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.