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Identifying The Key Signature


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Improvisation in a Minor Key

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We identify the sky signature by looking at all the chords in the progression over which you want to improvise. Write out all the notes in all the chords and see if you can build a scale. Let's use these chords for example: A minor, D minor, and E major. Take those and write out all the notes those chords contain:

A minor: a, c, e
D minor: d, f, a
E: e, g-sharp, b

Now put them in alphabetical order: a, b, c, d, e, f, g-sharp, a. Notice that is mostly an A minor scale. This is essentially what a key is. What "key a song is in" is which minor (or major) scale most of the notes in the song belong to. We can and will use the natural A minor scale to solo over the A minor and D minor chords. But when the E7 chord comes along, we alter the scale to reflect that chord. That leads to what is known as an A harmonic minor scale.

If the notes of all the chords do not all fit in one scale then look for a major or minor scale that contains most of them. Then look for the chord(s) that make for the exception. This is frequently a modulation chord. In this case the E7 is the "odd chord out"; it is the modulation chord that alters our A natural scale to harmonic minor (the 7th scale degree "g" is not a minor 7th when the E7 chord happens; it is a "g-sharp" instead). Most of the A minor scale will work fine, we simply need to alter that one scale note to reflect the E7 chord. When the A minor and D minor chords return, we simply switch back to the A natural scale.

From the perspective of functional harmony, the E7 chord is functioning as the complete Dominant (V7) of the A minor chord. If we only had a normal E minor chord, we would have only notes from the A natural minor scale, the E minor chord being (e, g, b). But the note "g-sharp" from the E7 chord adds a lot of character because it's a leading tone, which is a note one half-step below the root note of the scale.

The note g-sharp "leads" to the note root a, therefore it's called a leading tone.

So, the first thing we need to do is be able to confidently play the A minor scale in order to play the licks we'll build in this tutorial. Let's work on that now!

We're going to use the A minor scale in two octaves in a lower register. And an octave higher in the higher register. So, let's practice it with a backing track. Don't worry if you can't play it all right away or very well. Right now we just want to start playing it in 2 different places on the fretboard to get used to the sound, feel and look of it.

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