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This Technique Will Make You Better at EVERYTHING!

There are a lot of techniques that people claim will change your playing. Some can be complicated, and some can end up being very repetitive.

There are no shortcuts in getting better, you do have to put the practice in. But today we’re going to talk about a really important technique—one that is the most important thing you should start practicing (or improve on how you’re practicing).

This technique is one that you’ll see in transcriptions of all the jazz legends, like Hank Mobley, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins … the list could keep going. Still, it’s a very neglected technique, in part because it may seem a bit too obvious.

What we’re talking about is a vehicle for the development of your melodic and harmonic playing—and that’s practicing chord tones and using them in your solos.

Surprised? You might have been expecting something a bit more out there … but this practice routine is something that most players do not focus on or do not focus on in the right way.

And like we mentioned, if you look at the greats, you see that they’re always playing chord tones or anticipating or suspending a chord tone. This is the foundation for melodic soloing, and it will help you stop getting lost in song forms, help you memorize chord changes, and make your playing sound much more intentional. People have a tendency to learn scales and then just go up and down the scale aimlessly, rather than sticking to what anchors you in the tonality, which is the chord tones.

We’re going to dig into some etudes that Chad LB has written over the chord progression for the tune “Donna Lee.”

Chord tone jazz solo on standard Donna Lee

Both of these etudes are from the PDF package 30 Chord Tone Solo Etudes, which you can download at if you want to take your practicing even further. This package is focused on giving you a bunch of language that’s valuable to practice and play through to incorporate this technique.


Chord tone workout

Chromatic and diatonic connections

Chord tone workout

So our first etude we’re going to tackle is the chord tone workout. And what we mean by chord tone workout is that this etude will only use chord tones the whole way through. This is an important way to practice the chord tones, because it doesn’t just wind through the scale, it’s very focused on the chord tones only.

It’s likely that you can already identify chord tones—like if we asked you to identify the chord tones of Fmaj7, Fm7, and F7, there’s a good chance many of you could do that. But just because you know them in theory doesn’t mean you’re able to move fluently through them in practice.

So there are four elements you want to focus on in order to get really fluid with chord tones:

Step one is going to be playing unique shapes. This means changing the order of the notes in the arpeggio or the order of the tones in the chord.

Jazz chord tone shape from root

Instead of 1, 3, 5, 7, we can do something like 1, 5, 3, 7.

Jazz chord tone shape with variation

Or how about 7, 3, 5, 1? Being able to do these unique shapes is key.

Jazz chord tone variation from the seventh

Step two is that 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. It’s one thing to do it in one octave, but you need to be able to do it in at least a couple octaves over the range of your instrument.

Both of these elements are highlighted in the first etude. The second etude is going to cover steps 3 and 4.

Step three is that you need to be thinking about connecting chord tones with each other using diatonic and chromatic connections.

Finally, step four, you want to be able to have rhythmic variation in your use of chord tones. That means not just using straight eighth notes, but also triplets. Triplets are the most underutilized rhythm for developing improvisers, in part because they can feel the least intuitive. If you start to get the hang of triplets, especially with chord tones, it’s going to take your playing to a whole new level.

Now let’s check out the chord tone workout on “Donna Lee.” If you want the full analysis of the etude, be sure to check out our YouTube video here!

Chord tone workout on Donna Lee jazz standard for jazz solo practice

Right off the top, we see a unique shape, with the seventh below the root on the Abmaj7. From there, we go into the root and skip up to the fifth, stepping down to the third, then fifth, the seventh, and then the third on top. So already we’ve got the same chord tones in different octaves—then you’ll see a close connection from the last note of measure one. That C down into the A natural, which is the first note of the second measure. All it means to have a close connection is just that we have tight voice leading from measure to measure when the chords change.

You’ll also see that getting from the end of measure two into measure three, where we have those diatonic steps back down into the third of the Bb7.

In this etude, Chad really tried to point out just how melodic the third is. And if you look at each measure all the way until measure nine, you’ll see we’re using the third on the first beat of every measure when the chord changes, and we’ll have a lot of variation in the shapes that we use. In measure three, we have a lot of upward motion, where in measure five, we have a lot of descending motion. Then of course we have a lot of descending arpeggios that use both ascending and descending motion within them. And if you look at measure eight, you’ll see we have a lot of variation in the shape.

So this etude was just chord tones all the way through, 1, 3, 5, and 7, and then an occasional ninth as well. Chad walks through the full etude in our YouTube video, so be sure to check that out!