As always, everyone knows the rules: Don't be a jerk.

I'm assuming we're good/up to speed on everything in the last two threads.

Let's Do It!

Alright everyone, welcome back. Today's topic is going to be a short one, because it is an easy principle with infinite applications.

If you recall, last time we talked about how to reduce a chord progression in a key to one major or minor triad and elaborate on it with chromatics and basic pentatonic scales.

Today we are going to do the opposite: Harmonically Specific playing.

What Is It?

Harmonically Specific improv is just that; you are being specific with the chords an delineating them in your melodies. In this way, you are connecting the harmonic movement of a song. If done correctly, you can actually play single lines unaccompanied and still hear the chord progressions. This is, for obvious reasons an invaluable skill.

Let's take a II-V in C major to start.

Dm7 - G7 - C

Now if I told you that we need to connect these in a melody, your gut would probably claim to use the appropriate scale from CST, and aim for chord tones. If I asked you to do this with one note per chord, maybe you'd come up with this:

D - D - C

Keeping a common tone, and moving down to a new chord tone stepwise. Seems logical right?


Well, not wrong, but that approach (while perfectly valid in a voice leading or classical setting) won't bring out the chords, and if it does, it won't be a very interesting line. This is a guitar solo after all, not the cello part to a bad string quartet! Roots and 5ths will tell you nothing about the harmony. You need to aim for the 3rds. Behold:

Dm7 - G7 - C -> You play F - B - E.

The reason for this is because the root movement is either a)covered by another band member or b) too obvious to be interesting, and your ears will hear 5ths anyways as part of the harmonic series.

Now it goes without saying that you can still connect a progression in a way that sounds AMAZING without using a single 3rd, but for the sake of ultra-clarity in our lines, let's just focus on 3rd connections for now. You will find the same principles apply to other chord tones.

Connecting The Chord Tones

So we have our 3 note figure from before, but it looks a little stupid. It's basically two leaps, one of them a tritone! Can we smooth it out? Yeah! Let's add upper neighbor tones.

Dm7 - G7 - C -> F C - B F - E

That looks a little smoother. Notice I didn't give you octaves; its irrelevant. Also notice that the upper neighbor tones are the 7ths of the chords resolving to the 3rd of the next chords. Counterpoint strikes again. Bach was a ferocious jazz improviser.

Now let's ramp it up and fill the entire line out.

Dm7 - G7 - C

F E D C - B A G F - E

Look at that. A descending major scale. Try playing that simple line and notice how well it brings out the chords. Note:

This does not mean you can only play descending lines. Octaves are negotiable, and you can fill the gaps in between the major chord tones with ascending runs.

That's the simplest way Here's another solution.

D F A C - B A G F - E

An arpeggio that changes direction? Nice. We can also switch that, like so. We just have to preserve the line.

F E D C - B D F A - G

Now granted, we connected that one to a 5th, but it still brings out the harmony. We don't need all 3rds or roots or 5ths, we can mix it up in the line.

I'll give you one more, a classic.

A F D C - B D F A - G

Two arpeggios? Whaaaaaaat that's crazy!

What Happens On Progressions That Move Around More?

Same rules, more complexity. Check this out:

Dm7 - G7 - Em7b5 - A7b9 - Dmaj7 - Gmaj7. The analysis:

II - V - Em7b5 (not III, but the II of the next V) - V/II - I (we are now in D major) - IV.

Okay this plays with 3 different keys: So let's snag some 3rds:

F - B - G - C# (Harmonic Minor) - F# - B

No we connect everything.

F E D C - B D F A - G F E D - C# Bb A G - F# E D C# - B. Here's a free one:

All 8th notes. Swing. Chord tones aka your "checkpoints" in Bold.

E - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 6 5 - - - - - - - -
B - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 10 8 - - - - - - - - - 8 7 5 - - - -
G - 10 9 7 - - - - 7 10 - - - - 10 9 7 6 - - - - - - - -7 6 4
D - - - - - - 10 9 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Play that and tell me it wasn't the coolest damn line ever.

Notice that the notes we are filling the gaps with are from the scale of the key.

The first two chords are a II-V in C = C major scale

The next two are a II-V in D minor = D Harmonic Minor Scale

The next two are a I-IV in D major = D Major Scale

The other important thing to note is this line has ZERO chromatic embellishments. Any of those tones could be elaborated chromatically. You could even drop everything but the 3rds and 7th and just play with them are their embellishing tones. Seems Complex?

