5 Theory Tricks That Will Save You Years Of Practice

Music Theory can seem very scary for a Jazz beginner, and you will come across people insisting it is bad for your creativity, but in reality, it is a great help when it comes to learning Jazz, and it helps speed up the learning process.

Imagine a guitarist who doesn’t know theory. He’s stuck, and can’t turn the licks he learns into new vocabulary, he doesn’t have a way to learn and organize the notes on the fretboard

and he can’t use the songs he knows to learn more songs easily, Learning Jazz becomes very difficult like that.

So there are a LOT of advantages to learning just a bit of basic theory. Let me show you how much you can unlock with very basic stuff!

Thinking in Keys

You can compare thinking in keys to learning about cars.

If you think of words like Battery, air filter, and wheels, then the word itself is not saying a lot, but if you think of them as parts of a car you have a much better idea about what they are and what they do. Adding context helps you understand!

Looking at a song and thinking in terms of key is the same, it helps you understand what the chords are and how they sound because they are never just a letter with some numbers. Dm7 is one thing in Bb major and something else in C major, and it will sound different,

just like the battery in your car is probably different from your mobile phone’s, the context helps you understand.

The first time you want to learn a song like a Jazz Standard then you probably want to end up sounding like this:

But in reality, you are looking at the lead-sheet and it seems like there are 1000s of incomprehensible chords and the whole thing is impossible to understand.

The most essential part of getting over this is to stop thinking of each chord as an isolated thing, and use that the song is in a key, where you know the diatonic chords in the scale because that is a huge part of knowing the key and also something you can easily practice for both major and minor scales.

If you look at the song knowing what key it is in, you can immediately recognize the chords that are in the key and diatonic to the scale (highlight those chords) which already will help you deal with most of the song.

But you also realize that chord progressions have direction and move to a resolution, and this helps you understand what is going on and makes it easier to solo over the song.

As you get more experienced it will also help you deal with the chords that are in the key and have a function but are not in the scale something that becomes unnecessarily confusing and complicated if you start looking at them as not connected to the key when your ear tells you that they are.

This was understanding a whole song, but the next trick is just as useful and also leads to a very helpful Barry Harris concept.

Chunks of Chords

Imagine that you have to read a page in a book, but instead of reading the words and sentences then you spell each word on the page. I am sure you can imagine how slow that process is, and how it is also getting in the way of understanding what is written on that page. The same is true for chords. You don’t want to get stuck trying to learn songs by memorizing long rows of abstract letters and numbers when it is much faster to read the chord progression as chunks in the same way you read words.

The most basic building blocks you want to start with are the major and minor II V I, and recognizing different types of turnarounds is the next place to go.

You probably want to start by ignoring extensions and just get used to reading chords as the basic type of chord that they are, so G7(9,13) is just G7, Dm7(11) is just a Dm7 and Cmaj7(9) is just Cmaj7.

The extensions are not that important in this case, and you will anyway be interpreting the chord symbols and ignoring them most of the time.

This is about turning the chords from a long row of symbols into a few progressions that

  1. Makes it easier to remember and
  2. Are building blocks you already know the sound of.

Most standards will end up being just 7-8 progressions once you can think like this and also understand the form and how it repeats which is quite different from remembering a row of 30+ chord symbols.

And you can use this to make soloing a lot easier as well, which is also what Barry Harris teaches.

Not Thinking ALL The Chords

Once you start thinking in groups of chords then you can also open up how you improvise over them. Simplifying the chords is a great way to not get overwhelmed and to make it easier to improvise more melodic solos. Later in the video, I’ll talk about simplifying chords in a different but equally powerful way, but let’s start with Barry Harris.

The main way that Barry Harris reduces chord progressions is by taking away the II chord in a II V I.

For a song that means that you would think this which makes it a lot fewer chords and soloing over it will still make sense.

Another very practical way to re-interpret a common chord progression that you will see with Barry Harris is to reduce a turnaround to a I and a V chord. The previous concept explains taking away the II chord and that also makes the dominant in the 2nd half of bar 1 easy to ignore, since it is anyway on a weak part of the bar.

As an example, check out how this gives you a much easier way to approach rhythm changes just using V chords and tonic chords instead of 2 chords per bar you get a much simpler progression that is a lot easier to solo over.

Later in the video, I will show you another way of chunking together chords that is even more powerful and will help you use chords and vocabulary across a lot of chord progressions. It’s a bit like a boosted Barry Harris approach.

The Power of Diatonic 3rds

The most efficient thing you can do is probably to practice something once and then be able to use it in a LOT of places, and diatonic 3rd relationships help you do exactly that! It really is one of the most powerful things to work with both for chords and for soloing!

I am sure you have heard me talk about how chords a constructed by stacking 3rds in a scale, first creating diatonic 3rds, then the triads and finally the diatonic 7th chords.

