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How to improvise over one (repeating) chord

When the chords of a tune are moving quickly, it’s easy to keep interest through your solo, since you have the harmony helping you out. But when the tune or the band stays on a chord for a while, you have to rethink your playing a bit to keep things interesting.

Frequently in our videos on soloing, we talk about using arpeggios creatively, which works well with a steady harmonic rhythm. But if you just sit playing arpeggios over one chord, it may start to sound like you’re playing over an exercise.

So today we’re going to check out a linear exercise, where we’ll look at doubled notes and chord tones on strong beats to create interest and generate forward motion. We’ll also take a look at intervallic ideas over static chords, using fourths and fifths. Finally, we’re going to look at some chromatic ideas over static chords to help you snake your way through the harmony.

Exercises for static harmony in jazz
Exercises for static harmony

Cecil does a great job of breaking down some of these concepts in our accompanying YouTube video “How to improvise over one (repeating) chord”—so make sure to check that out. If you want to go even deeper on these exercises—which will be super valuable for you as an improviser—make sure to check out Cecil’s resource with JLV titled ”30 Exercises on Static Harmony.”


Linear dorian exercise

Intervallic exercise over aeolian

Chromatic exercise over altered

Linear dorian exercise

Let’s dive right into our first exercise. This is going to be played in a linear fashion over a Dm7 chord, using the D dorian scale/mode.

For this exercise, we’re going to take a look at the use of doubled notes to create interest and forward motion in your lines, motivic development, chord tones on strong beats, as well as some arpeggios, triads, and the use of some melodic cells.

Jazz static harmony exercise linear dorian mode

Starting off in our first measure, we have our b7 of our Dm7, and we’ll kind of hover around our root. We’re going to hang on the ninth degree. Using tensions and hanging on to tensions on static chords is a great way to create interest.

So from that ninth, we’ll finally resolve to our root D. Leading into the third measure, we’re going to hang on another tension note, which is our 13—a note that’s key to our dorian sound.

In the next measure, we have an Am triad, A, C, and E, which is kind of an approach again into our root.

You can see how it feels like it reached a settled or resolved point in the phrase. Then we just journey of our scale from the root up to the fourth.

Jazz musician linear dorian mode exercise static harmony

Once we get to the fourth, we have a double note, that G is doubled, going into the fifth measure. This is a trick you’ll hear a lot of trumpet players and saxophonists use, just to create a little more interest in their lines.

So we’re hitting that fourth twice, then we have another diatonic approach to our b3 this time. Looking ahead a bit in our third line, we have a diatonic approach into the b3 of our Dm7, and then we go up a F major 1, 2, 3, 5 cell (F, G, A, C). That’s going to give us the b3, 4, 5, and b7 of Dm7, which is a great way to outline the chord tones. If you stack that melodic cell on other degrees of the scale, you can get some great tensions as well.

After that, we journey up to our ninth degree—we have this little motif with these descending seconds, just between E and D.

Looking at our next phrase, we go down the scale from the fifth, and we have that same idea down an octave, and then another double note on C, followed by a resolution into the root.

Static harmony jazz exercise limited range

It’s important to note that in our exercise, we have no interval that’s greater than a major third. So this is a really great exercise for exploring the characteristics of each of these modes.

Now if you want to see how it sounds up to speed, be sure to check out Cecil in our accompanying YouTube video “How to improvise over one (repeating chord).”

Intervallic exercise over aeolian

For our next example, we’re going to take a look at an exercise from the A aeolian mode, and we’ll use some different intervallic shape. This exercise is good for checking out how to use fourths and fifths, as well as the idea of modal sequencing, which is where we take a specific shape through the scale stepwise.

Intervallic ideas can be a great way to get a contemporary sound in your improv, and can act like a good contrast to a more linear solo like what we did before.

Jazz harmony exercise over one chord intervallic aeolian mode

Starting this exercise off, we have an approach diatonically to our fifth, F to E. And then we have a leap up the fifth, up a fourth, and up another fourth.

These kinds of intervallic jumps are strong and cover a ton of range quickly. And we have pretty much the same shape kind of planed up (sequenced up) the scale.

