From Hip Hop to Bebop
The first time I heard Charlie Parker play on the Verve album, ‘Bird’s Best Bop‘, I thought to myself why do people love this music? It sounded so dissonant to my circa 1998 ears.
My ears weren’t used to it. I grew up listening to Malaysian pop hop hop acts like 4U2C and KRU. Then, I found out about American acts like Kris Kross and TLC. My first music performance (prior to picking up guitar) was a cover of Kris Kross’s Jump at the school assembly. I promptly embarrassed myself by stepping on the mic and rapping on the 2nd verse onwards completely unplugged.
Then, I discovered Warren G, Da Brat and Craig Mack. I proceeded to listen to R&B acts like Jodeci, Boyz II Men and Shai. After that, a girl told me to listen to Nirvana and that started my adventure into guitar. Less than 2 years after picking up guitar (and studying classical guitar), I was in music college and wanted to learn jazz. I started with Joe Pass and ventured to some Wes Montgomery and Pat Metheny. Then, I read somewhere that I had to listen to Charlie Parker.
I was so confused as I was so used to the sound of pop music and hip hop. The dissonance is jazz was challenging to my ears. So, I forced myself to listen to the same album for an entire year to get the sound in my ears. That’s the same thing I did the first time I heard The Black Decameron performed by John Williams. When I didn’t understand a sound, I kept listening to it again and again. Saturating my ears with the sound.
Over the years in college, I grew to love the beauty of dissonance. I wanted to understand it. I wanted to play and compose sounds like what I heard.
Now, I’d like to share with you what I figured out so far about how to use chromatic notes after 19 years of playing guitar.
Chromaticism: All your notes are belong to Az
For guitarists, you either want to use chromatic notes in your solos for 2 reasons:
- you love the sound and cannot express your music without this
- you want to show off to other musicians that you can play chromatically
Sometimes, it’s both. It’s okay. I know the feeling.
Now, there are (at least) three ways to organize chromaticism in solos:
- Direction (passing notes, approach notes)
With direction, you need to know the chord tones and scales for the chords you are soloing over. For example, if the chord is Dmin7, you should know:
D F A C are the chord tones
D E F G A B C D is D dorian, a possible scale choice
To build chromatic lines from the scale, play these notes but add passing notes between the scale notes.
To build chromatic lines from the chord tones, you can approach a chord tone with a chromatic note from below or a chromatic note above. There’s also A LOT of other chromatic approaches but this is one way to start.
- Shape (chromatic sequences/patterns)
For this, take any melodic pattern and then sequence it chromatically up or down. You can sequence it by half-steps, whole-steps or any interval of your choice. It could be a pattern or random. Patterns typically work better as they direct the listener’s ears. Randomness create more unexpected melodic ideas. Use your ears and trust your instincts. Balance is key
- Logic (dominant approach reharmonization, side-stepping, chord progression reharmonization, tone rows)
For this to work, you actually have to play melodies that fit another chord progression over the original chord. For example, while soloing over the chord Dmin7 – you could play melodies that outline Dmin7-A7b9-Dmin7. This is a dominant approach reharmonization. According to saxophonist and chromatic playing guru David Liebman, this is an example of superimposition. Simply said, play a melody that implies another chord progression over the original chords. This is the very basis for what John Coltrane did after he recorded Giant Steps. He would play melodies inspired by those changes over jazz standards like Body and Soul.
Side-stepping is playing in the original key and then up or down the key by a half step. Essentially, you are playing the same scale and melodies but in a different key.
Tone rows are the basis of Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique that he devised in 1921. Jazz musicians sometimes use this as part of their solos though not as strict as a classical composer might use it. One of my favorite pieces that uses some of these ideas in a jazz setting is All in a Row by Steps Ahead with Bryan Baker on guitar.
The questions are:
Can you hear these sounds?
Do you like it?
Are you confident enough to play it?
If you play purely based on fingering and you can’t hear it, it will sound like an exercise.
Here are some actions steps to get into chromatic playing:
1. Make a playlist
Make a playlist of 10 of your favorite solos/lines/songs that use chromaticism. This could be on YouTube, Spotify, iTunes or on a mixtape. The format doesn’t really matter as much. The main thing is to keep a personal “musical notebook” of the sounds YOU like. This will be your reference for discovering, understanding and learning these sounds.
Choose a very small portion of a phrase and transcribe it. Some people like to write it down, some may just want to learn it on the instrument directly. Whatever you do, make sure you can play this. It doesn’t have to be at performance tempo yet but that’s part of the eventual goal.
Analyze the phrase inside out. Use whatever knowledge you have to break apart this phrase. Study it again and again as much as you need. Take notes.
Write your own phrase or melodies that use the same concept. Practice and record this.
Now, use the phrases you’ve learned in jams and songs that you play with friends. In the beginning, it will sound awkward and uncomfortable. Don’t worry, this is part of the process.
Remember to be patient. Keep exploring, studying, collecting ideas and practicing. The process is the thing!
Hope you found this blog post helpful. Please share this post if you think others might benefit from it!
Now, I’d love to hear from you.
What made you want to solo using more chromatic notes?
What’s your favorite piece or guitar solo that uses a lot of chromaticism?
Leave your answer in the comments below! Remember to share as much detail as possible so that we can all learn from one another. Your insight may help another guitarist from across the world.
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