It’s been a little while since I last posted up a free jazz guitar lesson, so I thought it would be appropriate to cover the first jazz song I learnt to play all the way through. “So What” is the first song featured on Miles Davis’ 1959 classic record “Kind Of Blue”, which is largely considered to be the greatest jazz album of all time, as well as one of the greatest albums ever recorded. “Kind Of Blue” also features an all star cast of musicians, with many considering the quintet of Davis on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on double bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums to be the finest ever assembled.
Having listed the musicians above, you may notice the lack of a guitar player to be a slight issue in a jazz guitar lesson. However, it is still possible to learn all of the parts featured in “So What” on our chosen instrument, and there are many covers of this classic tune from a number of guitarists, with Ronny Jordan’s 1992 recording being perhaps the best known example.
The Main Theme
“So What” follows an AABA format. This means that we have the first section lasts for 8 bars, then repeats, giving us 16 bars in total. The B section is actually just the A section transposed up a semitone, and lasts for 8 bars, before returning to the A section for another 8 bars. The piece then cycles around this format until the end.
What makes “So What” unusual is the use of the double bass to take the main melody. Fortunately, this section translates well to the guitar, with the possibility of playing the distinct chord voicings that answer the bass phrase on guitar as well. Let’s have a look at both parts transcribed as one guitar part:
Here, the bass part has been transposed up one octave in order for it to translate onto guitar. You may want to add some embellishments to the melody, using slides, hammer ons and pull offs where appropriate. Here is a video of me covering “So What” where I demonstrate these concepts:
“So What” is one of the best examples of modal jazz. In fact, what makes “Kind Of Blue” such a landmark record, is Miles Davis’ focus on modal compositions instead of the hard bop style of his earlier work. “So What” is written in D Dorian, which is the second mode of the C Major scale. It contains the notes D, E, F, G, A, B & C, which are the root, major 2nd, minor 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th and minor 7th respectfully. The major 6th in particular is what gives Dorian its unique “sweet” sound. In fact, the bass melody makes use of this in the first two bars, starting on the root note (D) before moving up to the 5th (A) before making use of that major 6th (B). It then hits the minor 7 (C) before returning to the root note, before moving up to the major 2nd (E), back to the minor 7 and finally resolving back to the root. As you can see, we have a strong Dorian melody here which fits perfectly into the notes of the mode.
The chords are also constructed using the modal concept. Rather than thinking in terms of more traditional harmony, the unusual Em11 and Dm11 chords have been built by stacking intervals from D Dorian on top of each other. In the first chord of Em11, we have the root note (E) followed by its perfect 4th (A), which is then followed by its perfect 4th (D), then by another perfect 4th (G) and finally with a major third on top (B). The Dm11 is the same voicing has the Em11 chord, but shifted down a whole tone. This contrasts with bebop style jazz quite drastically, which often sees rapid fire chord changes, frequent modulations and fast tempos. This modal approach to composition gives the piece a much freer feel, and is typified by the accompaniment that Bill Evans plays on piano during the solos, with the chords and their respective voicings seemingly improvised, as opposed to being pre planned. This is a concept which you can apply to your own musical style by constructing chords based on notes from the scale, rather than thinking in traditional major or minor triads.
The two main solos on “So What” are taken by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Miles Davis’ solo in particular is regarded as a classic trumpet solo, so you may decide to copy it note for note on guitar. If you would prefer to improvise, then you have a number of options for scales in which to base your solo around. If you are new to jazz improvisation, then you may want to start out with the familiar D minor pentatonic scale:
Since D minor pentatonic (D, F, G, A C) is essentially the same scale as D Dorian (D, E, F, G, A, B, C) with two notes omitted, it is perfectly fine to use this scale to improvise over the chords to “So What”. Although this may be the easiest choice to begin with, you may find that it doesn’t sound ‘jazzy’ enough for you, so you may want to experiment with D Dorian instead:
Another scale I love to use over this tune is the D Melodic Minor scale. This is essentially the same scale as D Dorian, except the 7th degree of the scale has been raised up a semitone from C to C#. This gives it a little “outside” flavour and can be used to spice things up a little if Dorian gets a little too nice.
Each of the scales above should be transposed up a semitone (one fret) on the guitar when improvising over the “B” section of this piece in order to reflect the temporary key change. This will give you Eb Minor Pentatonic, Eb Dorian and Eb Melodic Minor. Personally, I found “So What” a great starting point to practice jazz concepts such as changing key within a solo, as the modulation is fairly straightforward, and there is plenty of time in each section to prepare yourself for the change. This will help prepare you for faster key changes in more complex tunes.
“So What” is a relatively straight forward jazz tunes which will be a great gateway for guitarists who are new to jazz. There is plenty of scope to practice new scales and modes over the solo, as well as the opportunity to try out the concept of building chords based on intervals of the mode rather than sticking to traditional sounds. I hope you have fun learning this jazz classic and, as always, I’ll see you next time.