Minor conversion, simplified.

In a previous lesson I did a minor conversion analysis of the jazz standard “Giant Steps” as an alternate approach to improving on the notoriously difficult tune. Usually, references to the minor conversion approach will direct you to guitarist Pat Martino, whose lesson materials will typically start with showing interesting relationships between diminished and dominant chords, shows a lot of triangle and star shaped drawings, and then starts demonstrating insanely fast chromatic lines to play.

(One might suspect things are being made intentionally difficult…)

I’ve seen this hit on in other places since, but the first simple and logical explanation of minor conversion that I saw was in a book I bought 25 years ago: Jazz Guitar Lines by Lucky Elden, which I’m happy to see is still in print. It also has several more chromatic Pat Martino inspired licks in it, many that I still use today (Much to the confused looks of the other electric blues players I’ve worked with… but that’s another story)

But here’s the breakdown: Use your ears, but just about any lick that sounds good in A minor (Q: What, CD…? A natural minor? A harmonic? Jazz minor? A: Generally… yes!) will sound good in C major (its relative major); it should also sound good for D dominant (this is a standard ii – V jazz improvisors trick. Long ii – V – I, you can do two short ones on the long ii – V and they work, or half a long idea over a short ii – V.) Finally it also works on the chords for a minor ii – V, down a minor third: F#min7b5 and the various flavors of B7 altered (b9,#9, etc.)

In other words: An A minor lick should work with all of these chords; Amin7, Cmaj7, D7, F#7b5, and B7alt.
Major ii -V, relative major, and minor ii – V down an minor third.

A good lick or motif can now be plugged in over a major, a minor, a dominant, a half diminished 7, or an altered dominant.
Let’s analyze a standard ii – V – I in C using this system. Dm7… start your lick in Dmin. G7… you can still continue in Dm. Cmaj7… shift to an Amin idea. Repeated frequently is let your ear be the guide. If it sounds good, it is. If it doesn’t I often find one note in the line or a different resolving note usually cleans up the idea… or I drop it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the most interesting stuff using this approach is the chromatic zippy lines similar to… Pat Martino. But I have used this with arpeggios and pentatonic scales with interesting results.

Please forgive the dry, text only, example free entry. If I find a free moment and don’t get distracted, I’ll expand a bit in a second entry.

Review: 30 Jazz Arpeggio Licks You MUST Know by Tom Dempsey

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

In a different set of jazz lessons, I heard guitarist Fareed Haque make the observation that “Modal” jazz was a departure from Bop, and yet many if not most teachers seem to go to modes to try to explain jazz improv, focusing on Bop. He then correctly points out that Charlie Parker and his contemporaries innovative approach was based primarily on arpeggio ideas.

Tom Dempsey’s 30 Arpeggio licks… goes farther than most anything else I’ve seen so far in TrueFire’s licks series, in that it starts out with a full manual of all the types of arpeggios used over the entire neck. This particular offering is also the first where going through the series in Classic view (just the video and a PDF file with the music) absolutely is better than following in SoundSlice view (with its follow the tab, autoscroll, and speed setting features; which are usually best for copping licks.) For each of the Classic view lessons, the arpeggio used in it’s location on the neck is at the top of the lesson materials, before the tablature of the actual lick.

With the grid in place at the top of the page, I would turn on the Jam Track and simply form my own ideas with that particular “grip” of notes in that area on the neck. Being able to grasp the concept instead of just copying someone else has always been my preferred route to learning improv.

The licks themselves are fairly basic overall, and stay on one static chord through the majority of the lesson. It only started hitting on ii-Vs and ii-V-Is, superimposing alternate arpeggios, and upper extensions in a few at the end. I would love a second set that expanded on these ideas and expanding from there (big hint: Second set picking up where this left off, Tom… please?)

The licks are good, but this gets extra high marks for me for going the extra distance to cover the concepts. Bravo.

30 Jazz Arpeggio Licks you MUST know on Truefire.com

Giant Steps pt 2: CD’s “Easy Trick”

Followup to Giant Steps: after I did the harmonic analysis to the Coltrane classic, famous for being difficult to improvise over I applied another concept and discovered something interesting to apply. If you saw that previous lesson, understand that this entry is doing one of the things I said was a bad idea in the earlier one, so take this with a whole shaker of salt…

A brief look at minor conversion

A quick and simplified description of minor conversion: Typically one of the first artists many people think of when using the term “minor conversion” is guitar virtuoso Pat Martino. While I find his playing dazzling, and his personal story deeply inspiring, usually the description of this concept gets into what I think is intentionally confusing: starting with interesting anomalies of diminished chords and geometric drawings, yadda, yadda.

