Today's jazz vibes player enjoys many roles. He can perform with a rhythm section as a horn player does, stating the melody and improvising single note lines using just two mallets. Or he can perform solo, using four mallets to play the melody, chords, and rhythmic accompaniment. He can also function equally as well in a small group as other chording instruments such as piano and guitar, providing accompaniment with four mallets for horn players and singers.
I play in all three of the above situations regularly and have found that, especially in the latter two, a strong knowledge of chords, including how to play them on the vibes and what parts of chords are important for any given situation, is the key to playing well.
Before I show you how I learned to play chords- and how I teach my students- I want to stress that it takes considerable time and practice. If you work step by step, however, getting each step firmly in your mind and under you hands before going on to the next, you will succeed. Don't be discouraged if it takes several months before you feel comfortable with each step. And remember always to avoid the temptation to jump ahead.
For each step #1-10, you'll need a set of flash cards. You can make these on plain 3 x 5 index cards. Your cards should be complete for each step with every chord or chord voicing written in every key. One side of the card should have the chord spelled out and the reverse should show only the name of the chord. (C maj.) Practice with both sides of the cards seeing how quickly you can move to and strike the correct chord. Using a metronome, allow two beats for turning to a new flash card and two beats for playing the chord. Flash cards will become especially useful in the later steps.
The pattern given here for practicing each step are only suggestions. Don't hesitate to have fun making up your own patterns and do write them down in a personal notebook. In your notebook you must also write down all the chords in every key, all exercises or patterns for practice you have made up and any personal tips you have discovered. Have your teacher check your work for accuracy.
STEP I Major and Minor Triads in Root Position
(Note: If you are not yet playing with four mallets, ask your teacher for the proper grip that will best suit you and your playing needs. Playing chords is an excellent introduction to carrying four mallets.)
|Learn all 12 major and 12 minor triads in root position.|
|STEP II Major and Minor Triads in Inversions |
|Learn all major and minor triads in their inversions. 1) Practice triads and inversions in all keys. 2) Practice triads only in first inversion. 3) Practice triads only in their second inversions. 4) Practice a combination of root position, first and second inversion triads.|
|STEP III Seventh Chords in Root Position |
Learn all seventh chords in root position. 1) Record yourself playing the melody of several jazz standards. (Your teacher can help you find music. A legal fake book may be best.) Play the tape back and accompany yourself with each song's chords in root position. 2) At this stage, spend twice the amount of practice time on the side of the flash cards that have only the seventh chord name written. (i.e. C7 or F maj. 7.)
|STEP IV Seventh Chords in Inversions |
Learn all seventh chords in their inversions. 1) Practice as in Step II. 2) Choose several jazz standards to play solo. Play the melody together with seventh chords in whatever inversion (including root position) 'seems' most convenient.
|STEP V Seventh Chords in Relation to a Given Key |
Learn all seventh chords in relation to a given key. In other words, what is the II chord in the key of C maj? Is it major or minor? What is the V7 chord? THe VI chord? Practice and memorize the following seventh chord relationship in all 12 keys.
|The above will always be true for C maj. because each chord tone of every chord is by the key signature of C maj. and is a note of the C maj. scale. The above relationship will be the same for every major key.|
|The above will always be true for C min. The relationship will be the same for every minor key.|
STEP VI Guide Tones
Of the four notes of each seventh chord, the most important for the jazz vibist to play when he is playing in a small group with a bassist are the third and the seventh. These two notes are known as 'guide tones' because they 'guide' you to the function of the chord (i.e. tonic chord, sub-dominant II chord or dominant V7 chord. 1) Learn the guide tones for each maj. 7th chord, min. 7th chord and dominant 7th chord. 2) Practice with the left hand alone. 3) Learn all the guide tones in inversions (i.e. with the seven on the bottom). 4) Practice jazz standards with a bassist. Play only the guide tones of each song's chords. If a bassist isn't available, make a tape of yourself playing the bass notes (roots) of chords and use the tape for practice. Add another practice partner to play the melody while you continue to play only guide tones. 5) Practice jazz standards solo, playing only guide tones and the melody. 6) Practice jazz standards solo, playing guide tones, roots and melody.
|STEP VII Rootless and Fifthless Mallet Voicings (guide tones plus color tones) |
If your are now practicing with a bassist and want to continue to be friends, don't play the root and the fifth in your chords. These tones belong to the bassist, especially the root. Because you are limited to only four choices, you need to make the best possible selection of the notes of a chord to play. Unless you have discovered a grip for holding eight or ten mallets, don't play notes of a chord that are already being played by someone else. Of course there are exceptions, but learn this rule before you break it. STEP VI has shown you perfectly acceptable two mallet voicings. There are plenty of instances in small group play with a bassist where guide tones are all you will need to play. However, you will also want to "fill out" your voicings by adding color tones (the 9th, 11th and 13th).
|1) Play these voicings while practicing the chords of jazz standards with a bassist. |
2) Play jazz standards solo, utilizing these voicings as much as possible. You will need to play some roots in your voicings especially when a song temporarily modulates to a new key. If necessary, go back to STEP VI, #6, adding to that exercise what you can from the above. 3) Ask your teacher "are the harmonies clear? Can you hear when I modulate a new key?" Let your ears help you decide which color tones are "correct". For tonic I chords, color tones should be by the key signature. For dominant V7 chords, selection of color tones becomes one of personal preference. In some cases, such as playing V7 minor I chord you are appoarching. However, don't limit yourself to just this way of thinking. Practice the various combinations of altered color tones suggested above and develop your own likes and dislikes.
STEP VIII Tritone Substitutions
You may have discovered that the guide tones for C7 and Gb 7 are the same (E and Bb). The same is true for F7 and B7, Bb7 and E7 and all other dominant chords a tritone apart. Because the guide tones of each chord are the same, the function of each chord is the same. The chords can therefore be substituted for each other. Another, perhaps easier way of thinking of this is that, in addition to its V7 chord, every chord has a dominant functioning chord 1/2 step above.
1) Practice jazz standards with a bassist using tritone substitutions of dominant chords whenever possible. 2) Practice jazz standards solo using tritone substitutions of dominant chords whenever possible. You will have to play the root in your voicing as in STEP VI, #6, to make this exercise speak.
|STEP IX Other Voicings |
Apply these new voicings of chords to your practice of jazz standards both with a bassist and solo. Don't limit yourself to these suggested voicings. Make up your own.
|STEP X Chord Progressions|
|A deceptive cadence delays the resolution of a chord progression by inserting a new, unexpected chord. The examples below re-harmonize the ending tonic pinch of Bb. Practice these as endings for jazz standards, especially ballads. Examples like this will give color and individuality to your playing which is what jazz is all about!|