How I Play Songs I Don't Know
Updated: Aug 24, 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;
You'll find many variations in what we actually play compared to the chart. The little 3-chord chromatic resolution at the end of most of the A sections for example. Or the extended vamp at the end. That vamp is a III-VI-II-V progression alternating with a I-VI-II-V and played over and over, and is found nowhere in the chart. Also, dominant chords are very alterable. Any combination of sharp or flat 9's and 5's are possible. There are 8 possibilities and I've drilled every possibility in every key, in every voicing, in every position, thousands of times. I can hear them all. The Tritone Dominant Substitution is also something this organ player does frequently. The organ player can throw these alterations in at any time - or not.
Badass organ players do this kind of thing all the time. They come up with chord subs, alterations, re-harmonizations and all kinds of arranging devices on the fly. They do it because they can, and they can because they're playing organ AND bass. And they expect you to just follow them. You have to know the vocabulary, listen and figure out how they think.
So how can you get to the place where you can understand and hear all this stuff? Is it some kind of innate talent?
I think it should be clear that it's not. I've written elsewhere on the concept of "Innate Talent." The things I've talked about here - diatonic chord progressions, key schemes, song forms, etc. - are all learned. The ear training is learned - hello? Ear TRAINING! I said I learned how to really play by being onstage with the older guys, gig after gig after gig.
So, how does one go about learning this?
It's real simple and anyone can do it. There are only three things that are necessary:
A teacher who knows what he's doing.
The drive/motivation to do the drilling.
Real world application and experience
Before I expound on the three things above I want to clarify;
I said it was simple. I didn't say it was easy.
I said anyone can do it; I didn't say it was easy.
The teacher is a component not only in-and-of-itself but directly affects every other aspect; the drive/motivation and the real-world application. I will mention the teacher's role in every area I talk about.
The teacher needs to have a codified, systematic approach in place that applies music theory to the guitar - including all I have talked about and more; Triads, 7th Chords, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths and all manner of inversions, voicings and alterations, as well as the corresponding scales, modes and arpeggios. Everything is to be drilled in every key in every position, exhaustively.
The teacher should have the common diatonic progressions and key schemes codified and a method in place to drill those things in every key in every position on the fretboard and be able to lead the student step-by-step through the process, holding the student accountable for the drilling.
The Drive to Do the Drilling
The key to everything - knowledge of music, knowledge of the fretboard, technique, ear training etc - I mean everything - depends on daily repetitive drilling. The drilling of II-V-I for example, in every key, in every position, every day for as long as it takes to get the teacher's approval is what trains the ear, programs the brain, and trains the hands.
Without the daily drilling NONE of it will happen.
Most people aren't OCD enough or disciplined enough to do the daily drilling on their own without the accountability and pressure of having to prove to the teacher every week that they actually did the work - especially in the beginning.
The teacher should have a method for drilling that optimizes the returns for the time spent - in other words, efficiency. Undisciplined and random practice habits are main reasons for lack of progress.
A huge part of my job as a teacher is to sit and listen to the student drill and prove to me that they can comfortably play the current lesson in every key in every position. We don't move on until that happens.
As a student, you have to figure out for yourself what you have to do to get joy and gratification from the daily grunt-work. There's an element to it that has to be an end in itself - like disciplined prayer, meditation, working out, yoga or whatever. Otherwise, you won't stay the course.
After you've done it for a while you begin to see the progress you're making, how you're actually becoming a better player because of all the daily repetition and you get glimpses of a much, much bigger picture. That helps supply and maintain even more motivation and drive to keep working at it.
Eventually that big picture opens up before you - and it's a beautiful thing!
Real World Application
The first step of the real world application is dependent on the teacher going through tunes with the student that illustrate the concepts being drilled as the lessons progress.
By the time I had finished my studies with John Elliott I had played hundreds of songs with him and for him during the lessons.
The next level of application consists of playing with other people any way you can. With friends in the garage, in the worship band at church, at the local bar on weekends, etc.
It doesn't matter whether or not you think the stuff from the lessons apply to the worship music at church or the country or rock music you play with your friends in the garage - it does. All genres of music use the same theory. The more you play in real-world situations the more you will discover the relevance of what you've drilled over and over again.
Sitting in at local jam sessions and open mic nights is another way to gain experience and apply what you've learned.
On a more pro level, the more you gig, the more you learn. The more you gig, the more you appreciate all that music theory and drilling. Playing with older, more experienced players is extremely valuable. There is a mentoring that goes on at this level that a teacher can't individually provide for the bulk of his students.
I didn't plan it this way but I just happened to fall in with an established network of older guys at the beginning of my full-time performing career who were working constantly. Though things are understandably changing as I age, most of my career I've been the youngest guy in the band (as in the video above). That not only enabled me to work steady almost from the beginning, but gave me a steady stream of mentors from which I learned all kinds of life-lessons; business-survival skills, crowd handling skills, performance and stage-craft techniques - not to mention having my ass handed to me musically on a regular basis.
Plus, in my case, the processes of all these factors were not linear, but concurrent. Even though I started gigging in 1969, by the time I was studying with John (1979-1986), I was full-time gigging at least 6 nights a week. Before John, I had studied classical guitar for 3 years at the UMKC Conservatory of Music. I started seriously teaching about the 3rd year out of 7 of my studies with John and so not only was John a musical teacher/mentor but he provided a model from which I built my own teaching business.
"Hey," you might be thinking, "nice pivot to promoting yourself as a teacher!"
Well, yeah, but it's not really a pivot. For one thing, all the above is the answer to the implied question posed in the title, "How I Play Songs I Don't Know."
I found the right teacher, I applied myself to years of drilling, and I learned the lessons gained from years of gigging and for 10 years all that was going on at the same time.
When talking about the right teacher, I wasn't thinking primarily of myself but about my teacher.
Secondly, speaking of me as a teacher, the time I have for one-on-one teaching is contracting, and the kind of teaching I've been talking about here is that kind of teaching.
In spite of the fact that, yes, I sell guitar lesson downloads from a website, one of my big reservations about the internet-based teaching/learning/business model is the lack of the one-on-one accountability that I talked about above in "The Drive to Do the Drilling." No matter how much money the "student" (customer?) spends, he hasn't really committed or entrusted himself to be personally accountable to and guided by a teacher (me!).
To compensate for that somewhat I am willing to consult one-on-one via Skype or FaceTime (or in person if possible) with my site members concerning the lessons they purchase, but the site member must solicit me.
I said it was simple and that anyone could do it, but finding the right teacher is not easy, and the right teacher doesn't always make it easy once you do find him/her.
Doing the daily drilling is simple but not necessarily easy. You have to commit yourself and stick to it.
To find playing situations in which you can grow and evolve is a simple concept but not so easy to do or maintain. Finding a group of guys that are all on the same page is difficult. The "band fight" is so common it's a cliché.
To sum up:
The right teacher who has a methodical approach to applying music theory to the guitar.
Daily, relentless drilling for at least several years under the supervision of the right teacher.
And all that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I can play songs I don't know.
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