Chord Tone Exercise

Q: Can you give an example of how one might get more comfortable with available chord tones?

A: An exercise that I’ve been enjoying lately addresses this exact issue!

I’ve previously stressed the importance of developing the ability to arpeggiate chords in every inversion while working through any tune in the Real Book. To refresh (briefly), you would practice playing the appropriate 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th degrees of the scale over every chord in any tune out of the Real Book (“Autumn Leaves”, for example).

You would practice these in every inversion as well (flatting 3rds, 5ths & 7ths as appropriate for the chord type):

  • 1,3,5,7 over every chord
  • Next: 3,5,7,1
  • Next: 5,7,1,3
  • Next: 7,1,3,5

This is a great exercise, although it only really scratches the surface.

The next evolutionary step, in my mind at least) is to both:

  1. Include other scale tones
  2. Break up the patterns!

So now we may include any appropriate scale tone, but let’s also break up the pattern in new ways.

For example, let’s include the 9 (or 2nd degree of the scale).

Let’s go with a pattern of: 3,7,5,9

Over a C?7 chord (or CMaj7), this would be: E,B,G,D

Now, take this pattern and play the appropriate notes over ALL of the chord changes in a tune. Some favorite tunes of mine to practice over include:

  • “Autumn Leaves”, because it contains the primary chord types and is also all in one key
  • “Giant Steps”, because it moves in less typical ways and keeps me thinking
  • “Falling Grace”, because it’s simply a beautiful tune and has interesting changes

Once you can make it through a tune at a slow tempo playing a set patter of your choosing, here are a few things you can do to keep you working:

  • Try and bump the tempo up a bit
  • Change tunes often so you don’t get too comfortable
  • Change your pattern often to keep yourself working

After shedding this for some time you’ll be amazed at how well you will begin to see what notes are available to you.

For bonus difficulty points:

Pre-determine what finger you will begin with (on your left hand). These exercises jump in difficulty if you decide to begin each chord cluster with your pinky, for example (and then finger the available notes accordingly, of course).

This is a phenomenal way to open your eyes to what patterns are available for each chord on either side of your typical fingering. A wonderful way to open up the fretboard laterally.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. David Guettler

    Autumn leaves and Giant steps! Greatest practice tunes ever!

  2. Jonatan Malm

    on 3 5 7 1, is the 1 one octave up than the 1 in 1 3 5 7?