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In our zeal to understand exactly how the masters of improvisation work their way through all sorts of chord changes, we sometimes overlook the most obvious.

There are so many "jazz" things to learn: modes, chord scales, note groupings, pentatonics, guide tones, upper structures, approach tones, patterns, licks, bop scales, intervals, poly-tonality, reharmonizations, etc.

As a teacher of other guitarists, I am exposed to even more exotic methods and theories: shapes, stretches, 3-notes-per-string, all on one string, all down strokes, alternating strokes, even the cursed tablature.

I see many students who collect theories like trading cards. "I know that. Give us something new". However, sometimes these theories sound like patterns or scales or theories. Is there any way to teach melody?

What I am proposing is yet another of these theories; a simple idea that happens to be very difficult to execute. In short; motives.

In regard to this brief piece, a motive is merely a harmonic consideration. We will disregard sound, time, rhythm, feel and stylistic parameters and deal merely with putting the right notes on the right chords. Of course, without these other factors (groove?) even if you play all the right notes your solo can be less than satisfying.

So, lets start out with a few simple ideas to get you started. Maybe some of you are familiar with the song "All the Things You Are". If you look more closely at the melody you will notice that the main part of the melody emphasizes the third of the chord on some active harmonic movement. Pretty easy, right?

Just play the major or minor third, depending on the chord quality. It can be easy, but add a brisk tempo or another note to the motive and things get much more difficult.

Also, guitarists have their own esoteric problems with fingering that I will tackle by just ignoring the fingering issue completely. I think each guitarist has to hear (or"see" if you must) the notes as they relate to the chord over which they are to be played.

The goal is to practice slowly and listen intently to the sound of each motive. Gradually, (hopefully), the student will be able to just grab any desired note without too much thought.

How can you practice this? Take the song "Autumn Leaves" and use a simple motive; 3, 9, root. You can simplify if you wish. Play only the 3rd. Or only the 9th. The idea is merely to put the note or tones that you select on each chord as it plays. (Note; It is important to record or sequence the changes or bass line so you can hear what the notes sound like over the chords.)

This approach is perhaps similar to the "guide tone" method in which the student tries to play only the 3rd and 7th of each chord or tries to approach these notes with some be-boppery.

It's also similar to Jerry Bergonzi's "tetrachord" approach found in his book: "Melodic Structures" (Advanced Music: A good book for every student who wants to learn to play over changes).

Sometimes liberties can be taken with the notes. Over m7b5 chords sometimes a natural 9 will sound good. Or over certain dominant chords a b9 or a #9. Your ear should be the final judge.

Ideally, the student should listen to the players like Jim Hall, Mick Goodrick, Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, etc. and try to hear examples of their motivic playing and how they used these motives in their solos.

After you have experimented with "Autumn Leaves" try taking "All the Things You Are" and play a different note for the melody note, like the 5th or the 9th. Next, let's take a pretty clear example of motivic playing from the John Coltrane recording "Like Sonny" ("Coltrane Jazz" Atlantic 1354-2).

The first chorus of "Like Sonny" is a great example of motivic development. Coltrane starts the solo with the 4th, then the 9th of D minor, then similarly in F minor, the Ab minor. In bars 9-16 he centers on the 9th and 7th of each chord, then in bars 17-19 around the 5th and root of each chord.

Coltrane takes some relatively simple motives and creates a memorable solo by using them with, among other things, a powerful sense of tension and release, a beautiful fat sound, great time and swing feel and importantly, space.

In the following example are motives that you could try using on songs like: "Blue Bossa", "Autumn Leaves", and just about any jazz standard.

Of course your goal should be to create your own motives spontaneously while improvising, but try these to get started. I have used only 9th's, 5th's, 7th's, and 3rds but any note of the scale could be used.

Remember that the notes in your motive should be altered to fit the tensions in the chord and always practice with a tape or sequence of the bass line or chords as well.

While we have barely scratched the surface of motivic playing I hope this gives you a few ideas. Some other things to consider: some players use reharmonizations or substitutions in their improvising. Try motives over the reharms. Also, consider the rhythmic aspects of motives and how this can be used along with harmonic considerations.

1998 by Open Position / Volume 11, No.2. Used by permission with special thanks to Charlie Chapman, Associate Professor of Guitar, Berklee College of Music

About the Author
Bruce has featured on recordings alongside Jack DeJohnette, Peter Erskine, Dave Holland and many others. He has toured Europe, South America, Australia, Japan and the United States and is a faculty member of Berklee School of Music where he provides classes in improvisation, jazz harmony, ensembles (John Coltrane/Joe Henderson ensemble) and private guitar lessons. Bruce is also adjunct professor of music at New York University. Check out Bruce's website.

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