Mastering Your Chords

Learn how to master your chords and why this skill is critical for improvisation.

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Hello everybody and welcome to The Confident improviser podcast. This is episode number two and I am your host, Willie Myette. Today’s episode is on mastering your chord. So you’re going to learn how to master your chords, and why this skill is critical for improvisation. Okay, so let’s get started. Remember, this podcast just as a reminder is for anybody who’s in my confident improviser program. Of course, you don’t have to be a part of the confident improviser program to utilize the podcast, but it’s really designed as a companion to the confident improviser program. So if you’re a member of my site and going through the confident improviser program, this podcast is perfect for you to help you stay focused at the piano, there is a video replay as well. So I’m recording video of this. So if you if anything that I’m playing, you want to be able to see it, if you just log in at jazz edge comm you can go ahead and get that video replay. If you are a member, if you are not a member of the site, just go back to the confident improviser.com. Right on the main page, there’s a spot that says a button that says free lesson access, put your name and email address right in there. And you can sign up and you can get the first five lessons absolutely free of charge. Okay, so again, today’s topic, mastering your chords, and how to master your chords and why this skill is super important for improvisation. Alright, so let’s go to our progression here, our basic progression that we’ve been doing in exercise number one, and exercise number two is doing a very basic C minor, right, then to an F minor g7. Back to see my now, just as a preview of where we’re going to be going with this, we’re going to be talking about target notes and target notes in our improvised lines as we get going. But before I can get there with you, I need to make sure that we get through these chord tones first, because they’re going to be critical to be able to fully understand our target notes. Alright, so just understand that there’s a master plan here and a direction that we’re moving in, I don’t always say all of the moving parts all at once, because I don’t want to overwhelm you, but know that there is a master plan that is underlying all of this teaching. Alright, so when we have our chord C minor seven, F minor, seven g7. In our improvisation, we have our simple accompaniment that we’re doing right here, we’re already doing that in the exercise, and we have

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our five finger

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minor scale, or we have our five finger blues scale, depending on which exercise you’re doing. Remember, again, the five finger minor scale for C is are the notes, C, D, E, flat,

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F, and G,

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right? And then the five finger blues scale in the key of C are the notes, C, E flat, F, F sharp, and G. Right? So both of those five finger note patterns, or those ingredients, as we like to call them in the program work perfectly over this baseline. Now, are these the only notes that you can use for improvisation? Of course not. There are other notes that we can utilize for improvisation. And that is our chord tones. So just a brief explanation. What exactly are chord tones? Well, first of all, we got to go back to how we form our chords. And just a real like, let me just go through this real quick. So if we start with our first five notes of our C major scale,

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that’s C, D, E, F, and G,

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we number those notes 12345. So 12345. Alright, it happens to correspond to the finger numbers in the right hand. But don’t get confused thinking that we’re talking finger numbers. No, we’re numbering the notes of the major scale. And of course, if you don’t know your major scales, take a look at my 30 day piano playbook. Take a look at my piano essentials program. All of that will explain those major scales too. Alright, so anyway, we have our five finger scale, if we play the first, third and fifth notes, we get C, E and G that creates our C major triad. And then we can do things like flatting, the third and that creates our C minor triad. Again, all of that instruction is in the 30 day playbook. And also piano essentials, if you need it, okay, so I’m going to assume at this point, you kind of have an understanding of like, okay, C minor, F minor, g Seven, eight, you basically understand those chords. So typically what happens is students will understand the chords but they don’t really know the chords. So they’ll know that the notes of C minor, a C minor triad, or C, E flat and G, but a lot of times when you’re starting to do them inversions, or starting to move them around the piano, it becomes very difficult for To be able to do that quickly, part of that is a visualization problem, okay? And it’s also a kinesthetic and just like feeling on the keys problem. And then also another part of it is a theory problem. So let’s talk about some different ways in which you can kind of lock these chords in. So the very first step is you have to know the basic chord. So you have to know your C minor triad to C, E flat, and G when we go to F minor, those notes are our F, A flat, and C, F, A flat, C, and G seven. That’s our full seventh chord. And those notes are G, B,

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D, and F. Now,

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you might be questioning, okay, well wait a second, the chord here is listed as C minor seven. Why aren’t you playing C minor seven, Willie, and adding in the seven, you absolutely can, right? I just brought it down to the triad just to make it a little bit easier for you. But let’s go through those seventh chords right now, just to make sure we’re on the same page, C minor, seven, C, E flat, G, and B flat. All right, F minor seven, F, A flat, C and E flat. And again, g seven, G, B, D, and F. If you happen to be looking at the video, you might notice that a lot of times I’ll put my fourth finger on the B flat and the C minor seven chord just happens to be a little bit more comfortable for my fingers, I get really big hands, but usually you play it as 123 and five for your fingering. Okay? Alright, so this is what we call our root position, seventh chords, root position, seventh chords. So with our root position, seventh chords, the root is the bottom notes. Now, we can also move these chords into inversions, which you’ve probably heard before. And that’s basically you take the bottom note, you put it up top. So now my bottom note is E flat, G, B flat, C, this is what we call our first inversion, C minor seven chord,

