3rds, 7ths, 9ths - What! Me Worry?

It is time to discuss 3rds, 7ths and 9ths extensions in the context of linear melodic phrasing for solo improvisation. Typically when confronted with the necessity of “targeting” these tones as a melodic device players look to the chord triad and then try to add them to the chord on top. This is unnecessarily difficult. 

Let us first define the word “device” for this and all future discussions. A device is a method by which musicians encapsulate large amounts of musical “data” into smaller, more simple concepts. An example of this is when you learn to think of keys as Roman numerals. Instead of having to communicate chords of all the keys you just express I IV V in the key of A. Or V I IV in the key of G. Or ii V I on the key of C. 

The combining of several such devices to simplify your improvisation is relevant to our discussion today. One such device taught in jazz circles that we shall borrow refer to is “kernal chords.” There are other names for this type of chord but these chords consist of a Root -  the 3rd -  the 7th. Plus these are rich sounding chords with the 3rd and 7th floating an octave above the Root. We shall borrow these, add the 9th and make a linear arpeggio.  

Logic dictates that the bass instrument stresses the Root and 5th note of a chord. For the guitarist, especially early on, knowing when to use a b5 or a #5 is critical to to not messing up the harmony. These kernal chords never include the 5th. Problem solved by this simple device. 

Remember… a chord symbol does not obligate you to play every single note just because it says Fmaj7#11. In fact, many players view the chord symbol as indicating the “scale” you should use to improvise with. C9 indicates C Mixolydian -  Cmaj7#11 indicates C Lydian - Cm7b5 indicates Locrian. So let’s think of chord symbols as scales for the duration of this post. 

If you go back and listen to your recorded solos you might discover that some of the best ones only utilize 4 or 5 notes in terms of conveying emotional authenticity. And we all love our pentatonic scales right? And we can generate our own scales, right? 

Here’s the meat… instead of thinking of the scale as linear beginning from root to root. Think symbolically instead. Think of the root as the Sun of its own solar system. Place the Root in the middle as the target and then introduce the notes immediately above and below it…like this. Here is the natural A minor scale. 

A B C D E F G A 

Which translates as “Root 9th -3rd 11th 5th b13 -7 Root” 

Which notes are immediately above and below the A note as Root?  “G A B C”   “G is the -7th” “A is the Root” “B is the 9th” and “C is the -3rd. 

So the notes at each end of the mini scale are the 3rd and 7th. The notes in the middle are the Root and the 9th. 

Please find me any advanced guitar teacher who doesn’t recommend targeting 3rd’s and 7th’s as you gravitate away from playing the Root and 5ths. 

So the bass player stresses the A and E… and you stress this four note mini scale, which I prefer to term a “fragmented linear arpeggio.” Bingo! Now apply this to all the  remaining chords derived from the A natural (Aeolian) scale. 

R 9 3


A B C D = Bm7b9.  (or will fit over B7b9,#9)  (#9 = m3rd

B C D E = Cmaj9 

C D E F = Dm9 

D E F G = Em7b9   (or will fit over E7b9,#9) 

E F G A = Fma9 

F G A B = G9 

G A B C = Am9 

All these linear arpeggios contain the 7th, Root, 9th and 3rds diatonic to A natural minor. When you play one of these 4 note mini scale phrases practice sustaining the notes at both ends. And there is always the Root if you wish to emphasize that note concurrent with the bass. Or if you are in a power trio without a rhythm instrument. 

Remember, the bass player and other guitar/keyboard will provide the missing 5th. If you have read earlier posts you will see I advocate splitting up the chord tones among the band members. For a little extra fun you can bend the 7th up to the Root, bend the 9th up to the 3rd. 


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