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3 Music Theory Exercises That Actually Help You Play Better

The worst thing that you can have when it comes to music theory is that you have your music theory knowledge over here and then you have the music that you play over here, and the two are not really connected.

Music theory is there to describe what you hear, and what you play:

It is NOT:

  1. A set of rules for what notes are allowed in your solo
  2. A formula for melodies or chord progressions
  3. Something you think about when you are playing

But as you will see in this video, then it is incredibly powerful to have some very basic theory that you know really well and that fits with the music and the songs that you play. With that approach, then learning music theory is easier and it is much more useful, even though you don’t think about it when you solo.

The Most Important Theory Knowledge

Maybe the biggest question about this is not the knowledge itself, but how you want to think about it or visualize it. You’ll see what I mean along the way.

When you are improvising then you are playing over chords that are in a scale, so you want to have a solid overview of that information and see how the notes of the chord connect with the scale.

For that to be easy, then you want to be used to thinking about scales and diatonic chords knowing what goes where and contains which notes.

As an exercise, It can actually make a lot of sense to also work on this away from the instrument and treat it a bit more as a puzzle, but, of course, you eventually also want to have it down on the instrument if it is going to be useful for you.

It really pays off to just try to go over how to construct chords in a scale and be aware of what types of chords are wherein the scale that you use.

Here I am writing it out as letters, but it works equally well using music notation, which is how I probably learned in theory classes.

While I know how to play these things and how they sound, then I am not sure I really think this on the guitar as tabs or diagrams, but that may be different for you, and I am a bit curious about that so let me know in the comments.

In Music, there are no wrong notes, but some are closer to home than others, and often it is more useful to understand things by knowing how they work in the context.

Pineapple is great, but should it be on a pizza?

For soloing, you can think of it as layers of notes almost like a pyramid:

, and here it also makes sense to see it as highlights on a diagram of the neck:

And working on this is about getting that overview that will open up how you understand things you transcribe or even what you are playing.

Spending time writing out the scale, constructing the chords, and learning the diatonic harmony is very useful. Start with major scales but move on to harmonic and melodic minor as well, since you will need these scales when you are playing Jazz. But if you want to connect more information than just knowing the chords and the scale, let’s take a look at that.

Triads That Go Together And More

When you solo over a chord then you have the arpeggio of the chord and you have the scale that sort of sits around that arpeggio, but there are actually more ways you should be looking at notes that work over the chord and explore other melodies that you can use than just the scale and the arpeggio.

If you start with a very simple observation then you have the four notes of the chord, if we take Cmaj7: C E G B, but you can also view that chord as two triads: C E G and E G B. So for a Cmaj7 chord then the C major triad works and so does the Em triad.

If you take that a bit further then you can look at a Cmaj7(9)

Again this is probably easier to work with writing it out in some form, and you want to keep track of what the notes are against the root of the chord which in the end is actually a description of how it sounds when you use it.

The goal of exploring this is to get used to taking a group of notes and be able to see what they are against a chord, so that you have more options for your solos, and you want to also explore how to use this in solos.

When you improvise and make melodies then you don’t think in single notes, you group them together and hear melodies that are described in different ways, similar to how you hear the theme of “in the mood” as a 1st inversion triad.

So as you develop your vocabulary then you add more options in terms of triads, arpeggios, and other groups of notes that fit over a chord.

And the better you get at this the deeper you can dig into it and add quartal arpeggios and superimposed pentatonics to your lines and get them to work in your solos.

Connect It To The Music

Until now the way that you work on using music theory was based on you practicing exercises like diatonic triads and arpeggios and then figuring out how to use those, but you also want to explore the music you are trying to learn from, both solos and the songs themselves.

Let’s start with the songs:

A simple exercise is to look at what notes are in the melody relative to the chord. This is useful for developing your chord melody skills because it makes it easier to put chords under the melody.

And if you start analyzing Jazz standards you will see that they often have the same notes in the melody over specific chords, for example, #IV diminished chords or reharmonizations of them will have the 7th of the scale in the melody.

As you can see in “I Remember You”, “Someday My Prince Will Come”, “All The Things You Are”. Which also makes it easier to hear and recognize changes by ear.

Solos and Vocabulary

Of course, analyzing solos that you have transcribed is also incredibly useful, that is where you start to take apart vocabulary and improve your own lines. The place where you start to unlock how the melodies work and turn that into a flexible part of your playing.

This is an incredibly powerful tool. Let’s take this simple Pat Martino Lick use that to easily create 3 more licks on other chords.

The Pat Martino line from Lazy bird sounds like this:

Essentially this is a melody using a Cmaj7 arpeggio and a chromatic run.

