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Rock & Roll Sheet Music
Rock'n Roll Saxophone
BASIC ROCK & ROLL THEORY
By Pete Thomas
All material ©2005-8 Pete Thomas
PART I: MAKING CHORDS
Rock & Roll? Music theory? You might feel there is no room for music theory in rock & roll saxophone playing, but there is. At least itís very useful to know a few of the basic rules (once you know them you can break them - but of course there are rules as to how you break the rules!).
Letís assume you know the really basic basics of western music theory, ie you know a major scale and you know that there are 12 semitones which combine into whole and half tone steps to make the major scale. If we number each note starting from the bottom (or root) note of a scale, we get a system which we can use to describe the interval (pitch difference) between the different notes. The following table shows a C major scale, with the notes numbered:
In this table I have left blanks to show every semitone (in C these are, of course, the black notes on a keyboard).
The first chord we are going to look at is a simple 3 note chord (AKA a triad). In jazz, the chords nearly always have 4 or more notes, but triads are quite common in pop and rock music so this is a good place to start. To make a C major triad we start on the root, then add the 3rd and 5th notes:
Letís look at the intervals involved in this chord:
We are now going to make another chord in the key of C, this one is F major:
As you can see this is built on the 4th note of the C major scale, but we now have a problem, we need to be able to number the notes relative to the root of the chord (F), not just the tonic note of the key (C). So we use two numbering systems - arabic and roman numerals. Up to now I have been using arabic numerals counting up from C as it is the system we are most used to, but it will help us now to use roman numerals for the notes relative to the tonic (or key centre of the tune) and keep arabic numerals to count up from the root of whatever chord we are discussing. The next table will make this a bit clearer:
You can see now that the interval between the 1st and 3rd is also major 3rd (like the C chord), the interval between the 1st and 5th is a perfect 5th and so this is also a major chord (a triad again in this case as there are only three notes).
In a basic 12 bar blues chord sequence we often only use three chords. So far we have looked at the I and IV chords. The next chord is built on the 5th degree so this is the V chord. In C this is the chord of G, and if you examine the intervals between the 1st and 3rd, and the 1st and 5th, you will see that this is also a major triad:
It may seem complicated at first, but the two numbering systems actually make our life much simpler as we will need to talk about chords in two ways:
When discussing theory it is sometimes useful not to be pinned down to a particular key. In this tutorial we were in the key of C but of course the same principle applies to any key. To learn some basic rock & roll playing you are going to need to be able to play in several keys (and sooner or later all of them maybe), so start learning the I, IV and V triad chords in different keys.
In the next section we will look at four-note chords.
PART 2: FOUR NOTE CHORDS
Adding the fourth note:
To get a fourth note in the chord we usually add the 7th note to the 1st, 3rd and 5th. Unfortunately its not always that simple in rock and roll, but the good news is that (unlike jazz) we don't often need any more than four notes (except when notes are duplicated in a different octave).
This table shows the I, IV and V chords with added fourth note:
Note that the C and F chords are called major7 chords, but the G is just plain G7. The reason for this is the interval between the root (1st) and 7th notes. If you count the semitones you will see that in the C major 7 chord the interval between C and B is 11 semitones (one short of an octave), but with the G7 chord the interval is 10 semitones (or one whole tone short of an octave). When writing chord symbols you can abbreviate C major 7 to C maj7 or Cma7. The G7 symbol is just that, but this type of chord can be referred to as a dominant 7 chord. If you play these chords on a keyboard you will hear the difference in quality or feel between a major 7 chord and a dominant 7 chord. In most types of conventional western music the dominant 7 (chord V7) is a very important chord as it has a strong tendency to move (or resolve back to the tonic chord (chord I) and marks the end of a musical phrase (in classical music a perfect cadence).
Itís A Bit Different in Rock & Roll
If you played these chords on a keyboard, you probably noticed that the major 7 chords sound a bit smooth or sophisticated, not sound very rock & roll or blues. Thatís right, in rock music they tend to be altered to sound a bit bluesier. I showed you the major 7 chords first because this type of construction follows strict rules and itís important to know this before you break the rules of conventional western harmony to play the blues. What we do is make these 7ths blue notes by flattening them by one semitone.
On a keyboard it is exactly a semitone, but when played on the saxophone or sung, the interval may be not exact - thatís all part of the blues - but for now weíll call it a semitone.
Here is the same table but with the flattened notes chords I and IV:
Thereís one more thing you need to know about chords I and IV as four-note chords. Sometimes we use the 6th instead of the 7th:
PART 3: BLUE NOTES & BLUES SCALES
First of all letís put these chords that we have learnt together in a typical rock & roll 12 bar blues sequence.
As shown here it is useful to think of this as 3 four-bar phrases. Tunes and improvisation can be made up from various scales to fit this sequence, but in rock & roll the basic major scale is quite rare. We have already seen how the 7th note of the C major scale (B) is flattened to a Bb when making the four-note chord of C7, but there are a couple more typical "blue notes". These are the flattened 3rd (b3) and flattened 5th (b5).
