Essential Tones

Lenny Breau, the brilliant Canadian jazz guitarist, was a great admirer of jazz piano master Bill Evans. One of the things he found in Evans’s playing was the use of sparse chord backing, which allowed a kind of “less is more” approach to arranging. Lenny moved it onto the guitar in his own unique way.

Here’s how it works:  “7th” chords are made up of 4 notes: 1-3-5-7. They are commonly Major (1-3-5-7), Minor (1-b3-5-b7), or Dominant (1-3-5-b7). Note that the 1 and 5 remain the same in all 3 families. The 3 and the 7 denote the “color” of the chord (major, minor, or dominant), and are often referred to as the “color tones”, or “essential tones”. These three primary chord families often represent the larger ideas of motion (minor), tension (dominant), and resolution (major). The model for this idea is the “ii-V-I” progression. In the key of G, the “ii chord” is the Am7, the “V chord” is the D7, and the “I chord” is the Gmaj7. Played in that order, they cycle through motion, tension, and on to resolution.

The 3 and 7 often occur on adjacent strings, commonly on the D and G strings. They can occur in either order: “3-7”, or “7-3”. In cases where the 7 is on the bottom, the chords tend to have a darker, more ominous sound, and this facilitated the dark pallette on which Breau painted his impressionistic masterpieces. The video below shows some examples.


Posted on March 31, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. swannanoajayne

    Great lesson, Rolly! You explain so much in such a short time.

  2. Excellent! Thanks.

  3. Fantastic playing and such knowledge.
    Wonderful mate!

  4. Hi Rolly, Lenny Breau was from Lewiston Maine of French Canadian parents.
    That area also produced Lenny’s brother Denny Breau, an excellent finger style player and Clarance and
    Rowland White. Must be something in the water.

  5. Thanks Rolly
    This really helps especially when it can be so easy to lose the way on the keyboard using the conventional chord sequences I’ve been used to for way too long!
    I love these short lessons, because I can revisit them often!

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