Not really. It's counterpoint. See you guys next time!

Wait Don't Go! You're Telling Me I Can Only Play 3 Things?

No, you crazy kids. Not at all. Those three lines are examples, skeletons. Don't play them like that.

The best advice I can give is to look at it like playing connect that dots. Those 3rds (or whatever chord tones you are using) are just little "checkpoints," and you can actually play almost anything in between them; all the rules of chromaticism still apply. Here's an example. Trumpet Solo starts at 2:30


Listen to all those chromatics. Whew. Take them all out, and almost the entire solo is a descending major scale. Clifford Brown just adds a lot of extra stuff in between his (mostly) 3rds and diatonic passing tones.

All you actually have to do is identify the major chord tones (3rds are big) and play them during each new chord and connect them in a SIMPLE (I can't stress this enough) way.

After you have a simple line, like one of the examples, those are your "dots," your large scale plan. Now connect them with more notes!

Minor Keys?

The same rules apply, just use a Harmonic Minor Scale instead!

What About Melodic Minor & Other Scales?

Those other devices are used to shade the chords, not connect a tonal progression. That statement may sound weird, but it is a sweeping generalization which I will be explaining next time!

That's It

This seems simple, just connecting chord tones with a Major or Harmonic Minor scale of whatever key we are currently in, and playing simple ideas such as the descend stepwise line are by all means extremely easy.

The real challenge to this concept is your own creativity and actually making it interesting.

REMEMBER: You don't need to play one or the other all the time. You could nail that II going to a V with a great harmonically specific line, and cover the motion to the I chord with a harmonically general lick. Ideally, you want to be doing both at once, weaving in and out. See the Lou Donladson's sax solo from the example for this. He is changing between approaches to the harmony, sometimes within a single chord change.

Pick a II-V or progression for now and identify your target notes, come up with an EXTREMELY basic plan for a good connection, and then embellish the hell out of it.

As always, let's get a good discussion going, because I'm only giving you guys tools to find your own answers and the applications of this technique are limitless.

If people want more examples let me know, maybe I'll actually record something.
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp
Last edited by Jet Penguin at Oct 19, 2014,
Same double post, different day.

A Quick Re-Cap Of Last Time

When you have a TONAL chord progression in a key, (not modal), you can reduce all harmonic movement in that current key to one chord. This chord is the major or minor triad built off of the root.

Check out this complex progression in C major:

C - C7 - F - Fm7 - Em7 - Am7- Ab7 -G7

Now granted, I may have made that unnecessarily complex to make a point, but whatever. That is a tonal progression in the key of C major. So we can reduce all those chords to this:

C major triad.

That looks much better. We bring this out in our solos by using the three triadic pitches (1 3 5), the corresponding pentatonic scale (1 2 3 5 6), and the various chromatic embellishments (diatonic from above chromatic from below)

When you solo over that progression in this manner, you are reducing all the harmony to a single chord. However, it does not sound wrong. Why? Because, just as all the chords in the progression point to a C major triad, all your "wrong" notes caused by you playing C major sounds over the Fm7, Ab7, (and other chords where the notes may clash) ALSO point to C major. To the listener, it just sounds like you are jamming out on a big ol' C major chord, with some chromatics. Which is exactly what you are doing.
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp
Last edited by Jet Penguin at Oct 21, 2014,
Cute lesson Jet (Good too! You explained everything really well!), you're pretty damn good at teaching (I could work on my teaching skills...).
I'd like to see to you do a few lessons on comping sometime (for a vocalist, for a trio with a bassist, and for a big band). But I'm sure you were planning to do them already :P.
Last edited by GoldenGuitar at Oct 19, 2014,
Yep, I've got a rough schedule, comping's later.

Also thanks I've never had anything I've explained been called cute before!
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp
Thank you for these interesting and useful lessons! I really appreciate the advice but am still curious about how the second concept works (I'd like a short version).
"I don't know what you're trying to suggest. There's no shame in taking what you need to hold your position!"

Super Buu (DBZ) on assimilation (it could also apply to blues guitar and guitar soloing in general).
Yeah Ronald, check my second post and let me know if that clears anything up.
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp