[Dixielandjazz] More On Guide Tones -

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Wed Jan 19 12:47:58 PST 2005

The beauty of Guide tones (which can also be the root played by the bass
player) is that they allow the others in the band to play tunes they are
unfamiliar with. For example, when we switched to guitar as our chord
instrument, our choice had zero experience playing Dixieland. He picked up
the changes rapidly by ear, but also relied upon our bassist who plays the
root on the downbeat.

Since they had been gigging together for 40 years, the guitarist learned our
book virtually immediately. And whenever any of us gets "lost", we zero our
ears in to the bass line because the chord root is always there as our
safety net. 

Couple of added thoughts about guide tones which an be found on the
internet, or in books about harmonic and melodic theory. For non musicians,
this is the "language" of jazz.

Steve Barbone

Start #1---------about melodic (linear) improvisation & guide tones.

When we talk about chord changes what do we mean? What actually changes?
There are notes that change from one chord to the next: one creates tension
that resolves to the next chord. It corresponds to the fact that, 3rds
resolve to 7ths, 9ths to 5ths, 5ths to 9ths. Some people call these guide
tones, others call them target notes or goal notes, others call them pretty
notes or the right notes. Its all the same. When we think of voicings, like
on guitar, think of it as five independent voices moving in a linear way,
not some vertical aggregation of tones. One can then use any of the linear
implications to help create motion in my improvised or composed melodies.
One can also choose to play against them for effect.

Is melodic theory any different than harmonic theory? Not really. Chord
tones are still chord tones, a third is a third, the seventh creates motion
which is usually resolved to the next chord. By knowing and hearing these
elements one can use them to create melodies. How? Create stability by
aiming for 3rds, create instability by aiming for the 7ths. This is apparent
in many solos by jazz greats (Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins,
Bill Evans, etc.).

So, learn tunes. Write melodies. Transcribe melodies. Try and play melodies.
But recognize that many melodies can be analyzed. There are aspects of
melodies that can be learned in order to add something to one's
improvisational bag of tricks. One of those aspects is the use of chord
tones which can be used to connect chords in a linear way.

The use and understanding of guide tones are an important part of learning
to improvise clearly on the kind of harmonic framework used by jazz
musicians. There are several books on "Connecting Chords With Linear
Harmony" dealing in depth with this subject in depth, and they contain
hundreds of musical examples from great jazz artists.

End #1 & Start #2. --Playing a melodic solo over the bass line-------

The concept of guide tones should be nothing new to a bass player. We
expect the bass player to follow the roots of the harmonic progression. He
connects an invented line but has specific pitches that are expected at
specific times. 

One aspect of creating interesting improvised melodies over the bass line
is to try and arrive at different pitches at those junctures with the bass
line. In other words, if the chords are Dm7 - G7 - C, we might not want to
over emphasize the roots of the chords by playing them on the down beats
with the bass. This is just a doubling of the bass line in a different

Finding other notes to aim for in the same way the bass player aims
for the roots makes for more interesting counterpoint. If a horn plays an F
(the 3rd of Dm) while the bass plays a D, the listener hears a Dm chord
(whether the piano player is playing a chord or not). The B (the 3rd of G)
over the G chord and the E (the 3rd of C) over the C chord have the same
harmonic clarity. A C (7th of Dm7) over the Dm7 chord leads to the G7; the
F (7th of G7) leads to the C chord.

These are basic guide tones. They can be helpful in constructing melody
lines. They are not melody lines by themselves any more than the roots of a
progression are a good bass line. They are good reference points for
harmonic clarity.

The important rule is that the "guide" melody improvisation would have to
sound like music. This is where individuality and creativity comes in.

End #2---------(By Bert Ligon, Author & Professor of Jazz Studies.)

More information about the Dixielandjazz mailing list