`

If we start with a C major scale and a Cmaj7 chord then you have these notes:

But for comping, you can also use the chord that is a diatonic 3rd above C: Em7 which essentially gives you a Cmaj7(9)

Another option is the chord that is a diatonic 3rd below: Am7 which gives you a C6,

so if the song says Cmaj7 then you have 3 times as many voicings to choose from.

Check out how it sounds, and a bonus chromatic trick with this II V I in C:

but also like this:

And, the next one goes to the Em7 but then moves voices to transition to the Am7!

This doesn’t work for every chord in every chord progression, but it is well worth exploring, and if you are practicing diatonic arpeggios (which you should be doing, since it is the most important scale exercise in Jazz)

then it is also useful for solos because just like the voicings you have 3 arpeggios you can use over a Cmaj7.

Cmaj7:

Em7:

And Am7:

As you can hear it is incredibly powerful, and it is all over famous Bebop solos from people like Parker, George Benson, and Joe Pass.

You should check out how they work with this if you get the chance.

Functions: Putting Chords On A Shopping List

A lot of these concepts are about how you look at chords and harmony as part of a car, or as words in a text. As you can tell, different ways of thinking makes soloing or comping easier, and this last one is in many ways the most powerful one.

You want to understand and hear chords in categories, similar to how you might order a shopping list. If you go shopping then you make a list with the items you need grouped in categories by what is close to each other, and maybe even the order of where it is in the store: Vegetables, Bread, Dairy, meat etc.

Categorizing chords like this by how they sound and how they behave in the song can be a massive time saver! There is a good chance that you already do this a bit with diminished chords recognizing that in

Cmaj7 C#dim Dm7 you can also consider that the same chord progression as Cmaj7 A7 Dm7, and therefore you can solo using the same vocabulary.

`

But this goes a lot further and is something you can use to make it easier to solo over and play similar chord progressions. You want to start grouping in functions which is grouping them as chords that sound similar and work in the same way.

Let me show you an example with subdominant and tonic chords:

Here you have Subdominant, Minor subdominant resolving to tonic

And that is also what you have here:

Here Dm7 and Fmaj7 are interchangeable and both work as subdominant,

and even if Bb7 and Dbmaj7 don’t contain exactly the same notes they sound very similar in the context and are both minor subdominant chords. You can even easily create vocabulary that works on both progressions:

To me, the biggest advantage is that the chords sound similar and it helps me hear what is going on and what to play over the progressions, especially going from song to song, and the important part is probably more about how the notes move through the progression, but is is also a very good way to group your vocabulary together because you don’t need very different vocabulary for Dm7 and Fmaj7 in C major and while you may need to adjust what you play over Bb7 and Dbmaj7 a bit then it will be very similar and other options like Bb7, Dø and Fm6 are completely interchangeable and you can use exactly the same lines.

The main categories you want to think of are tonic, subdominant and dominant. And then there are common subcategories like minor subdominants and #IV subdominants.

I am showing this with chords in these groups, but keep in mind that chords have different functions depending on what is happening around them, I’ll show you an example in a bit, so be careful with just thinking from an overview like this.

Functions go a bit further than Barry’s shortcut, and tie into understanding chords in the context they are in. In a II V I like Dm7 G7 Cmaj7 then the II chord often makes sense as a part of the dominant that is resolving to I, but if it is II bVII I, so Dm7 Bb7 Cmaj7 then it is a subdominant moving to the tonic using a minor subdominant as a sort of transition. Chords are a part of something they are not just defined by what notes are in there.

So start figuring out when a chord is a subdominant and figure out what minor subdominants are in the key like Abmaj7, Fm6, Bb7 and Dbmaj7 are in C major and also how they sound. You probably also want to explore some #IV subdominant chords, there are a lot of dim chords in there. t is a way to think about the chords that connect a lot better with the music and your ears, it really fits how it sounds a lot better.

How To Level Up Your Comping

Of course when you are working on chords then you also need to be able to get them to sound good when you comp, and there are some great exercises that will help you do that which you can check out in this video so that you can level up your chord playing and comping. Check it out! Learn Jazz Make Music

3 Basic Jazz Chord Exercises That Will Change Your Playing in 2024

 

Get the PDF!

You can also download the PDF of my examples here:

Get the PDF and GuitarPro on Patreon:

You can get the PDF and GuitarPro files on Patreon here:    

https://www.patreon.com/posts/5-theory-tricks-101616487

Get a free E-book

If you want to download a Free E-book of 15 II Valt I licks then subscribe to my newsletter:

Sign up for my newsletter – Get the II V I Ebook

Jazz Guitar Insiders Facebook Group

Join 15000+ Other Jazz Guitarists 🎸Join us in the Facebook Jazz Guitar Group Community: http://bit.ly/InsidersFBGroup

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for topics, then send me an email or leave a comment here or on the video. That is the best way for me to improve my lessons and make them fit what you are searching for.

 

Leave a Reply