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Life is About Changes - Play Them!

By Randall Padilla

I’d like to speak about making meaningful phrases, melodic lines, and share some tools that I use in my everyday playing that will empower you with immediate melodic ideas. 

Let’s face a fact about music: You are going to be playing over a key.  Very simply put: The more that you understand the structure of a KEY (The Major Scale; Ionian Mode), the more that you will understand how to handle chord changes that are thrown at you, regardless of style, genre, time period, composer, technical level, etc. 

If we were to harmonize the Major Scale into triads on each scale degree, the result would be a uniform chord formula.  Ex. 1: (I)Maj-(ii)min-(iii)min-(IV)Maj-(V)Maj-(vi)min-(viiº)Dim. This chord formula, this chord ‘progression’, is the definition of a “key”, this defines what a key ‘is’, and these chord qualities will be the same for each scale degree for any Major scale that you apply the formula to.  Below is the C Major scale harmonized into triads on each scale degree.

There are 3 Major triads, 3 minor triads, and a diminished triad available in any given key.  Most often however, the V chord is a Dominant 7th chord, and the diminished based triad found at VII is too dissonant and is not as often seen in popular music as the 3 Maj/min triads that are present. 
Shells are basically taking a chord type and only playing the root, 3rd, 7th; think of them as “mini-arpeggios”, or mini-chords, only using the main chord tones that define a particular chord type.  This yields a wider interval sound, and you KNOW that you are playing the right tones over a particular chord because you are playing the actual chord tones themselves; and when linked together, they can create some really interesting melodic ideas.  More importantly, it informs you- the player- of exactly  what scale tone(s) that you are playing, as well as making it that much easier to include a 9th, a 6th, a 4th, etc.  I look at these literally as ‘instant melody lines’ that are already pre-fabricated and ready to install over any progression or corresponding chord quality.  They are powerful melodic springboards from which you can launch new ideas from.

Because a key is constructed primarily using Maj, min, and Dom chord type(s), then let’s focus on becoming familiar with those shapes.  Below are some of my favorites and their inversions.  Ex. 2 outlines the (G Major) shell shapes and is voiced as 1-7-3-5 with 6th & 4th string roots.  Once you become familiar with these shapes, apply them to a different Major chord, i.e. F Major, Bb Major, D Major, etc. Remember: we have 3 available Major triads in any given key (I; IV; V)


Minor shells are some of my favorites and probably the ones that I play the most when improvising.  Ex. 3 walks you through each of these minor shell inversions which are also voiced as 1-7-3-5.  The 1st  inversion minor shell is probably as common for me to go to as I would Box 1 pentatonic, it just feels ‘right’ to me, probably because it starts on the 3rd of the chord.  The interval quality of the 3rd scale degree (Maj 3rd vs. min3rd) is the most powerful in music because it is the 3rd that determines whether or not the chord will be Major or minor- the two primary emotional forces in music.


Last but not least is the tension chord, the V chord, the Dominant shells.  These Dominant shells in Ex. 4 are so, so handy when I go play Blues stuff with the hip cats that know what melody is all about.  Blues is based upon dominant chords- what could be better to play over this style than Dominant shells?  And since we’re primarily only ever playing’ I7-IV7-V7 in a any Blues setting, knowing these makes it all just butter & child’s play!

Familiarize yourself with these shapes this month and next time we’ll pick up right where we left off and make instant melodies with these shapes, apply diatonic substitutions, and venture into the colorful and dramatic realm of extensions and chromatic voice leading.  Your goal this issue: Learn these shapes inside and out!  Until then! 
-Randall Padilla

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