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we can do this again, take the E flat, put it up here,

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and now we have G, B flat, C and E flat. And then we could take the G put that up an octave, and now we have our third inversion C minor seven chord, Oh, and by the way, with the G, B flat, C and E flat, this is what we call our second inversion, C minor seventh chord. And then finally, the third inversion of the C minor seventh chord is B flat, C, E, flat, and G. Now one way of looking at this is root position as the root as the bottom note, first inversion, as the third is the bottom note. second inversion has the fifth as the bottom note, third inversion has the seventh as the bottom note.

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Now, let me throw a little

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monkey wrench in here for a second. And what happens if we keep playing a seed

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down here in the bass

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while I’m playing these different inversions? Okay, well, it would still sound like kind of a root position chord because we have our root going on down there. But in the right hand, we would still consider them inversion. So right here, I’m playing a C minor seven, in first inversion, but I got the root playing in the bass. Okay, if we were to move the bass note to say, E flat, now we’re getting into something called alternate bass notes, or slash chords. And that’s not where we want to go right now. So if you’re going to play a route, or you’re going to play anything in the left hand, for right now, just play the route, you could also be playing these chords in your left hand as well. Alright, so if you don’t fully understand that, don’t worry about that. Don’t get bogged down by that that’s not something that you have to really be overly concerned with. Right now, the main thing is knowing the notes of the chord. Now, I’m going to share a little story with you a little bit of an anecdote of how I learned all of this stuff. So when I was young, as a baby, my father taught me how to play piano, I remember sitting at the piano, I have a picture of my mom, kind of like holding my backup as literally an infant at the piano, just kind of like playing around and, you know, pressing notes. And as I got older, you know, it’s like, 10 1112, my father started to teach me how to play the piano. And, you know, my father could play the piano well, but he wasn’t a teacher, you know, you learn all of that skill, but he did the best job that he could. And he did a really good job. You know, I’m very appreciative of all that he taught me. But one of the things that he did a lot of is he taught me a lot of theory. And it really served me well for when I was 15, and started studying with, you know, a more professional teacher. So we used to go through and go through theory all the time, and he would have these index cards that he would put in the car I’ll be at that’s not very safe today. But anyway, the point is, he would have a these index cards that we would glance at now and again, and it would say things like chord tones and scales and whatnot. But the point is, we did so much of this work away from the piano, and he would constantly be quizzing me and asked me, What are the notes of a C minor seventh chord? And I’d say I have to say C, E flat, G and B natural is a no, not B natural. What is it?

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Oh, that’s right. It’s B flat, C flat, G and B flat.

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So what happened was, I became very quick and being able to name my chords, and understand understanding my theory, so much so that when I actually went to Berkeley, and started my first year of college, I was actually able to test out of half of my theory classes, I only had to take two out of the four theory classes that I was required to, because I already knew so much theory going into college. Okay, so what does that mean for you? What that means for you is the best way to master your chords, and really understand your chords is to practice them away from the piano, right? The more that you could start to practice theory away from the piano and start to get it visualized in your head, the better. So if you happen to be listening to me right now, on a podcast and you’re away from the piano, that’s perfect. You’re doing exactly what I would recommend that you do. Okay, so now you’re away from the piano. How do you practice this stuff? Okay, well, first of all, you say C minor seven, what are the notes of a C minor seven chord? Okay, it’s C, E flat, G, and B flat, right? And then you think, okay, now my first inversion, what note is going to be on the bottom, it’s going to be the E flat. So now I know that the ingredients of that C minor seven chord are C, E flat, G, and B flat. Now I need to move that C up. So the bottom note is now going to be a flat, G, B flat, C. And I try and visualize that in my head while I’m away from the piano. And now the second version is going to have the fifth on the bottom. So that’s going to be G, B flat, then C, and then E flat. And then my finally my third inversion is going to have the seventh on the bottom, that’s going to be B flat,

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C, E, flat, and G.

