Improvising on a dominant seventh chord : improvisation options, from In to Out.
Dominant chords are labelled X7 (X being the tonality), also named “seventh chord”. For the sake of this article, I chose to play on a D7 chord with a C harmonica.(tablature for lydian tuned harp).
The true revolution of the Blues is that it brought two theoretically dissonant notes to this kind of chord (dominant chords are very usual in the Blues) : a minor third (although the chord is a major one) and a flat fifth (although the chord includes a perfect fifth), the well-known “blue notes”.
Let’s have a look at D7 chord, to make it more concrete.
D7 chord is made of the following notes : D F# A C. F# is the major third (it is 2 tones from the root D). A is the perfect fifth of the chord (3,5 tones from the root).
The Blues teaches us that the soloist, on this chord, can play a F instead of a F#, and a Ab instead of an A. These two notes are one half tone below the third and the fifth of the chord, then creating the typical tensions of this kind of music.
Thus, it is possible to play the minor blues scale on this chord, although it is a major one.
The D blues scale : D F G Ab A C D (1)
Of course, you can also improvise by using a D major mode, mixolydian for instance, very usual on this kind of chord (D E F# G A B C D).
But let me give you a little trick to make it simpler, by using a variation of the pentatonic major scale (D E F# A B). By replacing the B (which is not in the D7 chord) by a C (which is in the D7 chord), we get a 5 tones scale (a pentatonic one) more harmonious and probably simpler to play than the usual major pentatonic scale, on this kind of chord.
By the way, “simpler” here doesn’t refer to any technical aspect but to how simply sounds will be assimilated by the ear and naturally played by the musician. In other words, it seems to me this option is simpler to be played because it is more consonant.
It is interesting to talk about this now, because we are just going to work on the differences between what is consonant and what is dissonant.
Alternate pentatonic scale in D major (2)
We know that tension has been being a key principle of music since the beginning of the 20th century. It starts with something quiet, then a tension occurs and then it comes back to something quiet again. If this tension is harmonic (we can create other kinds of tensions, rythmic for example), we call this very last phase “tension-resolution”, very usual words when it comes to improvisation.
The improviser must use these tensions – resolutions to make his or her playing ear-catching and powerful. If music is only a long quiet journey, everybody gets asleep. On the other hand, if music is only permanent tension, we may lose the nice harmony of sounds, which is obviously key to any kind of music.
Let’s go improvising !
Moving back to this D7 chord, let’s see which options can be used to create these tensions – resolutions. We can play major third and minor third alternately. There is already a lot to be played with 3 notes, if you have rythmics ideas.
We can also use our scale (2) and play it with the blues scale, alternately, paying attention to emphasize tensions that F and Ab create when playing the blues scales, and resolutions delivered by F# and A as we go back to the major scale.
If the blue notes seemed unbearable to some ears of the early 20th century, too accustomed to very consonant music (which paryly explains the “devil’s music” qualification), the vast majority of us will absolutely not be shocked to listen to them.
Blues scale tension has been a part of our basic musical vocabulary for a while, and it is not as effective in delivering harmonic tension as it used to be. So, what could we do to stress some harmonic tension when improvising ? A very effective method consists in “playing out of” the harmony of the piece. In other words, very surprisingly, we are not going to play in D on our D7 chord ! Neither in D major, nor in D minor. We will choose one or several other keys, out of the harmony. This is what we call “playing out”.
As we mentioned earlier, tension needs to be resolved. Actually, we are going to play “In Out”, to quote sax player Joe Henderson’s famous record, meaning we will alternate phrases in D with something else, and then move back to D.
Now I can hear you asking me : ok, but how can we do ? There are so many possibilities that the musician’s experience, imagination, technical skills and creative capabilities is the only limit.
You will find below three examples to help you moving in this direction.
Given that a semitone tension is the worst, we are going to dive into it, dealing with half step variations.
Let’s take two notes in D minor , then rise by one half tone, and then again, and again and again until we decide to resolve by moving back to D minor .
For example : I start by stressing on G and F. I use exactly the same rythmic pattern one half step above : G# F#, again one half step above : A G. At this point, I’m back on D minor notes. I can stop there and point the D minor by using then a F and a D. But I could also choose to stress the tension and keep on rising by one half step: Bb Ab, B A, C Bb, etc.
As soon as I resolve the tension, I can go ahead with a D minor pentatonic which leads to something quieter so that the audience and I can rest a bit, before starting a new phrase, another tension, then another resolution and so on and so forth.
You will find some examples in the video. We start with G F / G# F# then back to G F and down on D blues. Then, same again, up to A : G F / G# F# / A G / G# F# / G F.
Finally, we go up to C : G F / G# F# / A G / Bb Ab / B A / C Bb, then down on a way or another using the Dm pentatonic or the D Blues scale or any other option in D.
Another option, close to the first one but a bit more demanding, consists in alternating scales that are close to each other by a half step. For example, we can alternate D minor pentatonic and Eb minor pentatonic.
D minor pentatonic (3)
Eb minor pentatonic (4)
A very effective way is to play a phrase in a given key, then exactly the same phrase one half step above.
For example :
The four D minor notes of the first bar shift by one half step: Eb on the second one, before moving back to D minor.
Finally, we close by going down the D Blues scale on the last bar.
Please have a look to the video to see how to use this one half step shift.
Again, alternate D minor pentatonic and Eb minor pentatonic. Now we choose three notes from the Dm pentatonic scale, we go these notes down, then we go down from 3 Ebm pentatonic notes, then Dm pentatonic, then Ebm pentatonic again and we close on Dm pentatonic.
You can choose the combination you like the most !
In the video, I play the following phrase :
Let’s focus on the first measure. It starts by 3 notes from the Dm pentatonic : A G F then 3 notes from Eb minor pentatonic : Ab Gb Eb, then Dm again : F D C, Eb minor : Eb Db Bb then we go down the Dm pentatonic scale.
We have just gone through different improvisation options on a dominant chord, using quite a basic material (pentatonic scales), from the most consonant to the most dissonant one. By the way, these options would also work very well on a Dm7 chord. Therefore you can use it either when playing a Blues in D major or on a D minor one!
Now you have to practice, practice and practice again, reuse some phrases, invent yours and practice again until it feels obvious and simple.
You can also try to do the same with any dominant chord, by transposing the scales above in the right key.
Making tensions sounding good is not easy, and there is a thin line between tension and chaos. So you can save a lot of time reusing ideas of other musicians and then, step by step, no doubt you will develop your own style.
Have fun !
Video explanation : after an intro with some In/Out phrases, the video shows examples 1, 2 and 3. When playing “out”, always bare in mind where stands the root, and go back to it on a regular basis. As mentioned above, you can also use major and minor thirds and the pentatonic scales (major and minor) as shown in the article. These pieces of information will help you to set your playing In.
Finally, for the sake of this video, I tried to alternate one bar In, one bar Out all along the way or so. A soloing musician wouldn’t do this but this is an excellent exercise to learn how to move Out and go back In.
You will find a backing track at the end of the video and below.
Now it’s up to you !