When I was growing up and trying to learn how to play my saxophone in the 60's there were no good jazz teachers at the time, so everything I learned, I learned by transcribing and figuring out how to play by ear. I think it was a great way to develop my ear and it forced me to listen very hard to exactly what the player was playing but I was on my own trying to figure out what scales and devices the players were using. These days, there are so many transcription books on the market as well as practically every recording ever made by every great saxophone player that a young student is overwhelmed by the amount of information and often doesn't know where to start.
What I'm going to tell you today is a secret or a tip that I would have paid big money to have understood. It would have saved me years of searchingand trying to figure out what my favorite players were playing. At that time all my training was based on major and minor scales, the modes, and the bebop scale. The kind of music that I was interested in playing was more pop oriented which was heavily influenced by R&B. Every time I tried to play a solo it didn't seem to be in the right style because I was trying to force the scales that I was familiar with into these R&B styled songs.
SO MANY OF MY STUDENTS HAVE COME TO ME OVER THE YEARS AND SAID THAT THEY STUDIED WITH ALL THESE "SO CALLED GREAT TEACHERS" THAT ARE FAMOUS PLAYERS BUT THEY DIDN'T FEEL LIKE ANY OF THEM COULD HELP THEM FIGURE OUT WHAT THEY NEEDED TO KNOW TO SOUND GOOD.
You may be already figuring out what I'm about to tell you. It doesn't matter whether you're already an improviser or a beginner saxophone player, this one piece of knowledge will help you to understand how to play in all the various styles of jazz.
Every style of jazz is based on a specific vocabulary that is derived from a scale. Bebop is based on the bebop scale, so if you're interested in playing bebop you will want to learn that scale thoroughly and the arpeggios that go along with that so that you are able to play and understand what other players are playing in that style and then analyze what catches your ear and turns you on.
With that in mind, the secret that I am going to uncover for you today is simply this: Most contemporary pop music is based on the pentatonic scale and the pentatonic/blues scale (which is the pentatonic scale with an added flat 5th). You may say to yourself, well why is that such a great secret and how can that help me become a better saxophone player? Well, I'm going to explain how by learning that scale, you will be able to easily learn how to sound really hip in the contemporary pop scene today. Just by understanding that one thing and having the technique under your fingers, you will be able to cut down the amount of time it takes you to learn how to play a burning solo in almost all contemporary music today.
Everything in the blues style is based on it. As far back as Albert Collins, BB King and other blues guitarists of the late 50s and 60s, their entire career was based on the blues scale. As music evolved, that scale continued to dominate the pop music scene through R&B music and contemporary pop. If you've ever tried to learn a pop song melody, or tried to learn a solo that you heard, if you were anything like me, you wouldn't have been able to figure out what was going on. However, by memorizing the pentatonic and the blues scale in what ever song you're trying to learn to play or improvise on you will begin to understand just how easy it can be to play without any wrong notes over most pop music chord progressions.
For example, before I understood this in my early days of learning to play the saxophone, I was under the misconception that every chord change needed to have a specific scale that ran through it and all my solos sounded a bit forced. What I eventually figured out was that with the pentatonic blues scale I could play over many different chord changes with that one scale, and that would be the hippest way to play over those progressions. Even when you simply trying to learn a melody of a pop tune or R&B tune, if you learn the pentatonic blues in that key you will often find that the melody is based mostly or entirely on that scale. Let's look at some examples of pop melodies and see how well that applies:
1. Let's 1st look at the new Lady Gaga tune which I transcribed the melody and recorded a couple lessons on how to play it in a youtube video. Just click the link below to see the PDF that you can download. If we start at the pre-chorus you can see that the entire pre-chorus and chorus is based on an E minor pentatonic scale. G–A-B–C#-E. Just by knowing that, that melody becomes a super easy melody to not only transcribe but to also memorize. Further, if you were to solo or improvise around the melody itself you would sound the most tasteful playing that E minor pentatonic or E minor pentatonic blues scale.
2. Next, let's take a look at "Suit and Tie" by Justin Timberlake. Download the PDF below. Again, we will analyze the pre-chorus and chorus only. Here we see in the alto sax key that almost the entire tune is based on a G sharp minor pentatonic. (G#-B-C#-D#-F#). So if you were trying to transcribe this song because of the difficulty of the key you may not recognize that it's all with in this pentatonic scale (except for 2 places where it adds in A#). So once again if we just to learn that pentatonic scale, get it under your fingers then when you are listening along to figure out the notes you would see how easy it would be to figure out the song.
3. Another's example is up to that I recorded as well as did it a lesson for you on YouTube,” Firework” by Katy Perry. Download the PDF below to follow along as I show you how the entire verse is based on a D minor pentatonic scale(D-F-G-A-C). Again just learn that scale and this is also an easy song to transcribe on your own.
4. Here's another example of an entire solo that is really recognizable. This is a pretty famous saxophone solo that is based entirely on the B minor Pentatonic scale (B-C#-D-E)
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