Rhythm Changes is one of the most important chord progressions you can find in contemporary jazz music. It first came to prominence in the 1930s, being adopted by many bebop musicians over the next couple decades, and has formed the basis to numerous classic jazz tunes. You can read more about the history and useage of this turnaround here, or, if you are ready, jump straight into the lesson.
Today we are going to focus on the “A section” of a Rhythm Changes. You can find this 8 bar turnaround in songs like: I Got Rhythm, Oleo, and Anthropology. Improvising over those chords is fun, but at the same time, can be tricky because you have to deal with so many changes in such a short time.
Typically, blues or rock guitarists would play a minor pentatonic (or blues scale) over this section. For example if the key is Bb flat major, they will play Bb minor pentatonic or blues scale. But in the spirit of jazz, we can further emphasise the chord changes using some carefully chosen arpeggios.
Rhythm Changes harmonic explanation
In this turnaround we have major/minor chords and dominant chords. Over major and minor chords we will just play, more or less, the same arpeggio of the chord. For example, if we have Bb6 chord we will play a Bb6 or Bb major 7th arpeggio and and we will just add some passing tones. We want to stay focused on the dominant chords that give motion to the progression.
We can divide the dominant chords in 2 groups:
1) the altered dominant group. These are the dominant chords resolving a fifth below or the dominant chord built on the fifth degree of the key’s scale (for example F7 in Bb)
2) the natural dominant group. These are the dominant chords which are not resolving a fifth below or built on anything but the fifth degree of the key’s scale.
To create an altered dominant sound we can use a minor/major 7th arpeggio a half step above the chord (if we have F7alt we will play Gb m/Maj7 arpeggio). With this arpeggio we will emphasise: the root, the major 9th, the major 3rd and the augmented 5th or minor 13th of the chord.
To create a natural dominant sound we can use a minor/major 7th arpeggio a perfect fifth above the chord (if we have Ab7 we will play Eb m/Maj7 arpeggio). With this arpeggio we will emphasise: the perfect 5th, the minor 7th, the major 9th and the diminished 5th or augmented 11th of the chord.
You can listen to the audio file for each turnaround. Practice these 10 licks and try to use those in your improvisation. Have fun!
About the author: Tommaso Costa is an Italian guitar player based in New York with more than 10 years teaching experience. He graduated from the Italian Conservatory of Trento, Rock Guitar Academy in Milan and at the Collective School of Music in New York. He also studied classical performance at the Accademia Regondi in Milan. He has recently performed with: Tobias Ralph, Gregory Jones, Bob Quaranta, Vittorio Cosma, Maciek Shejbal, Meraviglia Orchestra, Mistery Evanescence Tribute Band, 69 Strings & Enrico Merlin and Zerita Hamilton. He was described as 'Born for the art of music and guitar' by legendary classical guitarist Alirio Díaz.
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