Psst... Ready to join TalkBass and start posting, make new friends, sell your gear, and more?  Register your free account in 30 seconds.

Approaching Melodic Soloing through Blanket Scales

Discussion in 'Music Theory [DB]' started by Chris Fitzgerald, Feb 2, 2001.

  1. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I was threatening to start a theory thread about a week ago and got enough responses that it seemed worth a shot. I've been working on a technique for teaching an introduction to basic melodic soloing concepts (mostly in a jazz context)for the past couple of years. I hope to eventually turn it into either a large handout or a small text for ease of use, but between now and then I need to get some feedback and criticism. So, if you're so inclined, pull up a comfortable chair, get some coffee, and perhaps have a good pillow handy in case I get long-winded and boring. This might take a minute...

    Over the past 5 years teaching in university situations and at the Aebersold summer workshops, I've noticed a disturbing trend in methods of teaching beginner/intermediate level players how to deal with chord changes to standard tunes. What happens is that many instructors pass out the chord changes and then explain what scale corresponds to each chord, and then count off the tune and play. When the students can't figure out how to apply that knowledge, the typical response is "Okay, let's everybody play through the tune and play the first five notes of the scale (or the arpeggio 1-3-5-7 or whatever)". After everyone has done this, the tune gets counted off again, and then everyone fumbles through the first notes of each scale as they go by, and the solos still sound like scale exercises. Many students walk around practically begging for someone to show them how to play melodically, or how to tie all of the scale knowledge together to help them play melodies.

    Over the past three years of the camps, I've done some version of the following in my (piano) master classes and combos, and it seems to help.

    1) Define "Melodic" as "singable", and refer students who want to solo melodically to imitate melodic constructions of the actual melodies of jazz standards (as differentiated from many bebop heads, which ARE melodic, but which more resemble "frozen solos" in many instances).

    2)Analyze various standard melodies (chosen by the students when asked to choose examples of tunes which contain beautiful or strong melodies) to determine how the composer made his/her note choices for the melody. Without fail (so far), when we do this we discover that 90 - 99% OF THE NOTES IN MOST STANDARD MELODIES ARE COMPLETELY DIATONIC when analyzed in the context of the harmonic modulations that the tune goes through.

    3)Define the basic tonality that is happening during each harmonic or tonal "area", and assign a single "blanket scale" to cover the entirety of that area. When thought of in this way, the number of "thoughts per phrase or tune" is reduced dramatically when compared to the "normal"(?) way of learning it, which involves seeing each chord as a separate entity which must be covered each time it goes by.

    Ex. "All The Things You Are" first 8 bars:

    F- Bb- Eb7 AbMa DbMa D- G7 CMa

    If you are thinking chord by chord (and, assuming you have your theory correct and know that ALL JAZZ MINOR CHORDS DO NOT DESIGNATE DORIAN SCALES!!!), you would have to think of playing: F aeolian, Bb dorian, Eb mixolydian, Ab ionian, Db lydian, D dorian, G mixolydian, and C ionian. 8 thoughts all in the span of about 16 seconds, (give or take)! How crazy is it to approach soloing this way? How creative can you be while thinking this much?

    If you are thinking of playing motivic shapes within a blanket scale, you only have to think of playing out of Ab major for the first 5 bars, and C major for the last three. Most people find this a much more liberating approach.

    I have found that almost all standard melodies/tunes can be approached in this way, and that students who start approaching tunes in this manner tend to start soloing in a more melodic manner immediately. When you reduce the number of thoughts/judgements required to get through any phrase or chorus, it's almost as if you are opening the gate to intuitive playing or creativity.

    I'd like to write more, but this is getting pretty long already and my wife has her arms crossed and is starting to tap her toes which means....... well, you all know what that means. It means I gotta go. Thoughts, comments, questions, criticism, anyone? More later if anybody has eyes.
  2. pkr2


    Apr 28, 2000
    coastal N.C.
    "Many students walk around practically begging for someone to show them how to play melodically, or how to tie all of the scale knowledge together to help them play melodies."

    Thats exactly the group that I'm in right now, Chris.
    I'm looking forward to more.


  3. Tim Ludlam

    Tim Ludlam

    Dec 19, 1999
    Carmel, IN
    Thanks Chris. This is very helpful stuff. I have been struggling with analyzing each chord as the tune progresses. It will be interesting to start incorporating this into practice.
  4. Francois Blais

    Francois Blais Supporting Member

    Dec 11, 1999
    Québec, Canada
    Thanks a lot, Chris!
    I do appreciate your post very much.
    Now, I'd like to get help on how to easily find those simple blanket scales from a chord change.

