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Back & BeBop – A Guide Tone Exercise

By Miles Donahue

If you look at the last two bars of “The French Suite No. 5” by Bach, you see how he uses the guide tones of a chord to imply what the chord is. The guide tones are the three and the seven of every chord. These two notes played against the root create a melody that makes the sound of the chord. If you are familiar with Bach’s two-part inventions you will understand how, with only two notes played, you hear chords even though no chords are played throughout.

Just to be clear, a chord has to be a minimum of three notes (1-3-5 equals a triad). With the triad the chord is determined to be major or minor based on the 3rd. The 5th and the root of the chord are the same note whether it is major or minor – therefore the 3rd determines the quality of the chord (major or minor). The same would be true of the7th. The difference between a major 7th chord and dominant 7th can be outlined thusly: in a C major 7th chord, the 7th is B natural, while for C7 the 7th is B. For these two chords 1-3-5 do not change, so if you do not include the 3rd or the 7th in your improvised solo you are not making the sound of the chord of the moment. This vertical style would be how Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Clifford Brown, and others improvised using the Be-bop jazz language.

The other important element in improvising is keeping track of the harmonic rhythm (i.e. how long the chord last). With that in mind, I have developed a drill for hearing the sound of the chord using the guide tones and how long the chord lasts. Part one is only the 3 and 7. If the chord lasts for four beats, there will be two half-notes and if the chord lasts only two beats there will be two quarter-notes. For part two the pattern, a four-beat chord is 3-7-4-#4-5-3-1-7. For a chords lasting only two beats, the pattern is 3-7-5-#5(1st chord ) 3-#4-5-7 (2nd chord). When the first chord is a minor 7 Flat 5, the pattern is 3-7-5-6.

This all sounds complicated, but if you play the drill along with the jazz workbook play-along – which has only drums and the bass playing the root of the chord – you will realize you are hearing chord changes.

In a career spanning over 50 years, New England-based bandleader, sax player, and jazz educator Miles Donahue has performed on and recorded 14 albums. Donahue is currently a visiting professor at Middlebury College, teaching a class on the music of Motown and popular piano styles. His site,, offers an effective course for new players to learn jazz improvisation.

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