Approaching Minor Keys, pt.1

I've had many friends who have begun trying to play swing guitar after coming from a rock/pop background, not a modern jazz one. "Minor Swing" is a popular tune to start with, but many players without a jazz background can't figure out how to approach soloing over the chords.
Specifically, it's the minor pentatonic scale that is the backbone on much rock and blues that doesn't fit. The main culprit of this is the 7th scale degree (in Am, the G note) - it just doesn't fit over swing or early jazz minor songs. And there's good reason: the V7 chord.

Going back at least as far as Bach, classical music did not use the standard v chord of a mino key (key Am: A-B-C-D-E-F-G; a V chord based on this scale would be an E minor7: E-G-B-D). In classical music a V chord is always a DOMINANT 7 chord (in Am, an E7 chord: E-G#-B-D). There is pavlovian response to hearing the G# note it that chord, which demands that it be resolved to the A note.
With the G# note being so important, makes sense that the minor pentatonic scale doesn't fit with it's G natural note.

In classical and in early jazz and swing, they don't use the minor pentatonic scale, or the "natural" minor scale - which is just the normal notes of the key (in Am: A B C D E F G). Instead, they both use a minor scale with a raised 7th (in Am, a G# note). There are two minor scales that contain a raised 7th that are used extensively in early jazz and swing, the harmonic minor and the jazz minor.

The harmonic minor scale dates back to at least Bach, and has a particularly "European" sound (at least to my ears). It is a natural minor scale with a raised 7th (in Am: A B C D E F G#).
The jazz minor is comparatively younger, and has a more "American" sound (again to my ears). It is a natural minor scale with both a raised 7th, and a raised 6th (in Am: A B C D E F# G#).

By "American" and "European", I'm really getting at the distinction between the gypsy-influenced hot jazz of Django, and the less classical sounding playing of American swing musicians, like say, Charlie Christian. Charlie was more likely play more raised 6ths and feature them as an important note in his phrasing. Django was at least equally as likely to play either a regular or raised 6th, and perhaps more likely to play the regular 6th. American pre-bebop jazz harmony often voiced a minor i chord as a im6, which contains the raised 6th. But it should be noted that even if there is a raised 6th in the harmony, the soloist can also use the regular 6th, as Django did, even though it technically shouldn't fit.

In all harmony, some notes are "functional" in the sense that they are guide tones important to voice leading and chordal movement. Other notes are not, and there for they can be approached less strictly. The 7th scale degree is clearly a functional note, whereas the 6th scale degree is not. That's why you can often play either 6th with no problem, but that natural 7th just doesn't sound right.

Even modern jazzbos have a hard time approaching pre-bop minor key tunes. When Miles Davis released "Kind of Blue" in 1959, he ushered in a new era of modal jazz, specifically based on the Dorian mode, with "So What", being the chief example.

The Dorian mode is a natural minor scale with a raised 6th (like the jazz minor), but NOT the raised 7th (in Am: A B C D E F# G).. The sound of the Dorian mode is based on a minor7 chord as the tonic, and there for the regular 7th scale degree fits. Many modern jazzbos have forgotten the older-style sound of pre-bop, and just ignorantly play Dorian over everything. I avoid musicians like that like the plague.

As a early jazz/swing style musician, one should learn both the harmonic minor and jazz mimor scales like the back of one's hand. Part 2 will feature some musical examples.

Here are the scales in question with the i and V chords built on those scales.


Swing Harmony: Turnarounds, Vamps and Line Cliches - Part 1, Major Turnarounds

Turnarounds and line cliches are both common chord sequences in Swing Harmony, and can be found in numerous songs. Each sequence contains an ascending or descending line, often voiced in the bass. From a rhythm guitar standpoint, it’s important to get them under your fingers, because they come up often, and they come up fast when sight reading.

Major I-IV Turnaround

Most commonly found in songs based on the chords to “I Got Rhythm”, the I-IV turnaround can also be found at the end of some blues songs, and sprinkled in several traditional jazz standards. The sequence is a fancy way of moving from a I chord to the IV and back. Both the ascending and descending versions have the same chords except for the transition chord from the IV chord back to the I chord (a #ivº in the ascending / a iv minor in the descending). Both the ascending and descending versions are used interchangeably, and sometimes by musicians in the same band at the same time – even though, technically, the #ivº and iv conflict. But, hey, that’s jazz.