    Thanks again!
  5. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Glad to hear this stuff is helpful to someone! One of the reasons I like teaching at the camps so much is that each week, there are 400 people who are really into jazz all packed into one building, and most of them seem really hungry for information - As opposed to the rest of the year, when I am lucky if I see even 200 people at a single concert (even one by a major player...this should change in Feb. - I hope - 'cause McCoy Tyner's trio is coming to town). :cool:

    Finding suitable blanket scales for specific tunes to begin with is mostly a matter of knowing how chords fit together within larger tonalities. The melody will usually give you a solid clue, but beyond that, you've gotta be able to do some analysis. I'd be happy to go over some of that stuff if anyone wants - especially if anyone has a tune or some tunes that they are finding problematic: just post the changes, and we'll see what we can do. The key to the puzzle is almost always the same - instead of looking for differences between consecutive chord scales (i.e. - thinking of each scale on its own terms), look for SIMILARITIES, and get rid of the idea that each scale is rootbound...this will kill solos every time.
  6. Jeff Bonny

    Jeff Bonny Supporting Member

    Nov 20, 2000
    Vancouver, BC
    A method that works for me is to record the changes in question using a piano or chords on the bass (10ths mostly) and then to take a four or eight or twelve bar section and experiment with what sounds good. I wrote an eight bar tune that started as a melody with chords evolving to support it. I was really beating myself up trying to play "through" every chord but two choruses of soloing over the recorded changes with no thought of analysis, only melody, made it obvious there were really only three chords the melody relied upon. The other chords I wrote were there to add motion and contrast to the melody rather than it having been derived from them. Analysis of it all after the fact to justify and better understand what's going on for me works a lot better than trying to hear something through analysis. The term "blanket scale" is something I'm gonna cop as it describes the simplification process very well. Wish I'd had you as a teacher twenty years ago Chris.
  7. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY

    I hear you. On the other hand, it's nice to be able to "hear" your way through many tunes on first sight. I remember a gig last year where the piano player called "These Foolish Things", which is a tune I had played before as a pianist but never as a bassist. He had a chart in a different key than I was used to (before I always played it on gigs with singers). I did a quick mental read of the tune, figured I had nothing to lose, and accidentally played one of the best solos I had played in months! (We were recording the gig, so I was able to confirm later that I wasn't dreaming). The point is, I didn't even have TIME to figure out any "Fancy" stuff to play, so I kept it simple and within the larger tonalities of the tune, and the result was more melodic than most stuff I play. As I get better at this method, I hope to be able (maybe by the time I'm 60 or something) to use it to get through just about ANY new tune comfortably on sight.

    Well, I can always dream, can't I?
  8. Let apologize in advance for the lack of forethought I'm putting into this.

    I think an important part of improvising both solos and basslines is hearing what you're playing an instant before you play it, just as when you speak you think about your words before they come out of your mouth.

    Scales provide a set of notes and knowledge of the modes is essential. But without an understanding of not only how each scale relates to each chord, but an understanding of how each mode and the related chord relates to a key you just have a bag of notes. Understanding that relationship is what allows the improvisor to use the notes in a musical way. We all know Cm7-F7 is a ii7-V7 in Bb major. Seeing that and understanding that Eb is the third in the Cm chord, the seventh of the F7, the fourth of the tonic and a fourth wants to resolve down a half step to D, the third of the tonic, might lead a soloist to do something different with that note than if all he knows is that it's a note in the scale. Does the soloist understand that Gb in this example belongs to the key of Bb minor, the parallel minor of the key and could be used to set up a suprise resolution?

    Once a student understands voice-leading (leading tones and passing tones) they need an undertstanding of chromatic approach notes, notes that don't belong to the key but may be used to embellish and resolve into notes belonging to the key.

    Finally, perhaps more importance should be placed on being able to solo over a broad tonal area before leading students into playing on modes or specifif chord-scale relationships. Using the the above example, get the student to play something interesting thinking of nothing but Bb major before telling him he'd better be thinking about C dorian.
  9. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Actually, it sounds like we are pretty much on the same page on most of these issues...To my mind, the analogy that works best is that of how infants and toddlers learn to talk - they imitate, and they screw up, and they try again. Nobody would think of trying to teach a 2 year old to speak by applying abstract grammatical rules...that would be absurd, and probably cause the child not to want to talk at all. But sometimes I feel like music education does something similar when it teaches by making things more complicated rather than simplifying them and letting each person's intuitive sense play a bigger role in deciding what the "rules" are.
  10. Jeff Bonny

    Jeff Bonny Supporting Member

    Nov 20, 2000
    Vancouver, BC
  11. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I tend to do the same as Jeff and use my Roland Microcomposer to "programme" chords and practice soloing over them and find this helps me become more melodic and "smoother" in soloing. I think that basically though, it's just a question of experience and the more chord sequences you play over, the more you recognise what notes are available.

