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Low-Rent Jazz For Rockers Pt. 1

Chris Adams (440) · [archive]
Style: Jazz · Level: Intermediate · Tempo: 120
Pages: 1

What key is it? Most of us with any degree of proficiency on rock guitar are used to this being a simple question with a simple answer. We're in A minor? Cool - I'm going to grab that 5th position pentatonic and go to town. We're in G? Great - G, C, D and Em...maybe an occasional Am or Bm - no surprise, right? And modulation usually amounts to "last verse, up a whole step." Sound familiar? I thought so.

A rocker's first encounter with a jazz standard can be a shock - especially if you've been lulled into a false sense of security by modal jazz tunes like "So What". One minute you're a pretty good player, the next you can't hit anything but clams. What happened?

Well, for starters, you've probably lost track of what key you're in. Sure, some standards like "Autumn Leaves" stay more or less in one key but most don't. If you're going to navigate all those changes you really need to know what key you're in and when. We might say "All The Things You Are" is in Ab but there's more to it than that.

So let's check out the beginning of "All The Things You Are" and see what key(s) we're really in:

We start out clearly in Ab for the first 5 bars but then in bar 6 we have a chord that doesn't "belong", D-7. That's a clue that we're shifting to a new key. So in bar 6 we're in C and we II-V up to Cmaj7.

We change key again in bar 9 (Eb) and II-V down to G in bar 14. That's 4 different keys in 16 bars with 20 bars to go before you've finished one chorus. Yow!

So how do you know what key you're in? Look at the dominants. The dominant will (usually) be the V chord of a new key. Right before the dominant there's usually a min7 or variant...that's the II chord. So you'll be in a new key for at least the II-V and probably the II-V-I. For chords that aren't part of a II-V, you'll have to use your judgement (and your ear). Notice that, in a II-V progression, you're in the new key already before you reach the tonic chord. So, on "All the Things...", you could play Ab for 5 bars, C for 3, Eb for 5 bars, G for 3 and sound reasonably ok.

So how do you make this "common scale" approach sound good? Restraint. Resist the urge to rip up and down the scales. That's not what the jazz cats do when it's time to burn. Instead, use the scales for lyrical, singable melodies, hopefully somewhat related to the actual melody of the song.

Now analyze the rest of "All The Things You Are" for yourself. You'll probably find 8 or 9 key changes depending on how you look at bars 30-32. Write the keys down - right on the music. Now try a chorus or two and hear the clams go away. Nice, huh? Now you know what key you're in.

Have fun with this and file it away for when you want to sing. Next time we'll get into some things you can do when it's time to wail.