In either case, from a rhythm guitar perspective, the turnaround can be approached as static chords, or using walking chords. Here are examples of both:

Ascending and Descending I-IV Turnarounds (PDF)

The examples are in a couple different keys, so that you can see in the shapes in different positions.

More Example Tunes

Here are a few more tunes to work through, all using the 20 Essential Voicings.

F Blues (PDF)
F Rhythm Changes (PDF)
Sweet Sue (PDF)
Avalon (PDF)
On the Sunny Side of the Street (PDF)

Each tune is chock full of voice leading and transitions that come up all the time. The quicker you get these classic moves under your fingers, the quicker you'll be able to sight read a lead sheet or a rhythm guitar part.

Also, keep checking back regularly. I'm going to be redoing all of the charts in my usual music font, the Swingfont by Sigler Music Fonts, which is awesome looking, and, more importantly, it's highly legible. I use the Swingfont for all of the charts for both the Campus Five and the Orchestra, and I highly recommend it! As soon as I can download an updated version of the font, I'll be putting up more rhythm chord charts, but also some regular leadsheets, and even some rhythm guitar charts from the Campus Five and Orchestra so you'll be able to practice your reading!

Good Songs to Start With

This is another updated post from the old blog....

There was a thread on the Django Swing Page forum - - about good songs for beginners. I thought I should put something here about good songs to start with for players new to the style. Some of these good for practicing leads, some better for practicing rhythm, and most for both.

Here are some suggestions:
Bb Blues (PDF)
Bb Rhythm Changes (PDF)
Minor Swing (PDF) / Dark Eyes (PDF) / Blues en Mineur (PDF)
Honeysuckle Rose (PDF)
Rose Room (PDF) / I Can’t Give You Anything but Love (PDF)
Rosetta (PDF)
Dinah (PDF) / Lady Be Good (PDF)
All of me (PDF)

Here’s a little explanation as to why these can be helpful:

Blues: This is clearly something every jazz musician needs to know backwards and forward. Of course it is a good place to start since it contains only 3 chords at its most basic level.

Rhythm Changes: Now, this song does have a lot of chords during the A sections, but more often than not, I just consider them to be 8 bars of Bb when soloing. The ability to play over the most simple of changes is far more important in the long run, than being able to mechanically run through complex changes. Playing 8 bars of a single chord is a great way to make yourself play melodically. Changes create interest – when there are no changes you have to create the interest.

Minor Swing / Dark Eyes / Blues en Mineur: Each of these is a variation of a minor i-iv-V progression. You could basically play though the entire song with the harmonic minor scale. But you can also use arpeggios throughout. Either way, it is good training ground to balance chordal movement and scale-based playing.

Honeysuckle Rose: A great example of playing V-I tunes, like Sweet Sue, or You Rascal You. V-I is a very simple move, but since its so obvious and entirely diatonic it can be hard to play something that doesn't sound cliche or corny. Step one is to embrace the corny, and then move on. The bridge is also a classic set of movements, which will come up time and time again. I7-IV is classic as is the II7-V7. The best part is that all of the changes go by fairly slowly – only every 2 bars.

Rose Room / I Can’t Give You Anything but Love: Another song with classic movements you find all of the time. Both have a I7-IV-iv movement which is very classic. Additionally, each has a II7-V7 section, and I-IV7-ii-V movement as well. Again, here the chords don’t go by too fast.

Rosetta: More classic changes. I-V+-I-IV7-II7-V7-I. Each of these changes is classic. These changes do go by a bit faster. The bridge can basically considered a 4 bars of Am, then 4 bars of C going back to F.

Dinah / Lady Be Good – The A section is another lesson in I-V movment (although Lady has that IV chord). Each bridge has more common movements. Lady has a classic IV-iv-I movement along. Dinah has descending line cliche - i.e. the vi-vimaj7-vi7-vi6 movment (say, Em, Em/D#, Em/D, Em/C) - which is sometimes used in Lady Be Good as well (taking the place of the two bars of A7 during the bridge).

All of Me: This is the most complicated of the list. See my earlier post about the breaks down all of the changes. Again, the changes only come every two bars (mostly).

Some final thoughts:
I know when I started, so many modern jazz tunes have changes that go by 2-per-bar, and move in unfamiliar or novel ways. I found that I couldn't play melodies, but just mechanically run through the changes. Once I started playing the swing/hot jazz style, I found that the simpler and more conventional changes of the style allowed me to play melodies instead of simple hoping to get through the changes. Now I can handle more complicated changes because I know how to play melodies, not just run mechanical lines.

