Under Investigation: Miles Davis for Gutiar

Why would any player bother learning trumpet licks on the guitar?
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Why would any player bother learning trumpet licks on the guitar?
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Why would any player bother learning trumpet licks on the guitar? Consider this: Every guitarist who ever played with musical icon Miles Davis (1926 - 1991) was essentially repaying a debt incurred when they fell under the influence of Davis’ powerful spell. But what was it about Miles Davis’ playing that captivated so many musicians’ (and listeners’) heads, hands, and hearts?

Miles Davis, 1970s.

For some, it was Davis’ revolutionary bebop and cool-jazz periods (ca. 1944- 1948 and 1948-1949), or the hard-bop he fomented from 1950 to 1955. For others it was his transitional post-hard-bop modal excursions with Davis’ legendary quintets and sextets from 1955 to 1968, and/or his evolutionary electric period that spanned 1968 to 1975. And for younger “students” it might have been the fusion of jazz, rock, funk, pop, and even hip-hop that Miles explored from his 1981 comeback until his passing in 1991. Regardless of which group(s) you belong to, vast musical riches await those willing to study Davis’ playing (and compositions) from any stage of his four-decade career.

While a thorough investigation of Davis’ guitarists, from John McLaughlin to James “Foley” McCreary, is long overdue (I promise, it’s forthcoming), it seemed natural to preface it by taking some of Miles’ playing—the source of all that inspiration—and arranging it for guitar.

“On Green Dolphin Street,” originally titled “Green Dolphin Street,” was written for the 1947 film of the same name, and it was Davis’ 1958 recording with Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb that transformed the song into a jazz standard. Originally released on Jazz Track (rereleased in 1974 as 1958 Miles), the song is now part of the expanded 1959 landmark, Kind of Blue, a highly celebrated album cited by many as Miles’ first foray into post-hardbop modal jazz. It’s fertile ground for guitarists and ripe for investigation.


To have your way with any melody you must first know it inside-out in its original form. For decades, The Real Book (and its many subsequent volumes) has been the go-to fakebook for jazz standards from A to Z. Ex. 1 presents a Real Book-style lead sheet for “On Green Dolphin Street” transposed to Davis’ key of E (the song is usually played a minor third lower in C), enhanced with tablature (which you won’t find in any fakebook), and transposed up one octave (standard practice for guitarists when playing Real Book charts). This chart is written in half-time (i.e. with straight eighths and lightly swung sixteenths), which reduces the 32-bar form to 16 bars to conserve space, and it can be read it as is with an imaginary hi-hat on the eighth-note upbeats, or by double-timing the count and the value of each note. Also keep in mind that the chord symbols are of the fakebook variety and do not represent Bill Evans’ beautiful impressionistic voicings.

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The A section of the chord progression utilizes a pedal Eb pitch axis (Ebmaj7- Ebm7-F/Eb-Fb/Eb-Ebmaj7), while the melody essentially outlines each chord in descending fashion—Eb, D-Bb-G, Db, C, Cb-Ab, Fb, and Bb. (Fact: John McLaughlin used the first five notes, albeit in the key of C, as the beginning of the violin melody from the Mahavishnu Orchestra epic, “The Dance of Maya”!) The B section contains two parts: An Fm7-Bb7-Ebmaj7 II-V-I progression supporting the melody’s fourth interval skip (Bb-F-G), ascending altered-dominant line (Ab-Bb-Cb-Db), and resolution to Bb in bars 5 and 6, and the exact same melody and chord progression transposed up a minor third (three frets) to Abm7-Db7-Gbmaj7 in bars 6 and 7. A Bb7, the dominant III-chord of Gb, serves as the V of Eb and leads to the repeat of the A section. The first three beats of the C section melody are identical to bar 5 before the progression gets busier to the tune of one chord per beat. The melody follows the progression—which back-cycles through four sets of major and minor II-VIs—with chromatic passing tones and wide interval skips before arriving at the target Bb over Ebmaj7. Once you get comfortable with the melody and changes, it’s time to…


Ex. 2 portrays Davis’ take on the song’s head, which we’ll examine in two-bar chunks. Some points to keep in mind: Keep your notes vibrato-free (yes, you heard right), and be sure to “play” the rests. Never underestimate the power of silence!

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Bars 1 and 2 – Miles sets the mood for his impressionistic solo by adding a 5-toroot pickup (Bb-Eb) and delaying it until the second and fourth sixteenths of bar 1 before adhering to the fakebook melody, albeit in a laid-back sort of way.

Bars 3 and 4 – Davis uses the C melody note (also rhythmically displaced) only at the beginning and end of the descending Fb (a.k.a. E) arpeggio in bar 3 before targeting but cutting short the Bb in bar 4. Note the straight-eighth phrasing versus the fakebook’s eighth-note triplet.