Here is the real simplified deal with minor conversion, and I may make a more concerned effort in a later entry  🙂 but the gist is that for basically any good melody or lick… let’s keep this in C major: Anything sounding good for Cmaj7 family, sounds good for Am7. It also sounds good for D7. (ii-Vs, and therefore Amin licks work over D7) So now we know that all those Minor licks that we’ve learned can go over Maj7 or Dom7 chords if we transpose. But that’s not all: Amin also works over F#mb5 and B7#9 or flat9… basically the altered chords for a minor ii-V. Or; one lick can work for Cmaj7, Am7, D7, F#m7b5, and B7 altered chords. Major resolution, a major ii – v, and a minor ii-V.

Shifting up a fifth: Gmaj7, em7, A7, c#m7b5, and F#7(b5,#5,b9,#9) will all support a lick in e minor.

For a ii – V – I in the Key of G, a player with a lot of minor licks would play an A minor melodic idea for the first half (a min for Am7 and D7 chords) and an E minor idea for the second half (Gmaj 7, e is the relative minor to G major)

If you’re interested in going down this rabbit hole, I highly recommend working this concept with songs like Blue Bossa, Autumn Leaves, etc. before doing it with Giant Steps. That said:

CD’s Giant Steps “Trick”:

Remember on the last entry where I said “Don’t put stock in any of the ‘easy tricks'”, I’m telling you right now, up front; that’s what this is. But if you play lines using this minor conversion system (as I will do occasionally) something interesting emerges during those really hard key changes in the first half of the tune – ascending half step changes.


Take a look at the added green text.

Bar 1 is a B major to D7. B major is relative to G# minor, and D7 converts to A minor… slide up a fret and repeat, or continue the line you were already doing (up a half step).

Bar 2. Gmaj to Bb7. Gmaj converts to E min, Bb7 to F min…

If you consider the shifts of a fifth within V-Is and ii -V – Is  as “related”, we’re still making a frightening number of key changes very quickly, many over the half bar as before, but now we’ve gone from shifting a major third to moving half steps and shifting fifths for the most part. I find this more mentally manageable than the “Giant Step” major thirds transitions. If you’re really strong with ii-V-I ideas, you probably will want to shift back to thinking of those the standard way in the second half of the song. Or you may find the minor conversion method is a great way to blow through ii -V -Is, you can consider those key shifts minor thirds instead of major thirds.


Review: Soul Guitar Guidebook by Jimmy Reiter

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

The past few reviews have intentionally been about areas and styles that I’m working on “back-to-basics” and skill improvement. This time around I’m taking a close look at a style I’m a little more familiar with. I like to think of Soul Guitar as the point where post-war electric blues started began melding and evolving with R&B by way of players and songs in Memphis, New Orleans, and Muscle Shoals in the 1960’s.

This is what the title says it is: a guidebook on the style. Jimmy moves quickly from some fundamentals to 8 songs that demonstrate a good menu of elements from this style. This, however, would be my primary critique; for example, the best stuff on this series is basically the last half of one lesson: covering different triad shapes for playing interesting rhythms all over the neck. In fact Jimmy starts out by saying, quite rightly, that the core of the style is rhythm more than lead, but then the song collection focuses mostly on stylistic leads, and I noticed a few students commenting on the same in the discussions. The leads and double stop melodies in the songs are tasty and essential to the style… but I also longed for the same effort to be put into showing and developing the rhythm playing.

Critique aside: Jimmy Reiter knows his soul guitar, and shows some fantastic playing well within the grasp of the intermediate level guitar player, and does a good job of explaining how to play and some of the concepts in each of the breakdown sections. As it is a “guidebook” I would highly recommend any student really interested in this style to immediately go search for the players he’s listing as inspiring each of his own tracks shown here. For example, go straight to the Meters and hear the same concepts being shown in songs like “Look Ka Py Py” or “Just Kissed My Baby”.

Soul Guitar Guidebook on truefire.com


Visual Learning and work in progress: Giant Steps

I don’t make any claims to be a great jazz player (I was decent at being an ensemble player in some big band rhythm sections) despite part of my focus here. My interest is part analysis, part self-improvement, and part sharing what I know.

In other words, I haven’t mastered this piece. This is a “this piece kicks my butt, just like it does most common mortals who haven’t spent years practicing and developing it.” And this is why; but it may help you, too.

