Mastering Chord Tones – Not Scales – to Excel at Improvisation

December 31, 2015

By Miles Donahue

Jazz scales are the first things my new students ask about. They’ve heard of altered scales such as the whole tone and diminished and they get excited about their sounds, which are new to their musical universe. Popular play-along music books put much emphasis on scales, which feeds into the notion that scales are all one needs to know to magically transform into Miles Davis or John Coltrane.

Knowing those scales won’t necessarily allow a player to tap into the harmonic sophistication of jazz, though, because when improvising, the advanced soloist makes the sound of a song’s chords instead of just ripping through scales. The very essence of jazz resides in the vertical navigation of chords, and not the scales themselves.

It’s easier for keyboard and string instrument players to grasp this concept, because they can visualize the chords they play while comping or accompanying their own solos. Teaching the concept of what makes a solo line sound like the 7th, 9th, or 13th (and their many variations) chords in the chart while improvising to a player of a single-note woodwind or brass instrument, for example, is much tougher. I’ll tackle it here, with specific examples from some legendary players.

Guide notes, color tones, and harmonic rhythm

In simple terms, the best-sounding solos feature the guide notes and color tones of each chord, vertically, and follow the chord changes through the song. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie discovered this principle, playing bebop. Later, many great players such as Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, and Bill Evans advanced the concept in the less frantic jazz styles that followed.

If you were to see a B7#9 chord and did not know how to make the sound of that chord, you have zero language comprehension for this particular chord. Improvising is making the sound of the different chords, connecting them in a seamless fashion using chord tones and color notes, while mixing in scale tones as approach notes to interesting rhythm. For example, the 4th note of major scale will sound like a wrong note if played on a strong beat as if it is a chord tone. For that reason, it is called an “avoid note.” But it sounds great the way Cannonball Adderley uses it on weak beats, transitioning between chord tones in the opening four bars of his “All Blues” solo from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue.

Things get complicated when the chord lasts for only two beats, as in John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” or “Confirmation.” When a soloist has to cover a seven-note scale on a chord that lasts two beats, what should he do? Which of the seven should he play in a solo? In general, a chord’s guide tones are the 3rd and the 7th; they determine the quality of the chord (major, minor, dominant, diminished). If you don’t know how to make the sound of the chord or how long each chord lasts, you cannot

The chord that needs the most attention is the dominant 7th, even though 1, 3, and 7 never change in their scales, because the potential combination of color notes overwhelms at first. The most important sound to master would be when natural tension notes are available (9th and 13th) or altered tension notes ([flat] and #9th, [flat]13th). Moreover, there’s the Lydian dominant, in which a player adds the #11th to the scale with the 9th and 13th, or the diminished dominant sound ([flat]9th, #9th, #11th with the natural 13th) or the simpler altered chord that uses the ([flat]9th and [flat]13th).

Integrating these ideas into practice sessions

Sometimes, one needs to repeat something many times before it makes sense to his mind, ear, and fingers. At first, you many not completely understand what you are playing; but perseverance will reward you with a tool you can use on every song you play.

This might sound paradoxical, but to become a better improviser it’s less important to sit and improvise at first than it is to practice these tools and thought processes needed to improvise. Otherwise students aren’t sure what they should practice. They end up noodling, rudderless, without building knowledge of chord tones.

With practice, your mind’s eye eventually “sees the shape” of the chords. Your fingers will produce this shape. At that point, you are free to teach yourself to be creative with the sound. Many expert players might say they do not have a method for teaching this particular slice of jazz theory. When students understand how to practice, that works.

I want to teach people who may be talented but need help to learn more jazz language and understand how to prepare for improvising on songs with chord changes. You cannot teach anyone how to improvise – it is an autodidactic skill – but you can teach the musical tools needed for improving that improvisation skill. Put another way, you can help a player better understand how to practice.

Sounds mysterious? There’s a method to the madness

I’ve developed a method for learning to hear chord changes on single-note (non-chord) instruments. In the following examples, we focus mostly on the altered dominant, a melodic minor scale starting on the 7th degree. Guitar shredders call it the “super Locrian.” When playing these scales, it’s difficult to hear the chord associated with it:


Example 1. Features the altered sound, adapted from Jerry Bergonzi’s solo in the song “Edith Head” from Benny Wallace’s The Art of the Saxophone.

Example 2. Features the altered sound, adapted from Michael Brecker’s solo in the interpretation of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” on Chick Corea’s Three Quartets.

Example 3. Features the sound of [flat]9, #9 and 13th color tones, adapted from Ralph Moore’s solo in “Afternoon in Paris” from the Kenny Barron album Invitation, and is a great example of how to make the sound of the chord and how to connect to other chords seamlessly. “Donna Lee” by the Charlie Parker Quintet is another worth listening to for this aspect of learning smooth chord transitions within the harmonic rhythm.

Play these chordal shapes and let your ears hear the sound of the chord. Soon you’ll be spotting chord shapes quicker. With practice you’ll hear them in time – in the harmonic rhythm – and your fingers will reproduce them. Soon you’ll be varying the melodic lines of your solos. Eventually, perseverance will reward you with a tool you can use on every song you play, a tool that separates professional jazz players from the weekend warriors.

In a career spanning 50 years, New England–based bandleader, sax player, and jazz educator Miles Donahue has performed and recorded 14 albums, many of which are available on iTunes. His site,, offers an effective course for new players to learn jazz improvisation and for seasoned players to learn fresh approaches to soloing.

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