Improv Column: Wayne McConnell – The Blues

The Blues 


In my last column, I looked at rhythm changes and this week I’d like to look at the blues, possibly the most important element of jazz music. Jazz music is made up of many types of music fused together in the United States of America.  Jazz is American music.  This is not to say you have to be American to play it authentically but you have to understand what the components of the music are.  Jazz music comes from the following types of music: 


  • The blues and gospel (church music) 
  • African music (from the slaves)
  • European classical music (from the creoles)
  • American mountain music  
  • Latin-American music
  • World music


Jazz uses many of the forms and ‘rules’ of blues music as the basis of how we improvise in jazz.  



Basic Blues 

In its basic form, the blues consists of 3 dominant 7th chords over a 12 bar sequence: 



(chord I) 





(chord IV) 



(Chord I) 



(Chord V)


(Chord IV)


(Chord I) 

F7                     (C7)


Jazz Blues

During the late 30s and into the Bebop era, jazz musicians started to play more complex versions of the blues.  They added chords to enhance the cadences to the important chords and thus creating more scope for improvisation.  Mostly this meant adding II-V-I progressions. 





Cm7        F7




Am7        D7



F7           D7

G7           C7


This type of blues is very common in jazz. When somebody calls a blues tune like Straight, No Chaser or Tenor Madness, it usually means this more complex version.  

As you can see, it differs somewhat from the basic 12-bar blues.  With this version, a series of II-V-Is have been added to give it more harmonic colour.  Harmonically its very logical, the changes to the chords in bar 4 are basically a II-V-I in Bb.  It is common for the I chord in II-V-Is to be dominant or minor as well as major.  Don’t let that distract you – it is still a II-V-I progression. In bar 6 the Bo stands for diminished – in this case it is fully diminished (B D F Ab) it gives a nice chromatic sounding change from the Bb. In bars 8 and 9 we have another II-V-I this time in the key of G.  This is interesting because the Gm7 is itself part of a II-V-I in F – so it’s a II-V-I in a II-V-I. This is common and may take some time to get your head around but always try to look at the bigger picture.  Look ahead and find out where the harmony is going – remember it is all very mathematical and logical, playing jazz is not random or done by chance.  


What scales do I use to improvise over a jazz blues?

Let’s analyse the chords and their corresponding scales.  For now we will apply the major scale modes for improvising over the chords.


With all the dominant chords, use their corresponding Mixolydian modes.  For example, on:


F7 – use F Mixolydian (which is the 5th mode of Bb)

Bb7 – use Bb Mixolydian (which is the 5th mode of Eb)

C7 – Use C Mixolydian (which is the 5th mode of F)

D7 – Use D Mixolydian (which is the 5th mode of G)


For minor chords use their corresponding Dorian Modes. For example on:


C-7 – use C Dorian (which is the 2nd mode of Bb)

A-7 use A Dorian (which is the 2nd mode of G)

G-7 use G Dorian (which is the 2nd mode of F)


Of course, as well as playing these modes use the F Blues scale also. Try not to overplay the blues scale though, try to play through the chord changes using the modes. The result will be a more melodic sounding line/improvisation.


There are many tunes or heads that have been written over this type of blues.  So, you need to be familiar with this in many keys (maybe even all 12).  Some of the most popular keys for playing the blues in are: C, F, Bb, Eb, G and Ab – you never know when someone will call a blues in F-sharp – it does happen and you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you can’t play it.  Start with the more popular keys and then try to work it out in more obscure keys.  If you play with a guitarist then check out the blues in the sharp keys: D, G, A, E etc…


Its not just scales! 

As well as improvising using the chord/scale relationships we can also improvise using notes from the chords.  This is sometimes called ‘vertical improvisation’. The most important notes in a seventh chord are the 3rd and 7th so when you play over chord changes try to land on one of those note choices.  Experiment with landing on just the thirds of the new chord, then just the sevenths. Eventually you should aim to link up chords by landing on various chord tones at the right time.  There are no rules for this but try to play what you hear.  It is useful to try and construct or pre-compose a line on paper. That way you can analyse what’s going on. Furthermore, I highly recommend you transcribe some of your favourite players and analyse their line. For example here is a line I’ve written out:



Note for note here is how you analyse the line:


Bar 1: 5, 4, 3, 5, 9, R, 5, Maj 7 (remember to relate everything to the chord it is under)

Bar 2: 3, 4, 5, 13, Min 7, 5, 4, 3

Bar 3: 9


Remember that on dominant chords it is better to describe the upper structures of the chords – for example if you see a G on an F7 chord describe it as the 9th rather than the 2nd.  