The 20 Essential Rhythm Guitar Voicings

Many of the better rhythm guitar books have a one page chart of the most used voicings. Frankly, if you threw out the rest of most books, and just used the chart, you'd be pretty much set for a career of rhythm guitar. 95% of rhythm guitar playing uses those most used voicings, and the other 5% can be done without.

Here is my version of that chart.

Click to enlarge image

20 Voicings (PDF)

A couple tips:

Major-chords: Always default to a maj6th voicing. It's the sound of swing.
Minor-chords: Always default to a min6th voicing, unless it's part of the ii-V, and then use the min7.
Diminished-chords: In a diminished chord, any note in the chord can be the root (Aº=A, C, Eb, Gb; Cº=C, Eb, Gb, A; etc.).

While we're at it, here's a couple of examples on a Bb Blues that use these voicings.

Simple Bb Blues (PDF)

(Re) Interpreting Swing Era Harmony - All of Me

One of the original posts on the old blog was an examination of a modern lead sheet, and de-bebop-ifying the chords (link).

If you've ever cracked a fake book to learn a tune, you might have noticed just how "hip" some of the songs are. Bebop has brought a host of new substitutions and complications, and moreover the basic default for harmony are unique to both early and later forms of jazz. To get the swing-style chords you will often have to de-bopify the changes, removing unecessary ii-V movements, and complex extensions. But at the most basic level you will have to reevaulate the types of chords used.

I think it's time to revisit the concepts mentioned, and cover them with a little more detail.

All of Me - Modern vs. Swing-Era (PDF)

The top staff shows chords that were taken directly from a leadsheet I found somewhere on the internet, and there is no exaggeration. The bottom staff is pretty standard way it would have been played during the Swing-era.

1. 6 kinds of chords

The concept of 6 types of chords goes back at least as far as Eddie Lang and his instructional manuals (which you can buy digital copies of at Each type of chord has a specific function. You can stack extensions and alterations on top of these chords, but the idea is that those extensions don't or even can't alter the function of the chord.The six types are:

Augmented (I might argue that Augmented chords are only used as funky dominant chords in swing, and therefore don't really need their own category)

Understanding the function and type of any chord is key to getting the harmony right, and that understanding will also help when approaching any song melodically as well.

2. Stylistic Defaults

Major - (generally I and IV chords in major keys) Swing musicians would always voice these as Major 6th chords, whereas Bebop and later jazzbos generally would voice these as Major7ths. Major7ths are very un-swing, and they've got to go.

Minor - (generally i and iv chords in minor keys) Swing arrangers always voiced these are Minor 6th chords, and bebopers would use a Minor 7th chord. Minor 7th chords have a "dorian" sound, which is not appropriate for the swing-era. Eddie Lang put minor 7th in their own category, and I agree. Always use a minor6th voicing unless the minor chord in question has the function of a minor 7 (see below)

Dominant - Dominant chords cycle backwards - it's just what they do. Dominant chords have a partner in crime, which is the Minor 7th chord. The only key is know when to let the dominant chord work solo.

Minor 7th - Minor 7th chords lead into a dominant chord, and just smooth out the voice leading. Swing harmony uses minor7th chords for vamps (like I6-vi7-ii7-V7), and cadences. Bebopers tend to cram them everywhere possible. Unless there is a vamp or you're coming to the end of the phrase, you should probably cut out the extra minor 7ths.

Diminished - Diminshed chords have role as a passing chord in both swing and bebop.

Augmented - Frankly the only time you see augmented chords in swing, they are basically colored V7 chords.



Rhythm Guitar: I Can't Give You Anything But Love (advanced)

Since "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" has so many classic chord changes, it's a good showcase for many classic advanced rhythm guitar moves.

I Can't Give You Anything But Love - advanced (PDF)

Again, lets go through the changes:

1. Here, were using a very typical inversion more to set up the diminished passing chord. Jumping from a root position shape to the 1st inversion (meaning the 3rd in the bass) is a very common move. Also, the 1st inversion chord doesn't have a 7th, so it can be used with any major-type chord. Of course, the best part is how it moves into the diminshed passing chord.

