credit: Ashley Rehnblom

I. Myths about the Relationship between Jazz and Rock

This is the first in a series of articles for rock guitarists who want to be able to use concepts from jazz guitar playing in their own music. First, let’s clear up some misconceptions. When I was a kid, I would hear the saying “if you can play jazz, you can play anything.” I believed that so I took jazz guitar courses even though no one I knew played jazz and I never listened to it on my own. Fast forward nearly 30 years and I can say 2 things that other teachers may disagree with, but they came from my own experience:

1. If you learn to play jazz, it doesn’t mean you can play anything (like a heavy metal guitar solo, for example); it just means you can play everything in a jazzier way.

2. You don’t necessarily have to learn jazz standards in order to jazz up your rock playing.

When students come to me and want to jazz up their rock playing, I (and other teachers, I have found out) give those students jazz standards to play. They can really help things like melodic construction, chord vocabulary and voice leading, etc. But if the student is not listening to music like “How High the Moon” then it may not be as motivating to them in the long run.

So if you are a guitarist who wants to learn elements of jazz guitar without having to learn “Satin Doll,” this series is for you. In this first part we are going to discuss harmony. It will assume you know how to harmonize a scale, so if you don’t please refer to my article Harmonising a Scale.


II. Utilizing the Power of Modal Playing

Jazz guitarists can sometimes cringe at the word “mode” when it comes to soloing because key changes happen much more often in jazz than in rock and each chord is typically addressed in a progression when soloing, so modal thinking to a jazzer usually means a tune that has long sections over 1 chord or several chords that are closely related. But that’s exactly what happens in rock: there are many sections where the harmony is relatively static and there are usually few if any key changes in the solo section.

But what many rock players miss out on when it comes to chordal playing is that when you see 1 chord for a long period of time, you may safely access all the other chords in the harmonized scale for that mode. Let me illustrate.

Suppose we take the very common mode of Dorian and the key is Cm. Dorian is the 2nd mode of Bb so the harmonized scale will look the same as Bb Ionian, just starting on Cm:

Cm Dorian

Cm7 Dm7 Ebmaj7 F7 Gm7 Am7b5 Bbmaj7

This means that when you have an extended vamp over Cm, you may use all of the chords above at any time!

As a rock guitarist you'll probably be more at home in the key of E - here is the harmonized scale in Em Dorian.

Em7 F#m7 Gmaj7 A7 Bm7 C#m7b5 Dmaj7

A word of caution though: if you use “drop 2” voicings or barre chords that have roots on the 6th and 5th strings, you may clash with the bass player, who won’t be very happy. It would generally be much better to have separation between the bass and the chords as demonstrated in the video below.

I recommend learning all your major 7th, dominant 7th, minor 7th, half-diminished, and diminished 7th chords on the upper 4 strings, like these:

There are 3 more inversions on these upper set of strings besides the voicings above that you can use as well, so if you are unfamiliar with those, it will be well worth your time to explore them. In the meantime, suppose you two have a groove that goes Cm for 8 bars and then something completely different like Abm. Then you can comp with chords like in example 2:

C pedal

Ebmaj7 Bbmaj7 Gm7 F7 Bbmaj7 Am7b5 Gm7 Dm7

Ab pedal

Abm7 Fm7b5 Bbm7 Gbmaj7 Cbmaj7 Db7 Fm7b5 Ebm7 Fm7b5

I could have written out these voicings exactly as I played them, but the danger there is that you could spend more time working out the voicings than you would simply digesting the fact that you can use any of the chords in the mode of that particular harmonized scale, and the fact that voicings on the upper set of strings don’t clash with bass notes. You may, however, notice that in example 2 on the video, I paid attention to the top note of the voicing so that it was relatively smooth and melodic, not jumping all over the place (i.e. I used “voice leading.”)

For one final example let’s take another very common mode: mixolydian. This vamp is simply over a G7 chord and you can use any of the following chords to comp over it:

G Mixolydian

G7 Am7 Bm7b5 Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmaj7

Example 3 is an improvised accompaniment that only uses only voicings for the chords above. Note again that I made highest note sound smooth, and also that I typically resolved from chords with the note “c” in it (i.e. Am7, Dm7, Fmaj7) to chords with the note “b” in it (G7, Em7, Bm7b5). This is the equivalent of doing a G7sus to a G7 which is commonly found in all types of music.

III. Summary and Tips for Practicing

1. Learn your harmonized scales well if you haven’t already done so

2. Learn all the voicings on the upper set of strings

3. Pay attention to your voice leading, especially with the highest note

4. Pick two or more random keys and modes and create an extended vamp against which to experiment with the voicings in that particular mode (as illustrated in example 2)

5. Experiment with extensions of the chords (9ths, 11ths, 13ths) which this article did not discuss.

Have fun and let me hear what cool grooves you came up with! :)



About the author: Dennis Winge is a professional guitarist living in New York with a passion for vegan food and bhakti yoga. If you are interested in taking Guitar Lessons in Ithaca, NY, then be sure to contact Dennis!

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