Transform Your PlayingMay 17, 2023
One of the biggest frustrations I experienced as a developing musician was not knowing how to transform my playing. I would hear fantastic musicians on cassette tapes (I’m dating myself), CDs, the radio, and later in mp3 format, iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube; but I had no frame of reference on how to connect what they were doing with what I was doing. I could hear the difference, but I didn’t know the steps to transformation. “How do I bridge the gap and go from where I am to where I want to be?” This was the question that racked my brain.
I decided to start asking questions to everyone around me. I was fortunate to take a lesson with a Jazz pianist named Michael Weiss and I was asking him every question I had. Midway through my string of questions, he turned me and said, “The answers are in the music.” At that moment it all clicked. The answers were in the music. Listening to music is like taking an open-book test. Now the hard part is figuring out the notes that were played, but the answers are there in the music. So I started asking questions and finding the answers in the music.
As I started developing, I kept track of the concepts I was learning and divided them up into beginner, intermediate, and advanced.
For the beginner musician, the first thing is just to learn the basic progression, concept, or idea. Meaning, learn the foundation of the idea without all of the embellishments. When learning songs, oftentimes, this means learning the chords on beat 1 of the song. Sometimes, it is the chords on beats 1 and 3. If it is learning an idea, chord, or chordal progressions, it is important that real focus is paid to making sure these chords are correct. This task is often harder than you might think.
In my early years, there were many times when I was playing a minor chord when I should have been playing a suspended chord. Or, I was playing a major chord when it should have been minor. So the first idea is to play the “thing”.
Another idea is to practice inverting your right hand only. I found as a beginner that I could only play most chords in the root position. If I was required to play an idea, chord, or progression in any position other than root, I struggled. So one cool idea is to try playing the concept you are working on in more than one position, by inverting the right hand.
One of the biggest ideas I discovered was that playing the chord wasn’t enough. I would listen to the recordings of great musicians and I would hear that they were playing the same chords that I was playing. But their playing sounded different than mine. And so I started listening really closely and discovered that the answer wasn’t in “what” they played, but rather “how” they played it.
You see there are many ways to play a chord. We call this concept voicing a chord. Now you will hear the word voicing used in a variety of different ways, but the heart of it is how a particular chord is played.
For example, the highest and lowest note of the chord might be played first, followed by the rest of the notes. Or you might start with the lowest note of the chord and “roll up” to the highest note. Or you might play all the notes at the same time, but add a little flair to one note, like a grace.
One idea that will completely change your sound is inverting the chord completely. Meaning, change the root of the chord. Normally, when we are playing a C major7 chord, we play C on the bottom. This is the sound we are used to. However, you can play the 3rd, 5th, or even 7th as the lowest note and this will change how the chord sounds and feel. You’ll notice when you put the 3rd on the bottom, the chord still sounds like C major 7, but it doesn’t sound resolved. It feels like it still wants to move. Experiment with these inversions and see how it transforms your playing. If you want additional information, I did a 56-minute live training on it. You can see that free live training by clicking here.
One of the difficulties in producing many of the sounds we hear is that oftentimes there are extensions that we just aren’t playing. And especially about extensions on chords outside of major, minor, and dominant. Half-diminished and diminished chords are often the least extended and because of this, there is a plethora of sounds that aren’t ever considered. Let’s say we are taking an F half-diminished chord. The notes of a half-diminished chord are 1-b3-b5-b7. So those notes for an F half-diminished chord are F-Ab-Cb-Eb. Now to extend it we must understand the underlying scale on which this chord is derived.
When we think about half-diminished chords, the most obvious starting place is deriving the chords on the 7th scale degree of a major scale. So F is the 7th scale degree of Gb major scale. So if we take a Gb major scale and start at the 7th scale degree
Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F
So we have the notes F Ab Cb Eb Gb(9) Bb(11) Db(13). And you can hear from this chord that there is a real clash between the root, F, and the 9th, Gb. But there are other scales that we can use to derive the half-diminished chord.
If we look at the Melodic Minor scale, the 6th scale degree yields a half-diminished chord. So the melodic minor scale that has F as its 6 is Ab Melodic Minor.
Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F G Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F G Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F G
So we have the notes F Ab Cb Eb G(9) Bb(11) Db(13). Interestingly enough, by extending the chord out to the 13th, this chord uses every note of the Ab Melodic Minor Scale. Now this chord does not seem to have the same internal clash as the previous half-diminished derived from the major scale. This chord is one that I would call a “High-Information Chord”. I’ve adapted this term from Rick Beato, who I first heard use the terms “High Information Lines” and “High Information Music”. I like to describe High Information Chords as chords that use extensions, chromaticism, and tension. In other words, chords that I cannot readily identify when I hear them.
So for the advanced student, using extensions is a great way to add color and interest to your chords.
Another advanced technique is substitution. One fun technique is mediant substitution. This is just simply substituting chords that are a 3rd away. There are different types of mediant substitutions: diatonic, chromatic, and double chromatic mediant substitutions. I cover mediant substitutions in other trainings, but I want to share a simple shortcut to thinking through this idea. Let’s take an Eb major chord. What chords, that are a 3rd away, share notes with Eb major? C minor shares two notes with Eb major. Let’s do this process again. A minor7b5 shares two notes with C minor. So one really advanced technique is to substitute A minor7b5 for Eb major. Now this is one specific example of how you can use mediant substitutions, or actually a derivation of the mediant substitution to find substitutions.
So no matter where you are starting, take one of the ideas above and use them in your playing!
Be Blessed and Happy Practicing!