Sax Therapy

“It’s good for guitarists to step outside their comfort zone,” says saxophonist Dennis Taylor. “If you take a sax line and adapt it to guitar, you’ll force yourself into new and different intervallic areas, and this is healthy for your fingers and ears.”
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Having spent years sharing the stage and studio with the likes of Duke Robillard and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Taylor understands how 6-stringers approach the fretboard. “Sax is not like guitar where you can take a pattern and just move it up or down the neck to change keys. On the horn, each key has a different fingering, and this simple reality forces us to listen closely to a line as we work it out in various keys and registers. We have to really hear it and understand its structure—we can’t rely on muscle memory. Guitarists can benefit from this ear-oriented approach too.”

The author of three sax books—Amazing Phrasing, Blues Saxophone, and Jazz Saxophone [Hal Leonard]—Taylor has amassed a collection of soloing techniques and concepts that go far beyond standard guitar lore. We asked Taylor to share some of these soloing secrets with an emphasis on the controlled use of dissonance.

“I show my students simple exercises,” reveals Taylor, “so they start hearing dissonant tones. These sound foreign at first—like wrong notes—but it’s part of a process that begins by analyzing the concepts, and then getting the notes under your fingers. The next step is being able to hear and identify controlled dissonance in other people’s playing, so you can listen to a record and go, ‘Ah-ha, that’s a diminished lick.’ The final step is having these colors emerge in your own playing, in a variety of settings and styles. These exercises will help you reach that point.”

Building Tonal Arcs

“Dominant-7th chords contain a tritone, so they already offer some inherent dissonance,” explains Taylor. “When you’re learning to drape outside colors over chords, the dominant 7 is the best place to start because you’re already in a slightly dissonant realm. Here’s a great technique for spicing up a dominant-7th vamp, such as you’d encounter in a blues or funk jam. Let’s say we’re vamping on C7. The goal is to introduce notes from outside its tonal center and then resolve by a half-step to a chord tone, typically the root or 3.

“The first step is to build a Cdim7 arpeggio [Ex. 1]. Notice how this one-octave arpeggio consists of stacked minor third intervals, which yield a 1, b3, b5, and bb7 (or 6) chord formula. Play this arpeggio ascending and descending to get its sound in your ear [Ex. 2]. Here’s the fun part: We’re going to use each note of the Cdim7 arpeggio as the root for a series of new tonal centers. For example, I’ll play a secondary arpeggio based on each Cdim7 chord tone [Ex. 3]. In this case, I’m descending through Cdim7, playing a pattern constructed from an arpeggiated major triad embellished with a 2. The pattern is 2-root-3-5, based respectively on C, A, Gb, and Eb triads. Played over C7, this pattern automatically generates altered tones—C#, Ab, Gb, Db, and Eb, or enharmonically, the b9, #5, b5, b9, and #9. At the end of bar 2, I adjust the pattern slightly to resolve by a half-step to E, the 3 of C7.”

The beauty of this technique is that it uses simple triads to create spiky dissonance. “You can create dozens of secondary patterns based on different triads,” Taylor continues, “but keep them basic. The triads themselves are enough to generate altered colors against the target chord.”

Once you’ve mastered secondary patterns based on triads, you can introduce patterns built from IIm-V cadences. (See “Demystifying the II-V-I.”) “This takes the arc concept one step further,” explains Taylor, playing Ex. 4. “Now I’m treating each note of an ascending Cdim7 arpeggio as a phantom I chord, and crafting a melody from its corresponding IIm-V arpeggios. In this phrase, I use an occasional scale tone to smooth out the line, and resolve by a half-step to C7’s root.”

Tritone Tricks

“Half-step resolution builds strong momentum,” says Taylor, “and you can see this clearly in the

tritone, or flat-five substitution. Dominant-7th chords whose roots are a diminished fifth apart have two notes in common. These notes form a tritone that’s at the heart of both chords. This shared tritone lets you replace the V7 chord in a IIm-V-I cadence with a bII7. For example, instead of using G7 to resolve to Cmaj7 in a Dm7-G7-Cmaj7 progression, you can turn to Db7 to accomplish the task. In the process, you generate two altered tones, the b9 [Ab] and b5 [Db], relative to the original G7.

“Here’s what it sounds like if I play G7 followed by Db7 before concluding with Cmaj7 [Ex. 5]. The Db-to-C root motion provides a half-step resolution, but there are two more available. You can resolve on the 3, which is F to E, or even the 5, Ab to G [Examples 6 and 7]. By the way, the pickup notes that launch each of these examples provide crucial rhythmic momentum. In a solo, I always try to start my lines with a pickup because it makes them swing better.