There are many analyses of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps online with instructions or suggestions on how to improvise over it. Nearly every one gives some historical context or just explains that it’s a piece requiring a certain improvisational virtuosity to pull off. I’m not going to get to deep into that here, nor do I think anything I’m posting is going to be new except for this visualization I’ve done for it (I’m big on visual learning for guitar and music in general). I’m guessing either you’re familiar with the piece, and me saying “it’s a hard one” is nothing new, or you should Google it.  😉 Find the original studio version with John Coltrane. … All right, maybe this one frequently relayed bit of history:  😉  Trane had been woodshedding it for years before bringing it to the session. Pianist Tommy Flanagan, depending on who is telling the story, was either looking at it “cold” or only had a day or two to look at the piece. OK, now find Tommy’s 1982 trio recording of it. Even with master players, this is a piece that requires practice.

The only other thing I’ll say of many of the other online lessons is 1) don’t put stock in any of the “easy tricks” or what have you; you’re usually just learning a gimmick that will only sound good for a chorus, and may risk making you look worse than usual if you get lost (because you’ll need foundational knowledge of any song if you get lost while soloing. “One easy trick” does not help you on a piece this difficult) 2) I’ve found some analyses that, for whatever reason, show the key centers changing at the bar-line only, which you can “sorta” get away with (good jazz improv definitely does not relying on lining the melodic ideas directly over the changes, for example anticipating the next change melodically) but may just be some folks survival or coping method for the fast changes (Which leans into “trick”, to my way of thinking)

Analysis: I think the best simplified way to look at the piece also shows why it’s hair-tearing maddening to play. The changes are lightening fast, but there’s only three key centers: B major, G major, and Eb Major. The two problems there is that the key never stays put for longer than two bars at any given point in the piece (did I mention it’s usually done very fast) and each time it is up or down a major third… which if you’re used to up or down the circle of fifths modulations, this can easily grind mental gears. (Plus, if you miss a modulation on a circle of fifths, you have technically one bad note you can “fudge” and correct if you’re just floating around. Modulating a major third, you only have three common scale tones. You have to know where, or the harmony will expose you)  The modulations that occur in the middle of the bars in the first half of this piece, making one and a half bar, or one bar over the bar-line V-I and ii-V-Is also go against my previous instincts, even at slow tempos.

My thought for visualization: B – Red, G – Yellow, Eb – Blue.

Giant Steps AnalysisEach of these are just straight V – I or ii – V – I progressions in those three keys. Again, the difficulty comes in the frequent “giant step” modulations and the speed of the piece.

Addendum: Visual learning guitar grid for the major scales using the same color coordination: Red = B Major, Yellow = G Major, Blue = Eb Major.


The Lost Art of Swing Quarter Notes (and yes, that is a real thing)

I recently did a video of this for Northwest Guitars, and I may link it when it comes up. Three points to set this up: the first was running across the subject of “Can you swing quarter notes” on a long cold internet discussion, of which the entire consensus compared it to swinging eighths (for those not familiar, not playing straight eighth notes for Jazz tunes, and similar to blues shuffle eighths. The best description that I’ve seen for jazz swing eighths is to imagine an egg rolling end over end down a hill.) and why the entire premise was wrong and not a real thing. While it’s true that in Swing music, quarter notes have even time, I would like to offer a frequently told jazz story.

Both the legendary Count Basie band and saxophone great Charlie Parker came out of Kansas City. But the story goes that Parker auditioned for the Basie band, and the Count put a piece of music in front of all the people auditioning with two measures of the same quarter note. Other than a few people describing it as needing to be a “fat” note, no one telling this tale usually can describe why Parker, THE saxophone player for nearly all jazz-heads, couldn’t make eight quarter notes “swing” enough for the Basie gig  …but it certainly does imply that there is a right and wrong way to do it, yes?

The third stop is that some years ago I took some lessons with Tim Lerch, an astounding guitarist of multiple styles, and a beautiful human being I feel privileged to call friend. I noticed that he had one unusual habit that I never asked him about (in fact this article is the first time I’ve mentioned noticing a tie-in, and I’ll see what he has to say reading this… I think my educated guess is right, but I’m not 100% sure without verification), whether practicing or on the bandstand, he doesn’t just tap his foot, he twists it, alternating right and left, 1 – 2, 1 – 2. And whether he was playing chords, single line melodies or what have you, in any rhythm, his phrasing always had a swing to it, eighths or no.