Try writing out some Charlie Parker lines (or check out the Charlie Parker Omni-Book – it should be on every musician’s shelf!). Analyse the lines in this way and you’ll begin to understand how bebop lines are constructed. There are whole theories devoted to bebop and how to play it – but just check the recordings out, all the answers are in there.


Listening is better than theory

You cannot successfully learn how to improvise from theory. The best way is to be able to listen and then work out the concept yourself. Being able to swing is one of the most important factors in this music.  It cannot be taught, you have to absorb this from listening to your favourite players.  Charlie Parker is responsible for re-developing the language of the music, as were Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.  In order to really get the flow and conversational feeling of jazz improvisation, you have to study how to play lines through chord changes.  Charlie Parker was a master of this.  Lets listen and then look at his solo on Au Privave. I am challenging you to learn to sing his solo on this tune.


In order to improvise on this effectively, you must know your guide tones (i.e. 3rds and 7ths) over the sequence. 



Before you go any further, learn to sing Charlie Parker’s solo.  We are going to take a look at his solo and figure out what he is doing line by line.  pastedGraphic_1.png

The first thing we should notice is that Bird is not playing the exact chords as in the guide tone chart above.  The changes are just a guide and may be left out or substituted at any time.  So instead of going to Bb7 in bar 2, he stays on F7. Why?  Because he fancied doing that at the time and it sounds good.  A lot of what he is doing here is actually very simple.  Rather than looking at trying to work out the scales he uses, lets just look at the logic of the melody.  We know the important notes are chord tones so put a ring around all of the chord tones in the first line.  You should have rings around (F, C, F A C A Bb, C Bb, G and Eb.  That takes us up to just before the B7 chord.   The notes you have circled are the ‘target notes’.  These are the notes that outline the harmonic form of the piece.  All of the other notes are approach notes.  A good line has a good choice of target notes and approach notes. In the runup to the next line, Bird uses tritone substitution to take him to the Bb7.  The B7 replaces F7.  Lets look at line 2.


Bird’s phrase over the two bars of Bb7 are playful and clever.  The phrase actually starts in bar 4 of the previous line. The second part of the phrase is identical except for one small difference; he uses the #9 (Db) on the way down.  Using a simple idea and then changing one note can create a sense of structure and development.  The next phrase starting on the E natural is an approach tone to the root (F) which starts a simple arpeggio of the major 7th chord. Lets stop on the major seventh (E) now and look at the next important note : C in the next bar.  Bird knows he wants to go to C (he is hearing that note in his head) and he’s getting there by a series of chromatic notes (all approach tones) then landing on the C he’s heading towards Gm7 (in the next line) but getting there via a D7.  He sets up the D7 using a triplet figure and landing on the 3rd of D7 (notated as Gb), descending to the b9 (Eb) and then he’s thinking ‘I have to get to Gm7’ so he plays C, C# then landing on F (the 7th of Gm7). pastedGraphic_3.png Then A, the 9th, acts as an approach tone to the 3rd of Gm7 (Bb).  Then a simple arpeggio Bb D F (3, 5 7) then a descending arpeggio down from the 9th (A, F D Bb) landing on the 5th of C7 (G), up to the root, down to the b13 (Ab) then up to the root then preempting the chord change to F7 by playing the A natural which is of course the 3rd of F7.  Then he takes a breather…leaves some space (remember you don’t have to always nail the changes).  This is, after all, the end of his first chorus.  He sets up the beginning of the next chorus using the pickup notes in the last bar of the above line. 

Assuming you have learnt this, it should be quite easy to analyse this.  Stay with this one solo until you have completely understood every single note.  This is after you have learnt to play it with as much accuracy as possible.  


Its not really about stealing licks from this but more as a tool for understanding how Charlie Parker approached things.  You then emulate that approach as best you can, adding the magic of your own creativity. Aim to internalise all of the phrasing and articulation – it is the small details that will make you sound more authentic.  I want you to do this with whichever musician you love, it doesn’t have to be Charlie Parker but it must be someone you really love and respect as a player.  This process is time consuming so you have to love the process.  


Wayne McConnell