How I Play Songs I Don't Know
Updated: Aug 25, 2019
"The bass is the base!" - John Elliott
I've spent a lot of my career playing Jazz and Blues with Hammond Organ players and other bass-playing keyboard players.
The Hammond organist who also plays bass is a breed apart.
For one thing, he has complete control over the harmonic and rhythmic structure of the song. No other instrument can compete with a Hammond organist who's playing bass.
It has been a very common experience of mine that the organist will throw curve balls just to test me. For instance, he'll start a song, not tell me the name of the song or the key it's in and simply expect me to pick it up.
Most of the time I can do that even if I don't know the song and have never even heard it before.
"How?" you may ask?
Well, I'll tell you.
When most people listen to music, the primary thing they hear is the melody or the top note of the chord. That won't tell you much. The melody could be anything and you can't determine the chord changes from it with any certainty.
The 2 most important things to hear are:
At its most basic, by "chord type" I mean Major or Minor. But it really has to go beyond that. You need to be able to distinguish 4 types of triads (Major, Minor, Augmented, Diminished) and 5 types of 7th chords (Major, Dominant, Minor, Half-Diminished and Full-Diminished). There's much more to it than that but let's just leave it there.
So the first thing I listen to is the bass. The bass is the base.
That's because one of the bass player's main functions is to state the root. This usually happens on the 1st beat of the chord. But especially with a walking bass line like what happens in Jazz, the notes after the first beat will actually lead to the root of the next chord. So I can anticipate what the next root is going to be by the bass line that leads up to it.
The next issue is to determine the chord type; 7th chords are the foundation of Jazz and Blues so that's primarily the genre(s) I'm talking about here.
On top of being able to hear the type (Major, Dominant, Minor, etc) the key to anticipating chord type is to be able to hear common diatonic chord progressions.
Don't know what I mean by "diatonic chord progressions?" You play them, even if you don't know what they are.
Diatonic chord progressions are progressions wherein all the chords are in a single key. That is, the chords are built from a single scale. Not gonna go into it but here's a video on Scale Tone 7th Chords that will give you an idea of where diatonic chord progressions come from.
There are many common diatonic chord progressions but the grandaddy of them all is II-V-I. I can instantly hear II-V-I.
Another thing you have to be familiar with is various ways these diatonic progressions are strung together in different keys. These "various ways" are called "Key Schemes."
You might have a song like Tune Up, by Miles Davis, where there is II-V-I in the key of D, then the key of C, then the key of Bb. This is called a "Descending Whole-Tone Scheme" because the keys move downward in whole-steps.
As you can see, the II-V-I Descending Whole-Tone scheme is the major portion of the tune - 11 out of 16 bars. Add the fact that the first 2 chords of the last line are II-V in the key of D, as is the last bar. All that leaves is 2 bars; if you can hear II-V-I and you are familiar with and can hear the Whole-Tone Key Scheme, you could play the chord progression to most of this song upon hearing it without actually knowing it.
Off the top of my head, some other songs in which the Whole-Tone Key Scheme figures prominently would be How High the Moon, Solar and Bluesette.
My teacher, John Elliott, said, "When you hear Minor followed by Dominant, 9 times out of 10 it's a II-V." In the case of "Tune Up" it's 5 times out of 5.
Below is a video of me actually doing what I'm talking about; playing a song I don't know. This is from a gig in 1996. I'm the house guitarist for an open jam session that's been going on every week in Kansas City since 1984 and is still going on (a brief history is here). The organ player and the trumpet player are sitting in. Myself and the drummer are part of the host band.
This tune, There Is No Greater Love, is a little more complex than Tune Up. I didn't know this tune at the time and no one told me what it was. The intro is played rubato, that is, out of time. If you watch closely, you can see that I'm figuring out the changes during the rubato intro. This doesn't give me the time or tempo, but it gives me the diatonic progressions, the key schemes, and the form of the tune. Because the trumpet player is handling the melody I'm not concerned with that.
When soloing, I'm improvising through the changes without reference to the melody - because I didn't know it! Ideally, I like to reference the melody here and there in my solos, but in this case I had to settle for just referencing the chords.
BTW - I'm the skinny white kid playing the guitar. Actually, not much of a kid; I was 40 at this time and pretty well-established (but apparently not established enough that I knew this tune!). This is how I've learned many, many tunes. This is how I learned to really play; the youngest guy on the stage just trying to keep up. There's no substitute for this. I've been humiliated more times than I can count. It's part of the process.
Here's a chart for this tune (There Is No Greater Love). When you google a chart like this you're going to find different versions with divergent changes. This chart is from the Real Book but I changed it in several places to reflect what the organ player is doing in the video above.
I'm going to break the tune down so that you can get an idea of the process I'm going through during the rubato intro.
Remember, I didn't know this song and I didn't have this chart in front of me. I'm listening for root note first and then the chord type. Once the key is established (Bb), I define the roots in terms of their numerical relationship to the Bb major scale - that's where the Roman Numerals come from (see the video above on Scale Tone 7ths). Here's the first 8 bars:
The Roman Numerals refer to the root. Within a given key, when it comes to chord type there are defaults (see video above on Scale Tone 7ths).
The default for I is Major, so we're good.
The default for IV is Major; in this case it's been altered to Dominant.
The default for III is Minor; in this case it's been altered to Dominant.
The default for VI is Minor; again, altered to Dominant.
The default for II is Minor; again altered to Dominant.
At this point I keep the Roman Numeral roots but throw out the default chord types. The roots D-G-C or III-VI-II are moving in a pattern of 4ths and are all Dominant chord types. This is called a "Dominant Cycle" and is a very common way chords are strung together. The last 2 bars are II - V with the default chord types; Minor to Dominant. So to sum up:
I to IV (Dominant) to III, VI, II, (all Dominant) to II - V.
Now you may be thinking, "Holy crap! That's a lot of stuff and we're only 8 bars in!"
First of all, there is nothing here that's not cliché. I've drilled Scale Tone 7ths, II-V-I's, III-VI-II-V's and dominant cycles in every key, in every inversion, in every position, thousands of times. I picked this up the 1st time through.
Secondly, look at the second 8 bars:
Same thing! It's basically just a repeat. The only difference is the last 3 bars, II-V-I, default chord types. The first 16 bars could have been written as one section with a 1st and 2nd ending.
Now for the next 8 bars - commonly called the "Bridge." A Bridge can go anywhere, so at this point I'm especially attentive to where the organist is going. In this case, the tonal center changes from Bb Major to G Minor. It's the Relative Minor Key Scheme. So now I'm defining roots (the Roman Numerals) in terms of G Minor. The last bar reverts back to Bb Major:
Simple: II - V - I in G Minor, times 3. The C7 in the 7th bar pivots back to II-V in Bb. You could think of the C7 as IV in the key of G Minor (which is how I've categorized it) or an altered II in the key of Bb.
Now for the last 8 bars:
Look familiar? It's exactly the same thing as the 2nd 8 bars, which is the same thing as the first 8 bars excepting the minor differences in the last 3 bars.
So by nailing the first 8 bars in the rubato intro I had 75% of the tune. The other 25% - the Bridge - is easy; little more than repeated II-V-Is in the Relative Minor.
So the Song Form is AABA. Each section is 8 bars long.
Boom! Got it!
This chart would be the default form of the tune that the organist (Everette DeVan) has in mind.
For those of you who are more knowledgeable &/or have more developed ears;