Like Mike: Chord-Tone Soloing Like Mike Stern

Is there anything more scary than chord-tone soloing?

Well, yes. Pretty much everything. I mean, chord-tone soloing is kind of lame, right? If you really want to be good, just learn a bunch of scales and then play them really fast in the right key.

Hipness? Attained.

OK, back to reality.

What's the Point?
Practicing chord-tone soloing is something I avoided for a long time. I had a teacher who once told me I needed to use arpeggios more in my improvising, that my lines were too scale-based. I remember thinking, "OK cool, I'll learn a bunch of arpeggios and then I can get back to learning new scales."

I didn't see the point in playing the notes that were in the chord. I wanted to play interesting notes. If I wanted to play notes from the chord, I'd just play the chord.

What I didn't understand was that he was telling me my lines didn't have any direction because I wasn't making the connections in the harmony with just scales. I was sort of meandering. Meandering in the right key, for sure, but meandering nonetheless.

If It's Good Enough for Mike...
I once attended a Mike Stern seminar where he was talking about practicing chord-tone soloing and how he still does it while shedding tunes. My head practically exploded, mostly with scorn because chord-tone soloing isn't hip. At that point I was seriously obsessed with the Augmented and Melodic Minor scale, string-skipping exercises and working out quartal voicings. What could be more boring than playing the notes in the chord?

Mike then went on to play -- I'm not kidding -- one of the most beautiful solos I've ever heard him play. The proof? I still remember it over ten years later and am still talking about it. How many performances can you say that about?

Like a little kid, with that goofy grin he always has, you could see the joy on his face just playing 1-3-5-7 of the chords. He did this on Autumn Leaves of all songs. Autumn Leaves -- a beginner of all beginner tunes.

This made me rethink everything, though it still took me years to fully recognize the power of this simple method.

How To
So how do you do it? Watch the video and find out:

Chord-tone soloing, like anything worthwhile requires some work from you. For any song you want to do this on, you have to figure out the chord-tones for each chord. If you know arpeggios by rote, this is one way to approach it but it's considerably easier and probably more musical if you know the actual notes you're playing.

Autumn Leaves
For example, here are all the chords in Autumn Leaves with their respective chord tones next to them. Notice I'm not putting in any 9's, 11's, 13's or what have you, just the basic makeup of the chords, 1 3 5 and 7.

A-7 = A C E G
D7 = D F# A C
GM7 = G B D F#
CM7 = C E G B
F#-7b5 = F# A C E
B7b9 = B D# F# A
E-7 = E G B D
E7 = E G# B D
Eb7 = Eb G Bb Db
D-7 = D F A C
Db7 = Db F Ab Cb (B)

Practicing this concept means playing those notes – and only those notes – over their respective chords while trying to make some music out of it.

Why do this? If you're a horn player or someone who can't comp for themselves, which makes most of us, it will make the harmony of the song incredibly clear to your ear making memorizing or just hearing it in your head much easier. You will also begin to see how notes and chords resolve into each other. It forces you to go off of auto-pilot and actually think about the notes you're playing, short circuiting your muscle memory.

Guide Tones
Particularly strong notes from these chords are the 3rd and the 7th sometimes referred to as "guide tones." They determine the character of the particular chord, whether it's a Major or Minor in the case of the 3rd, or has a b7 or a Major7. A great way to start this kind of practice is to play just the guide tones of the chord progression you're playing over.

For instance, here are the first 8 bars of Autumn Leaves with one example of a guide tone line:

In this example I emphasized common tones and tried not to leap but step between the chords as they changed from bar to bar if possible. In the following example I do the same thing but using both guide tones at the same time as building blocks for comping ideas.

And finally, here's an example of a chord-tone solo over the first eight bars of Autumn Leaves to get your started if you're new to this:

You can download a PDF of all of these examples on one page here.

Dig the Basics
Too often when I was in school I would ignore certain things I perceived as "beginner" because there was always something so much more interesting to learn. I believed if I just learned that thing that seemed exotic to me, I'd suddenly be a great player. That's the lottery concept of improvising. You believe that if you learn that one scale, or concept, or lick or whatever then suddenly you'll be great.

If it were only that easy. All these concepts and exercises and approaches are tools to help you understand your instrument better but more importantly, much more importantly, understand the music you're playing so you don't have that feeling of not knowing what the hell is going on and just hanging on for dear life.

Like Mike, I practice this on all new tunes I work on and sometimes I do it just because it sounds good. And sometimes when it sounds really good, I understand why he has that goofy grin on his face.


  1. Awesome lesson! Very nice. Great way to learn tunes.


  2. Great job - thanks!

  3. Wow! I had exactly the same experience at a Mike Stern masterclass, he cleared up a whole lot of stuff for me with about two sentences regarding chord tones!

  4. Thank you very much for your both pedagogichal and musical skills!

  5. THANK YOU for this one and in general for your great site and effort of sharing your knowledge!

  6. Such great advice. I've only recently come around to this way of thinking myself...after listening and being really moved by Lester Young's lines on the tune "Sometimes I'm Happy" (check it out on youtube). He plays so wonderfully on that tune, and it's mostly chord tones. A real epiphany for me. It's all about chord tones and phrasing. very powerful stuff!

  7. Thanks, Sean, for all of your content. It is really appreciated and has inspired me to relearn the guitar :)

  8. Chord Tones are the thing... Check out Sonny Rollin's beautiful solo on St. Thomas, where he uses chord tones....but not really of the chords of the song to create beautiful stuff... For Example he may use a series of Fmaj7(Dmin)-Bm7b5-G7alt chord tones on a G7 Chord ! I believe Sonny is on of the masters of Chord Tones.

  9. Thanks for the lesson. This is exactly how Sheryl Bailey is teaching me in a Bebop course on Truefire. You are spot on. It seems basic, but it keeps you from being able to bullshit your way through the changes and forces you to get directly to the source of the melody.

  10. Yes, this IS a great direction for learning and immbedding the 3rds,b7ths or Maj7ths highlighting the qualities of each chord & drawing the ear to leading tones towards tention/resolve within soloing :) 1 great technique. I like to combine this with the many other ones and always have varied options/flavors. Also, love the alt-dominate approach on all dominant7 chords as per Sonny Rollins ! Play on !

  11. Ha I'm glad someone else can be as dumb as me. I mean that with respect! When I first started playing I literally thought to myself, "chords are for pussies." I was Metal. So goth I was dead. Dead in the head! This is very similar. Freedom is only meaningful within constraints. Chord tones are the mountain roads on which you can drift.