    I go along to regular Jazz classes at my local University and we have done a lot of this sort of thing and the horn players are all into finding what scales they can use, but we are getting to the point where this seems to hinder rather than help.

    There is a tendency for the parts with common scales to become a sort of "mush" with no shape and no rhythmic interest. So it's like - noodle a bit on this scale, then noodle a bit more on this one - etc. I think this is something that doesn't happen to bass players (and piano players) so much, as we are constantly going round the chords anyway. I am the only bass player in the class, so by the time everybody else has had their solo, the chord sequence is so firmly lodged in my head I can't get it out!

    The cruel thing that has to happen then, is to get these soloists to play a solo with no comping and for it to outline the changes, so that it's a melodic and interesting solo, but everybody can still hear the song happening. It's funny but we have a very good drummer in this class and in his solos, I can hear the changes every time, but the horns have a lot more difficulty with this.

    I have the feeling that the "blanket scales" thing is something you have to learn and then throw away, or at least put to the back of your mind - but I'm probably not explaining what I mean very well. I just try to play as much as I can and as many different pieces that are "challenging" as far as possible - I feel that by doing this and studying each piece it is much more likely that it will "stick" rather than just studying theory in isolation or "just" playing.
  12. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I completely agree. I find that "studying theory in isolation" does me little good. Also, I think that ALL theoretical concepts belong more in the practice room than on the bandstand. The bandstand is the place for their intuitive realization rather than their conscious application.
  13. Jeff Bonny

    Jeff Bonny Supporting Member

    Nov 20, 2000
    Vancouver, BC
  14. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I think in the particular case I was mentioning, that Chris is probably closer to the truth and this is something I think would be useful to discuss in our class. I am pretty sure I know what you mean by "Motivic" playing, but this term has never come up on any Jazz classes I have attended in the UK. Is this a generally-used term in the US and can you give a potted definition - juts to make sure I know exactly what it is, when I bring it up on Saturday?

  15. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
  16. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY

    Hey, welcome to the funhouse! I'll second that reccommendation on the Brookmeyer writings. I've only read the one email forward you sent, but I completely agreed with almost everything it said (esp. the "Giant Steps" part, which led me to formulate some lyrics to a typical Change-running GS solo). Is there more at the website? If so, how might a fella find it?

    Yeah, Galper was a hoot the entire week. Because of his,...uh.... uninhibited manner of speaking, I can't post much of what he really said during the week, but most of it was pretty interesting, and even the stuff I didn't agree with/care for was sure entertaining as hell...
  17. Chris, I think we are indeed saying the same thing. Unfortunately, in trying to write about this, one tends to sound very theoretical. Obviously, in real time there's no time to think about it. You hear it and do it. But having done the homework helps you to hear it.

    And I agree about the motivic thing, Ed. When I'm able to find something and develop it, or use as a call and response is always one of my better solos.

    Maybe the problem with teaching the scale thing is perhaps that it causes students to feel like they have to play all those notes, and that there is nothing inherantly melodic about scales. They need to learn how to manipulate the notes of a scale into melody.
  18. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    Well I think our tutor is trying very hard not to take a very strong line because of the sort of worries that Ed mentions and he mentioned last time that Jazz "educators" are split on some things. Like we were looking at some minor II-V-s that didn't resolve and he was saying that a few years ago he might have said one thing but now the "accepted thinking" was just have to take each as a separate chord in its own right.

    We were also saying how a lot of the people are looking for ways to play better solos and are sort of "in the middle" or torn between "blanket scales" and treating each cord separately.

    Come to think of it, I have heard "motif" used a lot in discussing soloing - it's just the adjective "motivic" looks strange written down and I haven't heard it used like that. I think our tutor's view is rather than giving us a lot of "rules", to take as many tunes as we can that "illustrate" different challenges and to play these and discuss what difficulties we have, or what ideas we have for playing a solo on these.

    Oh and can you point me to the Brookmeyer site - I get the feeling I have seen this, but could you point me to the web address?

    [Edited by Bruce Lindfield on 02-05-2001 at 11:07 AM]
  19. Hey, great discussion - very interesting thread, and clears up a more than few of my misunderstandings.

    BTW, Richard Wagner was the inventor of the "leit-motif", in which an idea or a character is associated with a short phrase or melody, and he used this device extensively "Der Ring des Nibelungen".

    - Wil
  20. Jeff Bonny

    Jeff Bonny Supporting Member

    Nov 20, 2000
    Vancouver, BC