Starting from the root, b7, leap up the fifth, up the fourth, and up another fourth, then we can decorate that b3 a bit, approaching it from a half step below and back into that target. Then we move the same shape up another step within the scale.

So B to A, leap up a fifth, up a fourth, then up another fourth, and again we just decorate that D from above, followed by a descent through the scale. That’s D, C, B, and then a leap up a fourth, and then back down to our B.

Jazz aeolian mode exercise for intervallic jumps

If we scan ahead in this exercise, we have the same shape moving through the scale, starting on the b3, as an approach to the 2, then leap up a fifth, up a fourth, and then up another fourth to E, then down to D. So that shape is going to sound really crunch against that Am7, because you’re highlighting that b6 on a strong beat, which is really going to highlight the aeolian sound.

So D to C, up a fifth, up a fourth, up another fourth. And again, F is going to really highlight the aeolian sound down to the fifth, E natural. Then we have a kind of descending shape to create a call and response between phrases here. We approach E natural down to D and then down to our root A, down a fourth to E, down a second to D, down another fourth to A. Then down a step within the scale to G, then up a fourth to C, then we’ll finally land on B, which is going to be our target.

And similar to our first exercise hanging on those tensions, it’s really going to help highlight the modal characteristics of the scale.

Note that most of the intervals in this exercise are greater than a third. Sometimes we have seconds to break things up a bit and make them easier to play. But for the most part, we are exposing the wider intervallic sound with the use of fourths and fifths.

Chromatic exercise over altered

For our last exercise, we’re going to check out a B altered scale. We’ll be playing through the scale using some chromatic approaches, introducing some non-diatonic notes, but still retaining the modal character of B altered.

Chromatic altered exercise on static harmony for jazz musicians

Jumping into our first measure, we start on A#, which is going to be the 7 in relation to B, but it’s part of a longer enclosure. So we have A#, B, D, Db, C, which is going to be our target, the b9. And again, that’s going to highlight the altered sound—it’s one of the many altered dominant tensions that you can get from the scale.

Then we take a shorter approach, C into B, then another approach into A, which is going to be our b7. Another approach into G, then we go down a B+ triad. That’s G, Eb (or D#), then B.

Moving on, the pickup into our third measure we have a C# falling on a strong beat. Again this is going to be outside of the scale, but placing these chromatic approach tones and enclosing your notes on strong beats, it’s going to allow you to snake your way through the modal harmony.

So we have C# to D, up to F, then down chromatically to Eb, which is again going to be our 3—kind of a similar approach to the one we had in the first measure.

Then we have a series of enclosures—the first one is going to be putting some other non-diatonic notes on strong beats. We jump up to A, our b7, down to Ab, then finally G and even though that’s falling on a strong beat, that still wants to be the final note of our enclosure or target. So that’s the b13 with a #5, and we have C on a strong beat, followed by A# into B, which is our root. Then we’ll again go down a B+ triad (or Eb+, depending on how you want to look at it). So that’s going to be our root, #5, b13, to our 3.

If we look ahead we have a lot of interesting approaches happening in our last four measures.

Jazz harmony over one chord chromatic altered exercise

We start on D, which is our #9, and we have this idiomatic piece of vocabulary that you’ll see a lot of in bebop solos. But it’s taking us from the #9 to the root.

Note that we’re putting the Db (the natural 9) against B on a strong beat. But again, it’s just part of the approach, so all you really hear is D to B and then we move that up a minor third.

We start on F approaching D, then down a step. So we’re approaching C natural, starting on Eb (or D#). Then we kind of extend that idea, rather than just letting that target hang by itself.

We’ll approach the root from below, go down from the 7 to our #5, then down to our #11 and finally landing on the 3.

So that’s a lot of chromaticism, but again, it all makes sense within the context of the B altered scale.

For this one, you’ll definitely want to hear how Cecil plays it in our accompanying YouTube video “How to improvise over one (repeating) chord.” And if you liked this exercise and want to dive deeper and build your chops even more, make sure to check out Cecil’s resource with JLV—”30 Exercises on Static Harmony.”

We’ll see you next time!

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