“If you precede the tritone sub with its own IIm chord, you get a substitute IIm-V cadence resolving to the I. In this instance, we get Abm7-Db7-Cmaj7 [Ex. 8]. All four of these tritone sub examples are based on arpeggios, occasionally enhanced with a stepwise passing tone.

“In an extended dominant-7th vamp, you can alternate between major triad arpeggios a tritone apart. Start with a triad built on the root of the chord you’re vamping on, followed by a major triad built on the note a tritone higher, like this [Ex. 9]. Here I’m alternating between C and Gb triads, and finally resolving by a half-step to C7’s root.

“We’ve seen how the tritone substitution works in IIm-V cadences and over a dominant vamp, but it also shines in a 12-bar blues. The great tenor player Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis loved using the

tritone substitution going into the IV chord. It works like this [plays Ex. 10]. We’re in the key of Bb, which gives us Bb7 and Eb7 as the I-IV change. The tritone sub for Bb7 is Fb7—or E7, spelled enharmonically—which we’ll expand into an E9 arpeggio and use as a ramp into the IV. Once again, we complete the journey with a half-step resolution.”

Saxy Strategies

“Modern sax players often add a major 7 to the Dorian mode, because this extra note adds brightness and forward motion,” says Taylor whipping through Ex. 11. “It’s more than just a leading tone into the root. You can use the major 7 to create jagged lines and intriguing interval jumps that sound great over a minor-7th chord.”

Let’s take a closer look: The formula for the Dorian mode is 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7. Adding the major 7 creates a hybrid formula: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7, n7. Ex. 11’s Dm7 comprises D, F, A, and C (1, b3, 5, b7). Compare these chord tones to the enhanced Dorian scale tones (D, E, F, G, A, B, C, C#), and you’ll spot the source of prickly dissonance—Dm7’s C (b7) rubbing against the scale’s C# (n7).

“One of the scales to emerge from the ’40s jazz era was bebop Mixolydian,” says Taylor. “This eight-note scale also features a major 7, which results in an added half-step between the lowered 7 and the root. By filling out the scale, this additional tone make it easier to handle bop’s quick tempos. Try this phrase [Ex. 12], and you’ll see what I mean.”

Here’s the Mixolydian formula: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7. Adding the major 7 to create a bebop Mixolydian scale gives us the eight-note formula of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7, n7. Thus C bebop Mixolydian contains C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, and B.

“You can play bebop Mixolydian across a IIm-V change,” continues Taylor. “In the key of C, G7 is the V chord, and the standard approach is to play G Mixolydian over G7. But for more dissonance, try G bebop Mixolydian [G, A, B, C, D, E, F, F#] over both Dm7 and G7, the IIm-V. You get a bluesy major-versus-minor sound when the F# occurs above Dm7, like this [Ex. 13].”

Polychordal Mojo

“Stacking a triad over another chord creates a polychord,” says Taylor. “Polychords are a great source of dissonant color. Playing a D major triad over a C7, for example, gives you a dominant 7#11 sound [Ex. 14].”

In this phrase, the D arpeggio spans beats one and two. After establishing the edgy #11 (F#) color, you drift back into a C7 arpeggio to complete the phrase. Notice how the half-step pickup note and half-step resolution into C7’s 3 (and of beat four) create additional tension and release.

“You can use five major triads and four minor triads to create upper-structure alterations,” details Taylor, as he sketches out Examples 15 and 16. “To understand how each triad functions against a dominant 7, first play C7 and then, with the chord ringing in your ears, weave melodies from the stacked arpeggio. Studying these polychordal relationships will help you hone in on a specific alteration. If the chord change calls for a #9b13 alteration, playing a major triad from the chord’s b6 will give you that exact color. For a C7#9b13 sound, arpeggiate C7 and an Ab major triad. You can get the #9 and b13 from a C altered scale, but it also contains the b9 and #11. By contrast, polychords provide the alteration you’re after and nothing more. They’re very precise.”

Stay the Course

“When you first start working with soloing techniques like we’ve covered here,” says Taylor, “don’t be surprised if your lines sound dry and academic. But if you keep pushing, suddenly the sounds begin to fall into place and become your own. The trick is to play dissonance with utter conviction and a strong sense of time. You have to say, ‘This is where I’m going, follow me.’ Just charge forward and don’t look back.”