November 30th, 2015

5 Easy Tricks With Approach Notes That Will Make You Sound Like a Pro

By Eric


Ever wonder how the best players seem to improvise brilliant lines without any effort?

All while you’re struggling to make even the simplest chord tones sound good…

If you’re like most players you know this frustration. However, the solution doesn’t lie with a hidden secret or advanced music theory – it all goes back to the musical foundation that you already know.

By now you should be able to visualize the root and chord tones of any chord.

But knowing this information is only the starting point. The trick lies in making music out of these harmonic building blocks.

Pat Metheny quote

So how do you start with the basic notes of a chord and turn them into a solo that sounds good? How do you transform a few boring triads into music that people actually want to listen to??

As you’ll soon see, the gap between memorized theory and musical solos is closer than you think – you just need to know a few tricks.

It’s all about your approach…

Many of the complex lines that you hear in your favorite solos aren’t based on fancy scales.

Or even complex chords…

They are rooted in the basic structures found in every common chord: the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th.

One way improvisers create complex lines with limited material is through the use of chromatic approach notes.

For example listen to the opening of Dizzy Gillespie’s arrangement of Blue n’ Boogie:

Blue n' Boogie


Without the ornamentation or 16th notes the line would look like this – a Bb major triad with half-step approach notes:

Approach notes on triad

Every great improviser utilizes the trick of approach notes in their playing and lucky for you, it’s built upon the bare bones of music theory that you already know!

Below we’ll show you 5 ways to use approach notes that will turn those triads and arpeggios into musical language that sounds great in all of your solos.

Trick #1: Use approach notes on major triads

Major Triad Half-Step Approach

Let’s start with something simple – a major triad.

I’m guessing you can play a major triad and I’m guessing that you can visualize those three notes in your mind…

But a triad by itself isn’t music. It’s a music theory exercise.

This is where a simple approach note can make all the difference.

Approach notes on a major triad

By approaching the basic triad with a half-step you add harmonic pull and musical direction. And with the addition of a rhythmic element you now have a musical phrase.

Instead of someone stumbling over basic music theory, you now sound like an improviser making a musical statement.

Start by memorizing this simple exercise in every key.

Approach notes in all 12 keys

*After you’ve ingrained the major triads do the same for minor, diminished and augmented triads.

Trick #2:  Use approach notes with diatonic triads

Diatonic Triads

Now that you’ve approached the major triad in all 12 keys, let’s just focus on one key.

Apply the concept above to the diatonic chords in a single key. Start with the tonic triad and move up step by step, inserting a chromatic approach note below the root of each diatonic triad.

For example, here is the exercise in the key of C:

Approach notes and diatonic triads

Then apply this concept to the same triads descending:

Descending diatonic triads

Take this pattern through the diatonic triads of all 12 keys.

For more variation, experiment with approach notes in both ascending and descending triads. Remember to take everything through all four directions.

Trick #3:  Approach notes on chord tones

Chord Tones

Aside from the root, you must also learn how to utilize approach notes on each chord tone of a chord.

For example, take a triad and add a chromatic approach note below the root, 3rd and 5th.

Approaching chord tones

A melody that uses this technique is Dizzy Gillespie’s tune The Champ. Check it out:

Along with major triads, practice using approach notes to the chord tones of minor, diminished and augmented triads as well.

Approach notes on min, dim, and aug triads

You can also use a lower neighbor approach note. Listen to how Clifford Brown uses this technique in his solo on Joy Spring:

Clifford Brown solo


Trick #4:  Approach notes on 7th chords

7th Chords Approach Notes

When you improvise a solo over any of the common jazz standards, you aren’t dealing with just triads, you’re dealing with 7th chords.

And like the exercises above, you can also apply approach notes to 7th chords.

Let’s start with a Major 7th chord.

Approaching a Major 7th arpeggio by half-step is very common – I’m sure you’ve heard this in countless solos.

One example is Clifford Brown’s solo break on I’ll Remember April:

Clifford Brown solo break


The basic structure of this line is a Major 7th arpeggio:

Major 7th approach note

Practice using an approach note on Major 7th arpeggios in every key. (If you’ve already got the major triads from step #1 under your fingers this one should be pretty easy!)

Next apply the same concept to the chord tones of the Major 7 chord:

Major 7th chord tones

Experiment with different rhythmic variations and use the same process on minor 7 and V7 chords. As you can see, the addition of a simple approach note allows you to create a number of musical possibilities using only chord tones.

Trick #5: Enclosures using upper and lower approach notes

Enclosures using approach notes

One common musical device that utilizes approach notes are enclosures.

Simply approaching a goal note from above and below. Here is an example of a common line that uses the enclosure of chord tones:

Approach Notes within enclosures

In this example a diatonic upper neighbor and chromatic lower neighbor are used to approach the chord tones of the C Major7 chord.

Learn the pattern above in all 12 keys. Then practice approaching chord tones only from above and alternating between both upper and lower approach notes.

Check out the Charlie Parker line below over Anthropology that uses this pattern:

Diatonic and chromatic approach notes


More music, less theory…

When you learn the basics of music theory it’s easy to forget that the goal of all this information is to make music.

You’ve memorized those scales and triads and chords, but now you’ve got to create a solo that people want to listen to.

Approach notes are an easy way to add melodic and rhythmic interest to these otherwise static sounds.

Your job is to take these 5 tricks and apply them to the tunes you’re practicing. Use approach notes with:

  • Major triads
  • Diatonic triads
  • The chord tones of chords
  • Major 7th Chords
  • Enclosures

In a short amount of time you’ll be able to create interesting melodic content with only a few notes. You’ll be thinking of a melodic line instead of plain old music theory.

It’s a small device that will make a huge difference in all of your solos – give it a shot!

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