“THE FIRST THING WE BECOME aware of in harmony is major and minor,” reminds GIT/Musicians Institute guitar instructor Sid Jacobs. “This is fundamental. In traditional harmony, almost every chord starts with a major or minor 3 above the root. Following this logic, any chord progression can be boiled down to a succession of major and minor third intervals.
“This concept is so simple,” continues Jacobs, “that many players react to it with, ‘Okay, I totally get it. What’s next?’ But if you want to become truly adept at improvising over chord progressions, nothing is ‘next’ until all major and minor thirds are instantly under your fingers.”
Getting all thirds “under your fingers” not only helps you improvise in any style of music, it introduces your hands to the art of fretboard counterpoint—the practice of fretting and plucking multiple (in this case, two) melodic lines simultaneously. Based on the opening changes of the Jerome Kern classic, “All the Things You Are,” the following two studies help you burn in your root/third intervals in two different, yet equally ear-pleasing ways.
FRETTING ROOTS AND 3’S
“In Ex. 1, the first half-note [bar 1, beat one] represents Fm with the root [F] on the bottom, and the m3 [Ab] on top,” says Jacobs. “The second half-note represents the inversion, this time with the Ab as the lower note, and the F on top. We follow this pattern throughout the example. If you are reminded of Bach by this device, it is no accident. The progression is instantly understood, and it sounds beautiful on the guitar.”
ADDING MELODIC MOTION
“To create melodic lines, we often use the formula of embellishing chord tones with notes a scale step above and a semitone below,” says Jacobs. “If you take time to examine each measure in Ex. 2, you will recognize this simple practice at work, and realize that if you really learn these moves, improvising contrapuntal music on the fly is entirely doable.”