Now that you know what is being played then you can see that it also fits over a Cmaj7 chord for example the beginning of Yardbird Suite:

But you can go a lot further, because If this works on Cmaj7 and is using a Cmaj7 arpeggio, then you can also try and move the arpeggio up to the 3rd of the chord and use the same construction:

C D E F G A B C D → C D E F G A B C D

You just need to apply a little Barry Harris magic to the chromatic part of the lick, and then you get this:

Another way to get more out of the lick is to move it to another chord. The original is using the arpeggio from the 3rd of Am7, so you can do the same with a G7 where the arpeggio from the 3rd is a Bø and that gives you this:

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The Most Important Music Theory And How It Helps You Play Better

If you know some Simple and Basic Music Theory but you know it well, then you can use that to understand most harmony and find a lot of great sounds for your solos. I think you will be surprised just how far you can go and how much you can do with a few really basic things, but you do need to work on the right things.

What is Music Theory

First I want to look at what Music Theory is and how you can use it, because I think, that is often misunderstood, which makes it more difficult than it has to be, and you might not realize that you already know a lot. Music theory is just like playing music: If you really know the fundamental things, the rest becomes a lot easier.

Remember that you can use the chapters in the video to go back to something or skip ahead if you already know it.

One of the most important things to realize is that you use Music Theory to describe and understand music. It really is about putting describing what you hear. Sometimes people want to make it a set of rules that tell you what you are allowed to play, but that is not really how it works.

Rules might seem useful as a way of learning, but as you will see, being able to describe and understand what is going on is a lot more useful, and in the end, there are no rules anyway.

Let me quickly show you how describing music is incredibly useful an example from a Blues classic.

How Music Theory Is Useful

let’s take this example of an Eric Clapton phrase from the song Hideaway.

Example First Phrase

Level 1 – Clueless

If you don’t know anything about music theory, then he is playing magic notes that sound amazing.

Level 2 – Scale and Chord Progression

If you know a little bit more then you know that the song is a Blues in E, and he is playing the E major pentatonic scale.

Level 3 – Understanding the phrase

if you want to learn to play it then it is useful to realize that he is starting on the 5th and then the next part is him running up the scale ending with bending the 2nd up to the 3rd.


So level by level you go from “Magic notes that sound amazing” to “a scale run with a bend in the pentatonic scale”, and it is obviously easier to learn how to play it if you know that it is this scale with a bend on this note instead of memorizing a lot of magic notes.

And all you do is recognizing and describing what is going on. That is how Music Theory is useful.

#1 The Major Scale and The Notes In It

The first and most basic thing you want to know is something that most of you probably already know. The major scale, how it is constructed, and the notes in it. Really knowing this means that it is a lot easier to figure out most other things you’ll come across so this is incredibly important.

If you construct a major scale then you start with a root note and move up in intervals of whole and half-steps.

The formula is 1 1 1/2 1 1 1 1/2

For a C major scale:


You want to know the notes in there, if you have to use a formula to figure out the notes then you don’t really know this. That is too slow for you to use it when you are playing.

You also want to know this in all keys, especially the ones you play in., in fact, those are the ones you want to start with.

Besides knowing the note names then it is very important that you know the degrees of the scale, you will see why in the next section of the video.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

How Well Do You Need To Know Scales?

Having a solid overview of the scale notes will make it a lot easier to analyze chords or solo phrases which also helps you figure out what is happening in a solo you transcribed and how you can start using the same things in your playing. If you have to calculate what notes are in the scale that quickly becomes almost impossible. If you know them really well then it is like a language you speak. Something you can use and get from information from.

In the long run, you want to know all the scales by heart so that you don’t have to think about what notes are in there, simply because this can be the foundation that you build everything else on, as you will see in the rest of this video.

#2 How To Construct Chords

When you improvise in Jazz then usually you are using chord symbols as a guideline to shape the improvisation. So you need to be able to translate the chord progression to something you can use in a solo, and knowing what notes are in the chords is a really good place to start.

There are two ways you can approach this, you can take a root and then construct the chord from that, just using intervals, but often I find it is better to start immediately by learning the chords you find in a scale since those are the chords you will also come across in chord progressions, and they are connected in a lot of useful ways that you can also use in solos.

From Scale To Harmony

Constructing chords in a scale is pretty simple. A chord is a stack of 3rds and you have two main types of 3rds: major which is 4 half steps (Play) or minor which is 3 half steps(play)

If you construct a triad from C in the C major scale then you start with the scale

the scale: C D E F G A B C

and from C you move up a 3rd to E, and from E up a 3rd to G. – C to E is a major 3rd so it is a major chord. E to G is a minor 3rd. C E G is a C major triad where C is the root, E is the major 3rd and G is the 5th.

If you create a triad from the next note in the scale D then you get D F A which is a minor 3rd followed by a major 3rd from F to A. This is a Dm triad with D F A is root, minor 3rd and 5th.

