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Diatonic Etudes: How To Improvise On Jazz Standards

Today we're going to talk about one of the most important techniques, practicing chord tones through diatonic exercises and using them in your solos. Mastering the use of chord tones will help make your solos more melodic and deepen the harmonic development of your playing. Let's dive into these diatonic exercises!

When you look at the transcriptions of jazz legends like Hank Mobley, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and many more, you can see how important chord tones are by the way they used them. Everything they play is either a chord tone, anticipating a chord tone, or suspending a chord tone.

Having a firm understanding of chord tones will help you be able to remember song forms, be able to memorize chord changes, and be able to melodically outline harmony through chord progressions. Let's get into it!

To get into this technique, let's check out two etudes over the chord progressions of the jazz standard Donna Lee. Both of these etudes are from a PDF package called 30 Chord Tones Solo Etudes. DOWNLOAD RESOURCE>>>

There are two types of etudes for every song form in this ebook. The first type is going to be a valuable approach which we've entitled: Chord Tone Workout. The Chord Tone Workouts solely use the chord tones of each chord all the way through the standard song form. Once we can accomplish that, we can then focus on playing the chord tones fluidly, and applying them melodically.

There are four elements to focus on in order to fluidly solo with chord tones. One is going to be playing unique shapes. This means changing the order of the notes in the arpeggio (the notes of the chord played in succession.) For example, instead of playing 1357, you want to be able to play 1, 5, 3, 7, or start on the 7th below the root, go up to the 3rd, up to the fifth, and, down to the root. There are 24 combinations of shapes in total.

When you're playing from chord to chord, you also want to be able to play chord tones throughout the full range of your instrument. Both of these elements, the unique shapes and the full range of the instrument, are highlighted in the first type of etude in this book: Chord Tone Workouts.

The second type of etude gets deep into connecting one chord tone to another with diatonic connections or chromatic connections. It also covers rhythmic variation in your use of chord tones such as triplets.

Let’s take a closer look at these tools on the first type of etude, the Chord Tone Workout Etude on Donna Lee!



Off the top, we see a unique shape: we start on the seventh below the root on the AbMaj7 chord. From there, we go to the root, skip up to the fifth, step down to the third, and then we play the fifth, the seventh, and the third on top. Already, we've got the same chord tones in different octaves.

There is also a close connection from the last note of measure one, that C concert down into the A natural, which indicates tight voice leading when the chords change.