The simple answer is the back-beat. And it’s also important in blues, country, and most forms of rock (not everything, for example funk is all about the one)

In the army band and for music school I had the opportunity to play for some decent big bands, and learned the Freddie Green four quarter note to the bar comping style pretty solid. Though Freddie didn’t do this, if you watch a lot of other film of big bands from the era, you’ll see guitarists do an exaggerated alternating neck strum – bridge strum, 1 – 2, 1 – 2. Accent the back beat, the two and four: strum STRUM strum STRUM.

That’s Swing Quarter Notes: one TWO three FOUR.  Tim’s (and many others) lines swing no matter the rhythm of the melody not only from perfectly “swung” eighths, but a stress on the backbeat. Try it, pull out a Real Book or other melody chart of a standard from the swing era, like “All of Me.” Rock you foot left and right as you tap quarters, of lightly pencil a mark over every beat two and four. Stress the notes on the two and four (and just the two and four, articulate the syncopations that tie over and triplets normally, …just “think” the two and four fatter right on the pulse  😉   )

I’m still working on getting this to sound natural in my own playing. I’ve found it’s not easy to do all the time if you’re freely improvising (and I admit that get a bit lost in the rhythms of my own phrasing frequently) and overemphasizing can frequently sound as “square” as not doing it at all. But I found not thinking too hard and rocking my foot tapping helps when I practice it.  🙂

Edit – Follow-up quote from Tim: “Nice piece CD, thats how I see it. Not just accent but also I like the 2 and 4 to be just a teeny bit late as well. Well, not late but on the backside of the beat.”

Review: Frank Vignola’s Essentials: Jazz Standard Soloing

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month

This month I’m taking a look at Frank Vignola’s “Jazz Standard Soloing” lesson on TrueFire.com; a set of ten performance and analysis studies over the changes of well known jazz standards like Autumn Leaves, Blue Bossa, and Satin Doll. And while I do have some criticisms, I’m hoping that what I’m missing and yearning for will be addressed in more volumes of this series, because what this lesson did right puts it as one of the best jazz guitar offerings of this type.

What it gets right: The biggest thing that this gets better than the overwhelming number of “model jazz solos” or transcriptions of solos over standards is that Frank breaks down a common improvising idea as an exercise and he explains what he’s doing. It’s greatly to his credit as a teacher that each of these ideas sounds like good jazz soloing, and none are technically beyond the scope of an intermediate skilled player. (with the discipline to put in the practice for new things) So, this isn’t just a set of jazz licks over tunes. Each has a different idea developing: third to third melodic ideas, chord tone arpeggios, straight blues ideas, etc. It’s very well laid out and carefully explained over a set of standards every aspiring jazz musician should know.

What I thought could be better: Frank spends a great amount of time telling you exactly *what* he’s doing, and throws in a lot of *why* the particular things he’s doing sound good, but I found myself yearning for a demonstration of *how* I as the student could build my own ideas from these techniques, how and why to do them over other standards. Showing how to take idea one and make different melodies over the same Autumn Leaves changes, or plugging  in the same idea over All the Things You Are showing what’s the same and how to spot and avoid differences, showing a few examples of which standards work for that concept better than others would have been the perfect. I would have loved to have seen some of these ideas plugged in to rhythm changes.

Again, I’m hoping that ideas get expanded on in an additional volume or series of volumes. From someone who’s been a working pro in other styles of music, but keeps looking for means to better understand jazz on my main instrument, there is not enough good material between beginners first jazz chords and professional artists’ “look at how awesome I am and how complicated this music can be.” …Other than licks, there are so many collections of licks and transcriptions out there, but those show you a “what” and not a “how”.  The approach shown in this block of lessons left me wanting so much more, but also shows that the potential is here within this format, and I hope that TrueFire and Mr. Vignola explore it in more lessons.

The other critique is probably more reflective of my own personality of a student, and not a knock on Frank, even though it may seem that way but…. his lecture approach rubs me the wrong way, and I have to take it in small doses. Maybe it’s a symptom of all the beginner 1,2,3 series that he does, but I feel like Mr. Vignola’s delivery is more suited for grade school than teaching adults at this level. (I just erased something snarky… it *must* just be my own personality, so take that with a huge grain of salt)

Despite these critiques I’ve offered, Mr. Vignola is a great player and instructor, and there is a tremendous amount of essential material in this TrueFire lesson for a beginning to rudimentary improvisor with intermediate level technical ability or higher wanting to learn jazz.