Once I started getting interested in Jazz and Jazz guitar then it didn’t take long until I heard some of the first chord solos especially Wes Montgomery and shortly after Joe Pass, and That was pretty mind-blowing coming from Pearl Jam and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
The idea of soloing with chords like that was completely new to me, and that seemed both unbelievably difficult and also the coolest thing I had ever heard, so of course, I had to figure this out!
Besides being a great sound that you can use in your solos then there are actually a few other things that you can really take up a few levels if you start working on playing chord solos, and as you will see, it doesn’t have to be that difficult.
How Not To Start!
#1 Too Simple and hard to use
#2 Too Difficult and hard to use
The #1 Mistake that I see students make when they start with chord solos is not being practical and starting with harmonized scales that are technically much more difficult to use, requires more theory, and is in general much more information.
That is not the place to start. I didn’t try to take that exact approach but, but I also made a mess out of it!
You want to keep it practical and simple, If you are new to improvising and want to learn what you can play over a m7 chord then you don’t start with “A love Supreme”
and I will give you a much more practical strategy in this video.
In the beginning, I didn’t have a choice, I had a few CDs but there were no transcriptions, so I was limited to whatever I could figure out by ear, which was a pretty steep limitation. I managed to figure out a few Wes things here and there and The George Bensons solos on the Borgia Stick which have some chord solo parts. But this wasn’t really getting me anywhere for two reasons:
it was either too simple to help me create my own solos or too difficult to play and therefore impossible to use.
I was mostly listening to Wes, and when Wes plays chord solos then he is really block-harmonizing a lot, so he will in fact play different chord voicings under each melody note which makes it demanding to play, and also requires you to have quite a few things figured out about chords and theory.
From Wes’ solo on “The Thumb”
Joe Pass And A Winning Strategy
But that changed later once I started having lessons after having moved from Århus to Copenhagen.
One of my teachers at the time, Morten Kargaard, gave me a photocopy of a chord solo from Joe Pass’ chord solo book.
Learning that solo was a LOT of work, which quite a few of my students also can tell you, but while working on it then I started to see some things in the Joe Pass solo that were a lot easier to move into my own playing, because phrases were often a static chord under a moving melody, so visually you would see the chord and then use the notes available to create a chord solo phrase.
This was a huge breakthrough and quickly gave me something I could move over to my own playing. Let me show you how easy this is to work with and then also how it will help your single-note soloing.
A 3-minute Chord Solo method
Let’s take a II V In G major, so Am7 D7 Gmaj7.
Here’s an Am7 chord to start with:
and you can use these 4 notes as different melodies over that:
For D7 then let’s use this D7alt:
and then these 4 notes for melody options:
For Gmaj7 then this is a great Gmaj7(9)
And you have these 4 notes:
Now you have the chords next to each other and melodies that are close to each other as well, so turning that into a solo phrase is not that difficult:
Or another variation like this one:
And this is a lot easier to start with instead of being stuck with having to put different chords under each note in the melody that you want to improvise, which of course you can start working on later, but it can also help you get another dimension into your single-note solos as well.
Wes Montgomery And The Power Of Limitation
Before I moved to The Netherlands to study I lived in Copenhagen and I was lucky to sometimes get to play with musicians that were a lot further than I was. While jamming with a piano player he gave me some advice that I, unfortunately, couldn’t put to use right away, but it later turned out to be very useful!
When you are working on chord solos in the way that I just showed you for the II V I in G major then you can’t play dense bebop lines like you usually do:
But that limitation is actually really useful because, you don’t want to play dense lines all the time, you also want to play more sparse melodies with more emphasis on rhythm. The kind of phrases you hear Wes use very often, like his solo on Four On Six:
Technically you can’t really play harmonized bebop lines in chord solos and therefore the lines are more simple, but you can still make some solid chord solo lines and that is actually helping you get into exactly those types of “Wes” melodies. That was also the observation the piano player made when we were jamming: “your solos lack rhythm but you actually play much more interesting stuff when you play chord solos, so you need to get that into your solos as well”. At that time, I couldn’t really implement that, but a few years later that realization really helped me develop that type of phrasing in my playing because I was already used to hearing those phrases in my chord solos. And this is really about taking phrases like this one:
And realize that it works without the chords as well:
Let’s look at another thing that working on this type of chord soloing really helps you develop.
Making Jazz Chords Into Music
The biggest challenge when it comes to comping is to go from chord symbols to music. Because a row of letters is, of course, not really music.
One of the strongest ways to get your chords to work together is melody, so if you can go further than just playing the chords like a robot and start to add some rhythm and melody to how you play them then you are really getting somewhere.
You want to turn it into phrases, repeat motifs and make it a story
That would be something like this:
But really this is just playing “lazy” or “sparse” chord solo phrases, so approaching comping like this will give you material from your chord solos and also help you develop new chord solo material as you are comping the song.
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