If you’ve ever marvelled at how great jazz guitarists solo with chords fear not, as Milton Mermikides explains that there are codes we can all crack in order to master this beautifully musical style.
The conventional roles of the lead and rhythm guitarist are quite clear: the rhythm guitarist plays chords that accompany the lead guitarist who plays the (usually higher, faster and more ‘important’ single-note material). This dichotomy, however, is not always true, or helpful musically – and the long (and ongoing) history of the instrument involves many players who have chosen to explore the middle ground: soloing using a variety of chords for both harmonic support and textural variation. It can however be overwhelming to start considering soloing with chords, when it’s hard enough to learn chords and scales separately. Furthermore, the idiosyncrasies and anomalies of the guitar fretboard make it particularly challenging. Be well aware: a guitarist who can solo effectively with chords in a variety of concepts knows music theory (implicitly or explicity) and the guitar fretboard very well indeed; one needs to be agile both mentally and technically to handle this approach.
Luckily for us, there are ways to develop knowledge in this area through a series of conceptual and practical exercises. Although there are many highly-accomplished blues, rock, soul and pop chord-soloists, I’ve opted to stick with the broad genre of jazz here. This is to act as a way of introduction to the style, but also because it allows a wide range of melodic, harmonic or modal concepts to be engaged with, from the Minor Blues scale to standard jazz chord progressions to modes. Of
aS uSual, we have a final example Solo Showing how theSe ConCeptS Can be uSed in the ‘real world’
course, these concepts can be transported out to whatever genre you like, but the rich, eclectic and beautiful world of jazz guitar is a great place to start. Working on these ideas will not only improve your soloing, allowing greater harmonic support and independence, particularly when playing in smaller ensembles, but also allow much greater variation of texture that can help build a solo effectively and keep it interesting.
The article is divided into 11 exercises focusing on various concepts. Example 1 shows how the all-important Minor Pentatonic or Blues scale can act as a basis for octave, double-stop and chordal soloing. Example 2 deals with bluesy double-stop ideas for Dominant 7 chords all over the fretboard. Examples 3-5 build agility and fluency with the m7, dom7th and maj7th chords on the top four strings of the guitar. Examples 6-9 will help you quickly describe a variety of fundamental modes and harmonic contexts (Dorian, Lydian, Mixolydian and Altered) wherever you are on the fretboard. Examples 10-11 offer very useful and harmonically appropriate solutions for navigating the essential Major and Minor II-V progressions all over the fretboard.
Then, as usual, we have a final example solo showing how these concepts can be used in the ‘real world’. This example solo is just one of countless possible from the material provided, so do use it as a template to compose your own. Also, I’ve chosen to use just one key centre for each concept (for the sake of succinctness and focus) but practising these ideas in different keys and contexts is essential for their proper absorption.