2. In mm.8-9, I use a "tritone substitution" in passing from Eb7 to Ab7, stopping in between at an A7. If you look at the fingering shape, the only change is in the bass is Bb->A. Now, that could just be passing movement in the bass without calling it a new chord. But, sometimes that passing chord (which is a tritone away from the original chord - Eb->A is a flatted 5th) is drawn out for a longer duration. However, functionally, the A7 is just acting as a funky sounding Eb7.

3. In mm.9-11, this is what I call a "walk up." This a very common move over any dominant 7 chord. I learned this from John Reynolds at my first and only "lesson" with him (that story will be it's own post). Basically the middle two chords, E7->Bº, are just diminished passing chord. Although it says E7, I think the function is better described as a Bbº, which would be fingered exactly the same way, anyway. Finally, instead of playing the Db6 at the 4th fret, we play it at the 9th fret to finish the upward movement.

4. In mm.12-13, this is what I call a "walk down." This is done over a distance of a minor 3rd, such as a I->VI7 move (see mm.27-28), or in this case a IV->II7.

5. M.14, another 1st inversion chord, just to break up the static chord. You could walk this chord up, like we did in mm. 9-11, but we'd end up with an Eb7 chord at the 11th fret, which I find a bit too high.

6. Mm.17-23, same moves as last time.

7. MM. 25-26, these are the same chord as the simple version, just shifted up the neck following the "walk up."

8. MM. 27-28, here is the second "walk down", and this time with the roots on the A string.

9. MM. 31-32, this is a simple I-vi-ii-V vamp as a turn around. Notice that the vi7 (Fm7) voicing is the same as the I in 1st inversion (Ab/C). That can be very handy. In fact, even the full chords of a I6 and a vi7 have exactly the same notes (i.e. Ab6=Ab, C, Eb, F - Fm7=F, Ab, C, Eb). You will see some modernized changes where they call for a vi7 chord, where in reality you could just as easily play a I6.\

Gives these moves a run through and see what happens. Your comments are always welcome.

Rhythm Guitar: I Can't Give You Anything But Love

A great tune to start learning both swing rhythm guitar and swing harmony is "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." The tune's chords don't move too fast, and every one of the chordal movements are classic swing moves.

I Can't Give You Anything But Love (PDF)

First, take a look at the chord extensions used for proper swing harmony.

1. Note that the I and IV chords (Ab and Db) are both voiced as 6th chords. This definite of Swing harmony - Bebop harmony would always go with a maj7 instead.

2. Notice that all minor chords are minor 6 chords, unless they are part of a vi7-ii7 move or a ii7-V7 move. Minor7 chords imply a Dorian sound (which is very bebop - think Miles Davis' "So What"), and were only used in during the swing era for backcycling, like in a I6-vi7-ii7-V7 sequence.

Second, let's take the changes transition-by-transition.

1. The first 4 bars is a classic I-biiiº-ii7-V7 sequence. When moving from I to ii7, a diminished passing chord is very common, and you can approach the ii7 from half step in either direction (in Ab, either a Aº or Bº, going to the Bbm7). In this song, the melody happens to fit better over the Bº, so we'll stick with that. (but the melody will be another post).

2. After repeating the first 4 bars, the next eight are a classic I7-IV6-II7-V7 sequence. This sequence is found in all sorts of songs, not the least of which is the bridge to "Honeysuckle Rose." Now, bear with me on the numbers for a second - the I7 (which functions as V chord) goes to the IV6 (which is now the I, at least temporarily) - this basically just V-I move in disguise. The II7-V7 move is just another classic backcycle. Stopping in between at ii7, is just a way to smooth out the movement.

3. After repeating the first 4 bars again, the next sequence is again classic. Again there's a I7-IV6 move, but this time it's followed by a IV6-iv6-I6 sequence. As with the diminished passing chord above, the movement suggested by the IV-iv move, could also go the other direction, and instead be IV-#ivº (which would be Db6-Dº). You can find this move in many turnarounds, and especially in any song based on "Rhythm Change" (i.e. the chords to "I Got Rhythm").

4. Finally, the last move is more classic backcycling. I-VI7-ii7-V7 can be found in countless songs. The I-VI7 move contains one important voice leading movement, which is the root raising a half step (the Ab from the Ab6 chord becomes an A natural in the F7 chord). Once you get to the F7 chord, it's all just backcycling from there.

We'll come back to this tune and work through some more complex rhythm guitar voice leading.