-6-2-5-2 motifs, while Ex. 9d begins on F#, the 7 of Gmaj7, and ventures back into Lydian territory with 7-3-#4-7-3-#4 and 7-3-b9-#4-7-#4 designs that include an extra tension tone.

For minor seventh chords, play the same design starting on the root or 5 (same as major seventh chords), or begin on the b3 (one half-step lower than the 3), or the b7 (a half-step below the 7). For altered dominant seventh chords, play the same design starting a half-step above or a whole-step below the root, or a minor third or flatted fifth either above or below the root.

Taking all of this into account, Ex. 10a employs the design over our IIm7-VI7-IIm7-V7-I progression starting on the 5 of Bm7, Am7, and Gmaj7, and a half-step above the roots of E7alt and D7alt, the b2/b9 of each chord. Note how we’re simply moving the entire design down in half-steps just as we did with individual fourths and fifths. Ex. 10b double-times the progression and shifts the second (descending) half of each design down in half-steps to accommodate the changes. Experiment with this design and those of your own over different progressions and static chord vamps.


Of course, Diorio’s intervallic designs and improvisations involve much more than fourths and fifths. Another favorite device is to pair the major second and perfect fifth shapes shown in Ex. 11a, and then move them up or down the fretboard in three-fret, minor-third increments. Ex. 11b demonstrates this design concept over a series of m7b5-7#5#9 chords that descend in whole steps and target a tonic Bbmaj7, which is indigenous to the last eight bars of the jazz standard, “Stella by Starlight.” (The progression has been double-timed to conserve space.) Dig its delicious dissonance. (Tip: Try starting an octave lower and shifting each pair up in ascending minor thirds.)


Major seventh intervals provide another route to intervallic bliss, and Ex. 12 utilizes a single shape transposed to cover the same “Stella” progression. Here, each shape is first arpeggiated, and then repeated with both notes played together to convey the 5 and sus4 of each m7b5 chord, and the 3 and #9 of each 7#5#9 chord, as well as the root and 7 of the tonic Bbmaj7. Effin’ brilliant!


Finally, we arrive at “Blues for Bela” (from 1977’s Peaceful Journey), a fascinating composition built from just three interval shapes. (Joe once told me the title references Lugosi, not Bartok!) Diorio devised this spooky, futuristic 12-bar blues in G using only the pair of perfect fifth and major seventh intervals shown in Ex. 13a for the first ten measures. Note how the fifth suggests G7, while the major seventh shape implies D7#9, or its b5 sub, Ab13.

Examine bar 1 of the head to “Blues for Bela” (Ex. 13b), and you’ll find two sets of said arpeggiated fifth and major-seventh intervals played a fourth apart using identical fingerings on different string sets. This establishes a one-bar motif, which is then transposed to five different positions over the course of bars 1 through 7 until Diorio inverts the pairings to fifth-seventh-seventh-fifth in bar 8. This strategy is continued throughout bars 9 and 10—where the intervals are now played harmonically—before we complete the 12-bar form with a two-bar turnaround built entirely from parallel harmonic major tenth intervals, each of which spans an octave plus a major third. Rinse and repeat, have a go at a solo chorus (or 12), and then wrap it up with two more rounds of the head tagged with Ex. 13c’s surprising but sublime ending chord. It’s like a trip to outer space and back!

Though there’s plenty of food for thought here, we’ve barely scratched the surface of Joe Diorio’s unparalleled melodic and harmonic awareness, total command of his instrument (typically a Benedetto archtop or a Gibson ES-175), and amazing phrasing. To hear how Diorio implements the concepts presented here and much, much more, check out any of his recordings and instructional materials. Both will lead you further down the path towards melodic and harmonic freedom and change your life in the process. “This is as close to hearing God play jazz guitar as you’ll ever get,” wrote one reviewer. Truer words have never been spoken. Thanks, Pope Joseph!

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