Austin Byrd
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Analysis
  • Improvisation
  • Scales
Music Style
  • Jazz Swing
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In this interview, Jonny sits down with pianist, composer and arranger Austin Byrd to explore three essential approaches for mastering jazz improvisation. ​PWJ members can view the full interview here.

Austin Byrd has toured the United States, Canada, Japan, and Australia with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. He currently teaches jazz piano at Mt. San Antonio College and can be heard performing around Los Angeles with the Kevin Hicks Quartet and other local artists.

A graduate of the University of North Texas, Austin Byrd has performed with notable jazz icons including Arturo Sandoval, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Eric Marienthal, Francisco Torres, Marshall Gilkes, Tom Kubis, Ron Stout, Tierney Sutton, and many others.

This is a guest blog post by Austin Byrd

Are you looking for some exercises to help with building jazz vocabulary? You can quickly learn new sounds and add to your own jazz language with the “Rock Climber” exercise! You’ll learn how to practice this exercise (plus a little extra) with the following three techniques:

  • Arpeggios over chord changes
  • The “Rock Climber”
  • Upper Structures

I’m excited to share this with you! Let’s get started.

Step 1: Arpeggios Over Chord Changes

Before we get into the Rock Climber exercise, it’s essential to know what the chord tones are for each chord in a tune. For this lesson we’ll be using Billie’s Bounce, a blues in F. Here are the changes:

Changes for Billie's Bounce
Changes for Billie’s Bounce

As you can see, most of these chords are dominant 7 chords. This will simplify our first exercise a little bit since most of the chords are the same chord quality. I love starting with this arpeggio exercise for several reasons:

  1. Teaches your ears and fingers what the right notes are for every chord
  2. Works on your time and time feel
  3. Teaches you what it feels like to play long strings of eighth notes

Here’s the exercise: we are going to play a constant string of eighth notes over the entire form of the tune, outlining each chord using its chord tones. Here’s what it looks like written out:

Arpeggios over Billie's Bounce
Arpeggios over Billie’s Bounce

As you can see, we’ve constructed arpeggios that start on the tonic of each chord on beat 1. This is important because it will help ground you in both the rhythm of the arpeggios and the harmonic rhythm of the chords. Harmonic rhythm is the rhythm of the chords going by. If a chord lasts for a whole measure, its harmonic rhythm is a whole note. If there are two chords per bar, the harmonic rhythm is half notes. Each arpeggio starts on the tonic, on the first beat of the harmonic rhythm of each chord!

If a chord lasts for a whole measure, we add the 9 of the chord at the top to round out the rhythm of the arpeggio. 9ths are so important in jazz because they are an extension. Chord extensions give jazz its musical color and I love to incorporate them as much as possible!

Practice this exercise with a metronome slowly until you can get it down comfortably. Let’s move on to the Rock Climber!

Step 2: Building Jazz Vocabulary with the Rock Climber

I love the Rock Climber because it takes what we learned with arpeggios and morphs it into a much more melodic exercise. Of course knowing chord tones and arpeggios are super important when it comes to building jazz vocabulary, but it’s equally important to be melodic!

The Rock Climber has four parts; two ascending, two descending. We are going to use the following scale degrees of each chord: 1, 2, 3, 5 and 3, 4, 5, 7. Here’s what part one looks like:

Building jazz vocabulary: The Rock Climber Part 1
The Rock Climber Part 1

Part one uses 1, 2, 3, 5 going up for each chord. Start on beat one of each measure, and leave two beats of rest after. If there are two chords in a measure, play 1, 2, 3, 5 of each chord with no rest.

Part two is the same as part one,  but we will use 3, 4, 5, 7 of each chord:

The Rock Climber Part 2
The Rock Climber Part 2


Part three is almost the same as part one, except now we are going to move down:

The Rock Climber part 3
The Rock Climber Part 3

And part four is the same as part two, but moving down:

The Rock Climber Part 4
The Rock Climber Part 4

Practice each of these separately until you feel comfortable with them all. Once you do, you can start to mix and match each part to form some nice eighth note lines, like this:

The Rock Climber Combined
The Rock Climber Combined

Spend some time experimenting with different combinations! This is one of my favorite ways to start really improvising because it allows you to be creative, but stay within certain limitations. Improvisation can be overwhelming if you don’t set boundaries, but don’t worry! When you feel confident improvising with the four parts of the Rock Climber, try using other ideas that don’t come from the exercise. You’ll be coming up with your own ideas in no time!

Next, let’s look at how we can use extensions and alterations with upper structures.

Step 3: Upper Structures

If you’re at a more advanced level, using upper structures to improvise is a great way to add more vocabulary to what you’re already doing. An upper structure is a triad that sits on top of an existing chord, using one or more extensions. If you look at an F9 chord, the top three notes form a C minor triad (C, Eb, G. The 5th, 7th, and 9th of F9). There’s also another triad using the 3rd, 5th, and 7th : A, C, Eb or A diminished. You can use these two triads to come up with some cool ideas over F9!

F7 with upper structure
F7 with Cmin upper structure

F7 with upper structure 2
F7 with Adim upper structure

Another way to think of these triads is by scale degree. C minor is a minor triad starting on the 5 of F9, and A diminished is a triad starting on the 3 of F9. You can transpose these upper structures to any other dominant 7 chord and it will work every time! Try transposing these two chords to Bb9: the two triads are F minor and D diminished.

If you’re comfortable with altered dominant chords, there are even more possibilities with upper structures. Let’s look at a couple possibilities with F7.

#11 and b9 are the two most common alterations for dominant 7 chords, and there is an upper structure that works for each of them. If we add the #11 to F7, as well as the 13 (D), the whole chord looks like this:

F7#11 - G Major upper structure
F7#11 – G Major upper structure

In other words, any time you see a dominant 7 #11 chord, a Major triad starting on the 2 gives you a perfect upper structure to work with! Try improvising with our upper structure on the 5 mixed with this new one. It sounds really cool!

If a dominant chord has a b9, we can create an upper structure by adding the 13. This gives us a D Major triad on top of F7, or a Major triad starting on the 6:

F7b9 with upper structure
F7b9 with upper structure

Try improvising using all or just a few of these upper structures. It’s a really interesting way to add new sounds in your journey building jazz vocabulary. There are many more possibilities with upper structures, and not just over dominant 7 chords. You can create upper structures over any chord quality!

If you’ve enjoyed this lesson, I encourage you to check out some of the fabulous courses here at Piano With Jonny. Feel free to dig in to more detail on chord extensions in the Piano Chord Extensions course, alterations in the Piano Chord Alterations and 2-5-1 Chord Extension & Alteration Exercises course, and upper structures in the Coloring Dominant Chords With Upper Structures course.

I hope the information here helps you achieve your goal of building jazz vocabulary! Thanks for learning!

By Austin Byrd

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