Three Steps To Playing The Changes

Feb 12, 2021

There were a lot of questions after last month's theory workshop about, well, how do you use these scales we're talking about, to play over a chord progression? And as I've been working on the material for this Saturday's workshop on playing the changes, I've had to really put on my thinking cap to put that process into words. Improvisation is always an ongoing balance between using the navigational tools and flying by the seat of one's pantaloons. Improvisation is where best laid plans and caveman intuition come together, so the goal of any improvisation workshop is to provide enough navigational tools that your own intuition has a chance to come out and party.

It does help to have a little knowledge about a few basic scales humming in the background, but improvising over chord progressions mostly has to do with understanding the chords themselves. "Playing the changes" is essentially playing licks and phrases that sound good because they help spell out the chord changes you're moving through. So one key to improvising is simply being able to know and locate where the notes of each chord are as they go by. And not anything exotic, like 9ths or 13ths. Just the root, the third and fifth – what the theory cats call the triad –  and maybe the seventh. The basic building blocks of each chord.

You don't have to play those notes all over the neck, or even in more than one octave. If you're playing fingerstyle, you're going to be using the bottom three strings for bass notes anyway. So the best thing you can do is find those three triad notes for each chord using the top three strings of the guitar. Which means, basically just finding one note on each string. And while there might be more chords in a standard than in a twelve-bar blues, there aren't that many more. So if you put a song like "Sweet Georgia Brown" or "Indiana" in a guitar-friendly key like C, nearly all the chords will be ones that are already familiar to you – C, A7, F, D7, A minor. So all we're really talking about is finding the root, third and fifth of a chord like A, in open position, on the top three strings. Even better, once you figure that out for A, it's never going to change. And you can play a lot of fingerstyle music without ever leaving the open position.

You are going to want to play more than just chord tones, so that's where a little know-how regarding scales comes in. But just like sticking to triad notes on the top three strings, there's a way to keep all that scale showbiz to a simple minimum as well. Instead of thinking of scales as these big two-octave fingerings to learn all over the neck, you can think of scales as the notes that connect up the chord tones. And you can practically find those by ear. Just pick a note that lies between the root and the third, and you've got a pretty good shot at playing the right one. If you don't, your ears will tell you right away. Do the same to pick a note in between the third and the fifth, and between the fifth and the seventh. Done! You've just played a scale that will probably sound pretty cool over that chord. More importantly, you've found a way to both emphasis the notes of the chord (the chord tones) while connecting them together in a cool way (the scale steps in between).

Now, besides having more chords than a blues, a standard also has more bars – generally thirty-two of them, as opposed to the eight or twelve bars in a typical blues. But we can cut that down to size by looking at the form of the tune. The form of a twelve-bar blues is AAB: a four-bar line, which is then repeated, followed by a contrasting final line. You can hear it when you think about the lyrics to a song like "Stormy Monday:"

(A)    They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad
(A)    They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad
(B)    Wednesday's worse, and Thursday's also sad

The thirty-two bars of a standard can be broken up as well. Many of them follow an ABAC pattern: eight bars for the first section (A), eight bars for the following, contrasting section (B), an eight-bar repeat of the first section (A), and a final eight bar section that's different from everything else so far (C). Within each eight-bar section, the melody often falls into two contrasting four-bar phrases. Which is really helpful, because knowing what notes to play is important, but phrasing – the pacing of your licks, the way they begin and conclude – is what makes those notes sound cool. So when you're learning to improvise, one of the best things you can do is model your phrasing on the original melody of the tune. Plus, now we've made something manageable out of that sprawl of thirty-two bars – a series of four bar phrases, each of them no longer than one line of the blues form.

So – how to play the changes in three simple steps:

1) find the root, third and fifth of each chord in the progression, on the top three strings, in open position

2) connect the root, third and fifth of each chord to each other with scale steps

3) model your phrasing on the melody of the song

This idea works for standards, for blues, for bluegrass, country and western swing – anyplace where you're trying to solo, and want to play notes over chords in a way that sounds musical, persuasive and cool. This weekend's workshop is about how to do this on a standard, while playing fingerstyle, but the ideas I'll be teaching will certainly work for less high-stakes situations – fingerpicking a three-chord blues, for instance, or playing a single-note solo on a standard. I aim to focus as much on ideas as on technique in this class, so that you walk away with a solid approach to improvising that you can apply to whatever tunes you want to play.

The workshop takes place this Saturday at 10:30AM CST, but if you can't be there live, you can always register just the same and watch the replay on your own schedule. For more details, and to sign up (and get your hands on some of the tab in advance), click the link below:

Standards – How To Play And Improvise On Indiana
P.S. The bylaws of the International Fraternity Of Loyal And Abiding Online Marketeers – a subsidiary of the Holy Modal Order Of Our Lady Of Persistent Reminder –  mandate that I fire off one more mention of this workshop between the hours of sunset and midnight tonight. If you've heard enough already, feel free to delete without even reading.