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When I first dived into studying jazz guitar, I learnt that the modal system and harmonized scale were the ultimate key to jazz improvisation and mastery. This method worked for me in most cases but today I'm beginning to realize that the modal approach is not all that there is to speaking the jazz language and it has its limitations. For instance, the modal system doesn't argur well when played against a simple straight ahead 12-bar blues but a hexatonic blues scale tends to be a perfect fit in such cases. This brings me to this question;

What are the common limitations of the modal system?

  • Asked, answered, accepted ... but what exactly is the "modal system" and what are its limitations? It would help a great deal in understanding this question, if you explained the modal system in detail, and how you used it on a 12-bar blues. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Apr 4 at 13:35
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First off you came across a standard education method of exposing new students to the connection between modes are chords but that is just one ingredient to understanding music. By the way this connection isn't special to Jazz, it exists in classical music too. Not sure how you derived the statement "...were the ultimate key to jazz improvisation and mastery". They are one of many ingredients to understanding Jazz.

The key to mastery is to understand that music is a language like English or Spanish and it has a structure that has evolved. With that evolution "rules" of grammar have also been discovered or imposed on it to quantify what seems to be a standard use. The modes and chords are barely the alphabet. What one need to do is analyze the solos of great masters and see what they are doing, how they speak! Then start inventing your own take on these words and phrases.

It never ceases to amaze me how people push this system, and gravitate to it, as a formulaic method of always playing the right notes.

I've transcribed and picked apart solos by Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery, Miles, etc. You name it. I'm always amazed and amused that Wes can play every single "wrong" note, every avoid note, the 4th, the major 3rd over a Minor chord, and it sounds cool. He had an ear that was truly gifted. Jazz is a culture. To master it you need to get immersed in the culture, listen to everything from Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, up through Dizzy, Wes, Pat, Miles, into modern times if you like what people are doing with it, Jazz rock fusion , smooth jazz, or whatever. Learn how every generation copied from the one before. Pay more attention to phrasing rather than streams of notes that chase chords.

As for Blues, you can absolutely solo modally over it. Changing key on every chord, using a different mixolydian with the starting notes on the I, IV and V respectively. Guess who does this? Wes. Most players do not pigeonhole themselves to one approach but apply a mixture of modal, blues scale, and other approaches to building a solo.

Mastery comes from experience and trying to integrate all these approaches. There is no formula for mastery in any form of music, especially Jazz.

I learned Jazz, and guitar in general, is the 70s and 80s. Perhaps this "modal system" is new, or perhaps my teachers didn't buy into it. But I've never heard it called a system. Like I said it is one of many tools in the musician's arsenal and with that it is full of limitations when taken out of context. But when integrated with classical harmony theory, and going through the act of transcribing and analyzing the work of the masters, that one tool gets integrated in your mind with several others. I can honestly say I fully understand this tool, or system, yet when I solo it never enters my mind in the decision making process You could argue that Wes new 100s of volumes of music theory and thought about all of that when soloing, but I'd bet my money on the opposite.

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Aebersold and Berklee have a lot to answer for! They formalised a system of improvisation that was teachable and testable. But they gave a generation of players the idea that this was THE way to approach jazz.

It's harder to emulate Armstrong or Beiderbecke 'by numbers' (though their approach CAN be analysed and studied). I recommend you do so, alongside your scale/chord work.

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  • I am very familiar with Abersold, worked through many of his series on LP, and know people who teach at his summer camp. I am glad my guitar and bass teachers walked me through these but also told me what I've come to repeat "it's just one of many tools". – ggcg Apr 3 at 14:07
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The modal system is just a set of scales to play over chords. This gives you an option of what to play however it does not mean it will sound good. You must train your ear by listening to jazz and you will soon start to come up with lines that fall into the scales.