It does not work the other way round. If the chord has a flattened note in it, a non flattened note in the melody will not sound good - so you would not play a B alongside a C7 chord which has a Bb blue note as part of the chord.
It is perfectly acceptable to use one of these altered blue notes in a melody along with the unaltered (unflattened) note in a chord so you can play an Eb or Gb along with the E and G of a C, C6 or C7 chord. Of course you can also play the unaltered notes, E and G.
There are two main blues scales that are useful to know, the minor blues scale and the major blues scale. Many people refer to the minor blues scale as "The Blues Scale". That may be because this scale can be easier to use as the same scale fits over the entire 12 bar sequence, regardless of whether the chord is a I, IV or V. So this scale is useful for beginners as it is hard to play a "wrong" note if you just stick to this scale. The problem is that very soon it will become boring and this is where a little music theory comes in handy. The following table shows the major scale compared with these two blues scales. Look at these carefully, play them on a keyboard or your saxophone before going on to the next bit.
N.B. The Gb could also be written as F#
Both of these scales are derived from simpler "pentatonic" (five note) scales that are common in folk music from all parts of the world. The Gb in the minor blues and the D# are the added notes and areoften used along with notes either side.
Putting the theory into practice
Minor blues scale
I said that the minor blues scale sounds good over the entire sequence, so letís look at how the blues scale fits against chords I and IV. This table shows chords I and IV in the key of C and how the blues scale of C fits against the notes of the two chords. I have spread the notes out over more than one octave to help show how they fit the scale.
Similarly there are some slight dissonances playing the C minor blues scale against the V chord (G7), but still works well for a bluesy feel.
Initially using this scale for improvising on a 12 bar rock or blues tune can help a beginner build confidence. You do not need to change the scale as the chords change, however as soon as possible you should avoid just running up and down the scale. Try to play melodic phrases built from notes of the scale and see how the phrases can fit together to make a more articulate solo. Donít be afraid of leaving spaces as well, these not only help with the structure of a solo but they give you a chance to think about what to play.
Listen very carefully to what you play, although a very general rule is that this scale fits over all the chords, some notes are often best avoided in some places - when playing over the G7 chord it will often be best to avoid the note C until the G7 "resolves" to the C chord. This is a good way of making the melody complement the way that a V7 - I cadence creates and releases tension.
Major blues scale
The thing that makes a blues solo start to get interesting is when you learn how and when to use notes from the major blues scale as well as the minor. This table shows the same two chords (I and IV in C) but with a C major blues scale:
As you can see the major blues scale in C fits nicely against the C7 chord but does not work against the F7. It is not so easy to use as the minor blues scale because this scale does not fit over the whole sequence, but can be used over a chord if the root of the scale is the same as the root of the chord, so a C major blues scale fits a C7, an F major blues scale fits an F7. In practice it makes sense to start out using the C minor blues scale wherever you like on a C blues, but use the C major blues scale only on the C chords (bars 1-4, 7-8 and 11-12), so you would use the C minor blues scale over bars 5-6 and 9-10
One of the most significant notes is the 3rd. It is a very common device to use a phrase with a major 3rd on chord I, then repeat the phrase over chord IV but flatten the major 3rd. This way the 3rd of the C chord (E) becomes the b7 of the F chord (Eb). This is easier to understand if you invert the notes of the IV chord (i.e. put them in a different order).
PART 4: PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Up until now we have been looking at the major and minor blues scales. A good solo probably will not be just made up of these. Although you can get away with using a minor blues scale to cover those 12 bars - and initially this may be your best way of overcoming the fear of jumping in there when suddenly you are confronted with a 12 bar solo to improvise - a good solo is often a bit more complex (but need not be too complex - this is rock & roll remember).
You can combine all the elements we have looked at to create a melodically interesting and rocking solo. These elements can include just playing long notes with or without effects such as growling and note bending. (The note bending is very useful when playing flattened blue notes as you can play slightly sharper or flatter than the actual pitch to get a much better blues feel - see the following article by Joey the Saint). You can also use the good old major scale in places, sometimes with a flattened 3rd or 7th. At other times you can just play a phrase that makes sense musically but may not conform to any of the rules or music theory. The important thing is to get all these things in a sort of balance - too much of any one technique can become predictable. Above all donít be scared of repeating phrases or leaving gaps - these are all useful musical tools that also give you time to think about what to play next.
As a practical example: Analyzing a Rock & Roll Solo "Slippiní and Slidiní"
Rock'n Roll Saxophone - Intro - Part Two
The Thousand-note Scale
by Joey "The Saint"
Pete Thomas is a leading UK music producer, saxophone recording musician and composer of film & television music. His comprehensive website provides many online saxophone lessons and jazz theory tutorials, with links at the top of each page to audio clips, videos, biography, tutorials and resources for any musician, saxophone player or producer of modern music.