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Lesson: Practicing Chord Changes

There are many ways to get better at the changes on a particular tune, but this approach works really well.

First, play just quarter notes, and play all the arpeggios to get a “mental map” of all the chord tones in the progression (try to do it with a metronome):

Practicing chord changes: Figure 1

Then, still in quarter notes, start inverting the chords to explore the connection points. Most of us already have learned that while playing a progression involving the cycle of fifths, the connection points are the 7th of one chord moves to the 3rd of the next chord; conversely, the 3rd of one chord moves either to the 7th or the root of the next:

Practicing chord changes: Figure 2

Practicing chord changes: Figure 2a

It might help to write out some of the lines at first, but ultimately the objective is to develop the ability to do this “on-the-fly.”

Not all tunes involve cycle-of-fifth chord progressions, of course. Many don’t; but there are a lot of places in sections of tunes from any style that use this kind of progression.

Next, try introducing lead-ins to the quarter note exercise; play the root of each chord, then spend the rest of the bar playing melodic material that leads to the next chord. We’ve talked about a variety of options to create these lead-ins in previous columns:

Practicing chord changes: Figure 3

Or, try making lines that start each chord on the 3rd of the chord (these sound pretty, but they’re not musically strong choices for a bass player in the general case; roots are where the foundation is!):

Practicing chord changes: Figure 3a

OK, moving on: the next phase of the exercise involves creating lines consisting of 8th notes moving through the changes. This exercise strengthens melodic thinking, and invites the exploration of all sorts of melodic devices and options.

Practicing chord changes: Figure 4

What are some of the devices used? Hint: first find the chord tones, and see what was done around them.

Practicing chord changes: Figure 5

Practicing chord changes: Figure 5a

Practicing chord changes: Figure 6

There are countless ways to navigate any particular progression, and a good idea is to try to find an explorer’s mindset where you can do this while repeating yourself as little as possible.

For more great lessons from Jon Burr, check out his instructional ebooks