Answering your second question, limitations of the modal system include that playing purely diatonically (using only the notes in the scale) can send boring after a time. This is how the bebop was formed. If you study solos by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, or Thelonious Monk, you will notice that instead of just playing the chord/scale tones, they use something called a chromatic enclosure. That is the heart of bebop.

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Today's trend in jazz education is to focus a lot on scales, but this seems to be pretty recent. I think it can be linked to the rise of the Jamey Aebersold method. He started producing his play-a-longs in the 1970s, and each one contains a primer on "chord/scales." This series is still being produced and is probably the most popular jazz teaching aid in the world, and many of today's jazz artists learned using Aebersold books.

That being said, it wasn't how older jazz musicians conceived of their music. I have a Jimmy Dorsey saxophone method book (published in the 40s) with a small section on improvisation. It's basically a page of triadic arpeggios and broken scales and another page of short etudes (which are based on triadic arpeggios and broken scales). You can find some statements from Dizzy Gillespie, and he's always talking about chord extensions or super-imposing chords over other chords (e.g. tritone subs). Nothing about scales or modes anywhere, so you will have a hard time sounding like them if you use a modal approach.

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The example you quote (playing jazz modes over a 12 bar blues) is a peculiar example. I would say that a classical 12 bar blues harmony (I7, IV7, V7) is a genre different to jazz. It's non-diatonic (no single scale or mode will contain all the notes in that harmony), so the jazz rules don't apply. As I like to say, blues is minor and major at the same time.

I think that the modal approach to jazz works well in jazz, but as soon as you move to other genres, other rules apply.

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    What? I mean... what? So these examples clearly aren't jazz youtube.com/watch?v=EHpF3WEqZpQ youtube.com/watch?v=HQ_TzhblPjw youtube.com/watch?v=EYVmxKxMqE4 So did I get this right ... if it's not diatonic, it's not jazz? What? Do you have any links to these "jazz rules"? Diminished scale, blues scale, whole-tone scale, ... --> not jazz? This changes everything! :) – piiperi Reinstate Monica Apr 3 at 11:44
  • I'm not an expert in jazz. I studied jazz guitar for a couple of years but I was always struggling somewhat. The way I see it, jazz musicians have a wider palette of harmonic resources to choose from (maj 7 chords, diminished, etc). On the other hand, many blues musicians can create great music with just 3 dominant chords. We all agree that there are no hard and fast rules, only suggestions and tools to play with. However, saying "other rules apply" is a more succint way of saying the above. I never said that a diminished scale, a blues scale or a whole-tone scale are not jazz. – mkorman Apr 3 at 14:04
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    Your statements are just not true. In Rock, Metal, Shredders use "the modal system". It is also used in other genres. And it really isn't at the heart of Jazz. Jazz is about 100 years old and this system wasn't formalized until the 70s as far as I know. – ggcg Apr 3 at 14:09
  • @ggcg - I've obviously failed to convey the idea I had in my mind because my answer has gotten a lot of pushback. I will try to edit it. Can I ask a question though: what part of my answer says that "the modal system" is not used in Rock, Metal or Jazz. Something that has become obvious to me is that my perception of jazz is warped by the Berklee method (and I suspect it influences the pushback that my answer has received). Thanks for your comment. – mkorman Apr 3 at 14:12
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    @ggcg I think I took a very "colloquial" approach in the response (plus my own biased understanding of jazz), and it contains lots of ambiguity. I will try to rewrite. Thanks for the feedback. – mkorman Apr 3 at 14:19
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For a start, if you just stick to modes you won't be getting chromatic and you won't be getting whole tone, and they are two flavours well-known in jazz.

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  • What, do you mean by "... you won't be getting a whole tone"? – Phemelo Khetho Apr 4 at 15:48
  • Just as there is no mode that moves completely or substantially in semitones (chromatically), there is no mode that is constructed completely of whole tones. You won't get the flavour of chromatic movement or the flavour of sustained whole tone movement if you rely solely on modes. These flavours are common in jazz. – Areel Xocha Apr 4 at 23:53

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