JOHN SCOFIELD’S COVER OF THE classic “House of the Rising Sun” is a great example of how to create a harmonically rich jazz solo over a simple pop chord progression. Even though the chords are the same basic major and minor chords from the original version (Am, C, D, E and F), Scofield demonstrates how the lines themselves can imply all of the harmony necessary to create hip sounds.
Let’s start with some simple stuff. Because the song is in the key of A minor, the home scale can be viewed as A Aeolian (A, B, C, D, E, F, G). In Ex. 1 Sco uses this scale to create a three-note descending motif over the Am and C chords before altering the scale’s F natural to an F# to accommodate the D major chord.
Ex. 2 uses an idea based on A minor pentatonic, but adds a Bb (b2) for an interesting tension. This lick then moves to a B minor/D major pentatonic scale over the D chord. The B minor pentatonic scale can also be used on a C major chord to create a C Lydian sound (C, D, E, F#, G, A, B). Notice how the notes of the B minor pentatonic scale are also the 3, 7, 9, #11 and 13 of a Cmaj13(#11) chord. Ex. 3 shows how you can play position one for the minor pentatonic scale down one fret from the root of a major chord to create a Lydian sound.
In Ex. 4 Sco uses the A Aeolian mode over an E root to create an E Phrygian sound. Since the notes of E Phrygian (E, F, G, A, B, C, D) are the same as those of A Aeolian, a new sound is achieved without changing the notes. The next two bars of this example are based on the A Dorian mode (A, B, C, D, E, F#, G) with an added Eb (b5) blue note on the A minor and a Bb on the C chord to suggest a C7 sound. Ex. 5 begins with a B minor pentatonic on the D chord before changing to F Mixolydian on the F chord and resolving to an A blues scale lick on the A minor chord. We see the use of the F Mixolydian mode on the F chord again in Ex. 6, which begins with a B minor pentatonic idea on the D chord. Notice how the last bar of this example illustrates a useful, moveable shape for a major chord. Try transposing this lick to other keys by sliding it up and down the neck.
Since we are in the key of A minor, our dominant or V chord is E. Dominant chords provide fertile ground for adding or implying a variety of tensions. In Ex. 7 Sco plays a rapid line based on E7alt (E, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D) which moves to an E Phrygian sound. In Ex. 8 He addresses the E chord with an E Mixolydian and then moves to an E Locrian mode. Notice how both examples illustrate the flexibility on the E dominant chord and how E Mixolydian, E alt, E Phrygian, and E Locrian all create tension in different ways.
The half/whole diminished scale is a very useful device for creating interesting tensions in a variety of situations. Ex. 9, uses a C half/whole to get from the C chord to the E major. Since the C half/whole scale is the same as an E whole/half scale (implying Edim), this can also be viewed as “I diminished chord resolving to the I chord.” This is a common tension/resolution relationship and can be heard in the bridge of the hit “Tequila” by the Champs. Ex. 10 illustrates the use of a D half/whole scale and starts on the pickup to a D chord before it resolves to the 3rd of the F chord.
A common scale can sound less cliché if the intervallic combinations are varied in less common ways. Ex. 11 uses a D minor pentatonic scale over the F chord and adds an Eb to suggest the b7 of the F chord. Check out how this lick uses wide interval leaps and string skips within the most common shape for minor pentatonic to create an interesting bebop lick over an F chord.
Another bebop-type lick occurs on the F chord in the first half of the last chorus. In Ex. 12 Sco uses an F bebop scale with a Db passing tone to create a slippery line that ends on the b7 of the F chord. This lick is similar to one that Larry Carlton played in his solo to Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne.”
Try looping the chord progression or have a bassist or another guitarist accompany you while you try these examples. Don’t forget to check out John Scofield’s version of this tune from his album This Meets That in order to hear these examples in their original context.