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Right? Then I can go through and I could start to just simply ask myself random notes. Okay, what’s the seventh of a C minor seven chord? I’ll give you a second. 321. Did you answer B flat? If you did, you’re right. What’s the fifth of a C minor seven chord? It’s a G, right? What’s the third of a C minor seven chord? It’s an E flat. Right? So you know now the third of C minor seven chord is a flat, the fifth is G, the the seventh is B flat, the root is C, you might question Hey, Willie, should I do the tensions 911, stuff like that. If you want to short there’s nothing wrong with that. If you don’t know about those, leave them off. For right now, the main thing is really getting down the chord tones for improvisation, okay, so if you want to do the tensions, and you want to do a little bit of extra credit short, that’s fine. But for our purposes, right now, for improvisation, what we really need is the main chord tones, which is C, E flat, G and B flat. Let’s move on to F minor seven. Okay? It’s pretty simple, right? We know those notes, F, A flat, C, and E flat, F, A flat, C, E flat, right? This is

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root position.

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first inversion has a flat, C, E flat, and F, second inversion, C, E flat, F and a flat. And finally, third inversion, E flat, F, A flat, and C. Okay? So kind of spelled through your inversions. Another way of doing this is you could say, okay, F minor seven, F, A flat, C, E flat, first inversion, a flat, C, E flat, F, second inversion, C, E flat, F, A flat, third inversion, E flat F, A flat seat. Can you do that? Can you do it that fast, right? You don’t have to do it that fastest start. But you really want to build up that speed. Because the idea is that the quicker that you can recognize and identify your chord tones, you’re going to see in a second, how that’s really going to help out your improvisation. Okay, so really knowing your chord tones, super, super important. Best way of doing it, do it away from the piano. Let’s just stop there for one second and talk about well why is doing this stuff away from the piano so important? Because when you’re playing at the piano, your visual senses definitely take over. Okay, so like what you’re looking at the notes and then your kinesthetic which means basically how like your fingers feeling on the keys. Okay? Just like how it’s super easy for you to get to a C major try because you know that feel right? You’re not thinking about the notes anymore. Well, that kinesthetic sense, takes over as well. So you get your eyes doing work. You get your fingers and kinesthetic sense doing work and then you get your ears doing work as well. And a lot of times the brain and the theory is just kind of like yeah, okay, we’ll just like kind of hold off for right now. So you’re really not working your brain and you’re not working the theory as much. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that you’re not doing anything wrong. That’s actually exactly what you should be doing. Because imagine if you had a think about all of these chords, every time you had to play them, you’d be crippled, when you’re playing, you wouldn’t be able to play, right. So this is good. But we want to make sure that we also practice that brain work as well. And the best way of doing that is away from the piano, because then you’re just forced to do it, right, you don’t have a piano in front of you. Finally, g7, G, B, D, and F. That’s root position, first inversion, B, D, F, and G, second inversion, D, F, G, and B. And finally, third inversion, F, G, B, natural, and D. Right? So those are our three seventh chords that we are doing in these first couple of exercises in the confident improviser. Okay, so now, as promised, why do I care about chord tones? Why do I care about mastering these chords and knowing what my chords are? The reason is that when it comes to improvisation, you can both start and end with nothing but chord tones. Okay, so if I were to go through and improvise over like a song, like, say, autumn leaves, and I just do you know,

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my cortos.

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So you could hear that, you know, is the improvisation, you know, gonna blow the doors off? No, but does it sound good and sound pleasing? And do all the notes sound quote, unquote, right? You know, that I don’t really like thinking of notes is right and wrong, but you get the point, right? I mean, all the notes sound good, they sound pleasing, they fit in the box. So you could start and end by just using chord tones for improvisation, right, you can make a pretty decent sounding improvisation with only chord tones. So you don’t have to know scales, you don’t have to know all this other stuff if you didn’t want to. Now, I’m not saying not to learn scales, obviously, we want to learn scales, because we don’t want to just play chord tones. But the point that I’m making is that chord tones are so powerful, that really, you could start and end there with your improvisation. So now,

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if we go back to our baseline,

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right, and if I utilize these chord tones, during my improvisation, I could get something that

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sounds like this.

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Again, pretty decent sounding right? I mean, you know, it’s, it’s not the, you know, some grand improvisation, but it sounds good. And this is where we want to start, we want stuff that’s gonna sound good, that’s going to work for the progression, it’s going to make a sound good. And we can always build upon that. Now, the thing that you probably heard, or maybe noticed, if you happen to be watching the replay of this is that I am playing these chords in all different inversions. So when I started the C minor, I can come down from my G and when I come up to F minor, I go to the a flat bed to g7.