All the triads are major or minor except the one on the 7th note in the scale, in this case that is B D F, here you have a minor 3rd from B to D and another minor 3rd form D to F. The interval from B to F is called a diminsihed 5th and different from the one from C to G which is called a perfect 5th, and this type of triad is called a diminished triad: Bdim

In this way you can construct the diatonic triads of a major scale:

C Dm Em F G Am Bdim

Remember that this order of Major, minor, minor, major, major, minor dim, is the same in all major keys,

so if you have Eb major:

Scale: Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb

then the triads will be

Eb Fm Gm Ab Bb Cm Ddim Eb

This is something you want to automatically know that for the keys you play in, if not just all keys, but keep in mind that this is really just a different way of seeing something that you already know because you know the scale.

Triads are a great resource for solos or for comping, so this is more than just theory, a line using Em and G major triads over a Cmaj7 sounds like this:

and later I will show you how to find those triads for a chord, but first, you need some 7th chords which is, sort of, the basic chord type in Jazz.

Diatonic 7th Chords

You already know the triads and all you need to do to get the 7th chords is to add a 7th.

For the major scale you only have two types: maj7 and b7: For C major: C E G, if you add the 7th: C D E F G A B , you get C E G B. The interval from C to B is a maj7th, written as Cmaj7.

Notice that the 7th is just one step down in the scale, a maj7th is a half-step down, and a b7 is a whole step down.

An example of the b7 is found on the next chord, Dm: here you get D F A and add the C to get a Dm7 chord.

The 7th chords in C major will give you:

C Dm Em F G Am Bdim

Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmaj7 G7 Am7 Bø

So you get a maj7 on C, a b7 on D, and also on E giving us Em7, on F the 7th is E giving us Fmaj7. The 7th on G7 is an F giving us a major chord with a b7 called a dominant chord. A to G is a b7 giving us an Am7. The B dim also has a b7 from B to A so that is a Bm7(b5) also sometimes referred to as B half-diminished.

Now you have the chords in a scale and you can find them in any key, but again this is stuff you really just want to know. Try practicing the diatonic chords in all keys and also move simple progressions around like a II V I or a I VI II V

When you improvise in Jazz then you usually take the chord and find material that fits on that chord. Let’s look at a great way to find a lot of material in the form of triads and 7th chords for any chord.

#3 Finding More Arpeggios (Crazy simple)

This concept is really simple and is something you can mess around with by just writing out a scale in a different way!

The basic idea is that if you are improvising over a chord then you can use the scale and the arpeggio of the chord, but you need to have more options than just the scale and the arpeggio, and if you check out solos from great Jazz players then you notice them using a lot of other things as well.

These arpeggios and triads they use are not coming out of thin air, it isn’t magic (It is NEVER magic when it comes to note choice), and you can easily use the music theory I covered in this video to find a lot of options.

Let’s first look at the scale in a different way:

Usually, you write the scale out in steps, so C major is C D E F G A B C but now you want to find triads and arpeggios, and they are built in 3rds so it is practical to write the scale as stacked 3rds like this:


I wrote out a few octaves because that is easier.

Let’s say you have to improvise over a G7. You just need to find triads and chords that have a lot of common notes with G7. Because G7 is what the rest of the band is playing, and if you play those notes that sound good.

So now, instead of G7 and the scale you have

G7,Bø and Em7 + Em, G, Bdim and Dm triads

Each of these arpeggios are triads are really just a very flexible melody that you can work with and you can combine them as well to get an incredible amount of possibilities in your solo.

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Don’t Just Learn Music Theory! Connect it to the Songs You Know and Play!

Music Theory is like every other aspect of music, you need to work at it from the ground up and you will only get the benefit of it if you use it in what you play! In this video I will talk a bit about what the very fundamental things are that you need to know well and why you need to know that part of Music Theory. I will also talk about why you should apply it and how it will benefit your playing.



0:00 Intro

0:37 The Foundation You Need to know

0:42 The Backdoor Dominant example

0:55 Get the basics down – What you need to know (in all keys)!

1:29 Putting The Theory into Practice – What is Music Theory

2:00 Apply Music Theory to Music

2:34 Study the theory that fits the music you play.

2:51 Enter Sandman does not have an Augmented 6th Chord

3:13 Recognize the stages of Having a skill – The Blues

4:07 Recognize the stages of Having a skill – The Secondary Dom7th

5:26 Learn a lot of music! Something to understand the theory with!

6:07 Some examples of Songs with IV IVm

6:27 Some Songs that modulate a major 3rd up

6:41 Use Theory to understand styles.

6:48 Go beyond your own genre and try to understand the music

7:40 How do you use or study Theory?

8:02 Quick Analysis of Creep – comparing it to a few other songs

9:13 Like the video? Check out My Patreon Page!