Bars 5 and 6 – With the exception of the Gb note on beat two, Miles’ entrance to the B section in bar 5 duplicates the fakebook melody, but embellishes it with some subtle staccato phrasing. Bar 6, on the other hand, is a complete departure as Davis replaces the standard Bb target with a half-step to the tonic Eb on the downbeat of bar 6.

Bars 7 and 8 – Swinging syncopated phrasing and a cool Cb (a.k.a. B) ghost note (notated in parentheses) characterize Miles’ take on bar 7, while bar 8 features a modal lick of Davis’ invention found nowhere in the fakebook.

Bars 9 and 10 – More lazy phrasing, a half-step slur, and a triplet-based pickup fill out Davis return to the second round of the A section.

Bars 11 and 12 – Except for the opening quarter-note, these two measures are identical to bars 3 and 4.

Bars 13 and 14 – Miles begins the top of the C section (bar 13) with three beats that echo the fakebook melody, again, with the notes cut short, and then deviates with an arpeggiated B diminished tetrachord (half-step, whole-step, half-step) serving as a pickup to a beautifully sequenced and syncopated modal take on the melody utilizing the parent Eb major scale. The whole thing targets Bb on the downbeat of bar 15.

Bars 15 through 18 – Typically, we would follow bar 14 with the figure in bars 17 and 18, which acts as a two-bar turnaround and take us back to the top of the 16-bar (or double-timed, 32-bar) progression. But here, Davis creates a two-bar tag ending in bars 15 and 16 by rephrasing the motif from the end of bar 14 two different ways before the actual turnaround. This, of course, creates an 18-bar, or double- timed 36-bar form that is only used on Miles’ intro and outro heads, and at the end of his second solo chorus. His actual turnaround (bars 17 and 18) features a second-inversion Ebsus4-Eb arpeggio played as quarter-notes, followed by a very Coltrane-esque move, where Davis sustains the 3 (G) across the barline into bar 18, and then two similar descending rhythm motifs using the 2-root-b7 and 6-5-4-3, respectively. The whole measure is played over a sustained Bb7 V-chord in place of the standard Ebmaj7-Fm7-Bb7 I-II-V progression—a cool jazz substitution—and ends with a two-note pickup to…


We’ll investigate Davis’ first 16-bar solo chorus in broader strokes by segmenting it into four-bar phrases. Ex. 3 typifies Miles’ then brand-new impressionistic modal approach to soloing. Here, the chord-chasing fast bop runs of his earlier years have been, as with the melody, replaced with sparser modal and intervallic lines like the ones in bars 1 through 4—a slow simmer versus a rapid boil. Noteworthy are the Gm7 arpeggio (actually the melody in reverse) used to cover the Ebmaj7-to-Ebm7 changes in bars 1 and 2—this hip IIIm7-for-Imaj7 substitution highlights the upper extensions (3, 5,7, and 9) of Eb—and the rephrasing of the melody via a descending Abm7 arpeggio in bars 3 and 4.

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The next four measures (bars 5 through 7, illustrated in Ex. 4), navigate the B section and are somewhat of a throwback to Davis’ bop years, complete with sax-y Charlie Parker-style phrasing, represented here by the hammer-ons between the last two sixteenths in bar 5’s IIm7-V7 progression, and the second and third sixteenths in the ascending sequenced I-chord line in bar 6. Observe how all of the notes except the last Db are derived from the Eb major scale. The same Db anticipates the broken Ebm7 arpeggio and ensuing Ab-Bb-Gb motif subbed over the up-a-minor-third Abm7-Db7-Gbmaj7 II-V-I progression from bar 7 into the downbeat of bar 8.

Ex. 5 shows how Miles uses a two-beat modal pickup derived from F Dorian, the second mode of the Eb major scale, to preface the return to four bars of the A section, where he reprises the Gm7-over-Ebmaj7 sub (bar 9), moves the Gm7 arpeggio (plus its 9) up a minor third (three frets) to cover the Ebm7 in bar 10, plays a 3-2-1 “Figaro” motif into the F/Eb chord in bar 11, and then flirts with both the b3 and the 3 of the key center (Gb and G) for the remaining bar-and-a-half of Fb/Eb (a.k.a. E/Eb) and Ebmaj7 changes.

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Ex. 6 portrays the last four bars of Davis’ first solo chorus, plus one extra bar for good measure. Bar 13, with the addition of a ghosted F pull-off and legato phrasing, reprises the same measure from Ex. 2, the only difference being its target in bar 14 (F-D versus F-G), and the open bar of space that follows—the power of silence! Finally, Miles superimposes an ascending, second-inversion Fm7 arpeggio (Ab-C-Eb) that includes its 9, a target G held for half of bar 15 and all of bar 16, which again utilizes a sustained V chord turnaround. Davis begins his second solo chorus with yet another variation of the III-for-I, Gm7/Ebmaj9 arpeggio, but that’s another story.

Modal magic, rhythmic perfection, and back-to-the-future melodicism can be yours if you’re willing to put in the time and effort it takes to decode the depthless realms of Miles Davis’ musical sorcery.