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It’s a really being able to move those chords around and create some steady eighth note lines, and stay within those chord tones. Okay, so how is it that I’m able to do that? Once because I really know those chords, right? I mean, I’ve practiced them for years and years. So forget about me, how do you do this? Well, number one, practicing these chords away from the piano and really, diving into that theory is going to be super important. Now, let me just kind of put your mind at ease for a second. You know, when I say the word theory, I know for some students that’s going to make the hairs on the back of their neck stand up. Okay. You know, the word theory is not a great word. It’s not a very fun word, right? It’s, you know, it’s not like sitting on a beach soaking up the sun, right? I mean, when we think of theory, we think kind of like boring, right? It’s like, it sounds like work. Is it work? Yes, of course it is. Come on, let’s call it what it is. We have to work in order to get Better at stuff, but it’s work that pays off so wonderfully for you. And if you’re scared off by theory, let me tell you that this does not have to be difficult, you just simply start with those three chords. So while you’re out and about in the world, just think C minor seven, F minor, seven g7. Okay, what are the notes, a C minor, seven, C, E flat, G, B flat, right, and try and when you’re doing this, visualize what it looks like. So if you happen to be watching the video replay, you see the virtual keyboard up, there’s how it lights up, all in that nice bright orange. So that’s what you want to see, you want to see those inversions, you want that that mental picture. So when I think of like an F minor seven, in third inversion, this is what I see in my mind’s eye, I see that E flat F, right there close together. There’s root position, there’s first inversion, there’s second inversion, right?

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g7 root position,

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second inversion, first inversion, third inversion, right? I could see all of that in my mind’s eye. And I can visualize that, you know, the keyboard, right? So now, some other ways in which you could practice this is try doing your inversions, but not in order. So another would say, Okay, let me ask you a question. We’ll do a little column response, a little quiz right now. So spell out a C minor seven chord in root position, I’ll give you a second. Okay. So you should have said C, E flat, G, and B flat. Okay, so those are the notes of your C minor seven in root position. Now spell out a C minor seven chord in second inversion, remember, the fifth is going to be the bottom note.

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So you should have said,

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G, B flat, C, and E flat, right? That’s C minor seven in second inversion. Now go to F minor seven, first inversion, one of the notes quickly, go as fast as you can, okay? f, a flat, C and E flat, quickly, g seven in third inversion, that means the seventh is going to be the bottom notes.

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So what is that

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F, G, B, and D.

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So moving to different inversions, like that, and not going in order is a great way of doing this as well. So you notice I went C minor seven root position, then second inversion, then to F minor seven root position, then g seven third inversion, okay? It’s not just going in order. Remember, anytime that you practice a pattern, both your brain and your body are going to get used to that pattern very quickly. An anecdote for that, just if you go to the gym, or anything, if you lift a 20 pound weight, right, maybe, you know, on the first of the month, it feels heavy. But if you keep lifting that 20 pound weight, every single day, guess what, at the end of the month, it’s not going to feel heavy anymore, you’re gonna have to go to 25 pounds in order to, you know, make that feel a little bit heavier, because your body starts to get accustomed to it starts to get used to it, right. So same thing happens at the piano as well. If you practice in patterns, then your brain and your body is going to get used to those patterns. And as soon as you break out of that pattern, then everything starts to fall apart. So it’s encourage, I encourage you to practice not in patterns, instead, try to randomize your practice as much as possible. Now, if you’re also looking for another lesson, I have a lesson called master every chord at the piano that’s at my jazz edge site. And it goes through how to use a randomization technique. And I also have an i real pro backing track that you can download. And then going through that randomization technique is a great way of mastering your chords, because you’re breaking outside of those patterns. Okay. All right. So your marching orders right now what you really want to practice and make sure that you get down well, as well as possible is really trying to understand these three chords, C minor, seven, F minor, seven, g7. Know the notes of those chords, be able to spell the notes of those chords. Try to visualize those chords in your mind’s eye and know that playing the chord tones is what will give you a good sounding improvisation. Okay, so anytime you see a chord, and you’re looking for notes that can work over that chord for improvisation, you could start right with your chord tones. They’re always going to work. Right. So anyway, that’s it for me. Thank you guys very much for joining me in the confident improviser podcast. I do want to remind you if you have questions and you are already a member, a jazz edge member, be sure to join me on Thursdays for my confident improviser q&a session. This is a great way to ask me questions, to get feedback on your playing and and to also get some other tips and tricks. That happens 1pm. Eastern every Thursday, the link is in the site. If you’re not a member of the site, I encourage you to go back to the confident improviser.com. Put your name and email address in there, go ahead and click on where it says the free lesson access, click on free lesson access, put your name and email address in there, you’ll get an email from me, that’s going to set you up with a free account on jazz edge. And every Wednesday at 1pm. Eastern time, I do my live office hours and this is an opportunity for anybody regardless of whether or not you are a paying student or not to be able to get online, ask me questions in a live situation. And the I have the keyboard in front of me and I can demonstrate and give you tips and tricks that way. All right. So anyway, thanks guys so much. Remember every Tuesday is the confident improviser podcast. I’ll see you guys next week.

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All right,

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this is Willie Myette for the confident improviser. Thanks again for joining me

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