LJS 110: How to Start Crushing It On the Blues (Feat. Nick Mainella)


Welcome to episode 110 of the LJS Podcast where today we are talking with Nick Mainella from The 10 Minute Jazz Lesson Podcast all about the Blues and how to start playing it with confidence. Blues is a foundational element of jazz music and Nick teaches you the ins and outs and everything you need to know to get started. Listen in!

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Today’s show is special, not only because we have guest Nick Mainella from the 10 Minute Jazz Lesson Podcast joining us, but because we’ve never spent an entire episode focusing on the blues before.

The blues is a foundational element of jazz music. Jazz came directly out of the blues tradition and it is still represented in the music today. So would it be wise to study up on the blues? You bet.

That’s why I have Nick Mainella on to share his expertise. He loves starting his students out on the blues because the blues can teach us so many important lessons about jazz harmony and language.

Here are a few things we talk about:

  1. Why the blues is important.

  2. What the difference between a major and minor blues is.

  3. Common blues chord progressions.

  4. Important jazz blues heads to know.

  5. Basic and advanced improvisation tips over the blues.

Nick absolutely lays down the value for you in today’s episode so be sure to grab your favorite snack and beverage and take some notes! Don’t forget to check out the 10 Minute Jazz Lesson Podcast, and be sure to check out his blues course as well.

Important Links

10 Minute Jazz Lesson Podcast

60 Days to Crushing the Blues

Read the Transcript

Brent: All right. What’s up, everybody? My name is Brent. I am the jazz musician behind the website LearnJazzStandards.com, which is blog, podcast, and videos all geared towards helping you become a better jazz musician. So excited to be here and I have a very special guest on the show today. I know you’re going to love. It’s Nick Mainella from the 10 Minute Jazz Lesson Podcast. This is an excellent podcast where Nick every single week is laying down some jazz tips in advice for everybody. So be sure to check out the 10 Minute Jazz Lesson podcast.

I’m excited to have him on because he’s going to talk all about the blues today and how you can crust it on Blues. Now, the Blues we have never honed on the Blues before on this show. So I’m stoked about this because the Blues is really important in jazz. It really is the foundation of jazz and how it all started. It’s still a big part of the music today. So we need to understand the Blues, how to play the Blues, how to improvise over it. So I’m really excited to dive into that today.

So before we get into the interview with Nick, I just want to say if this is your very first time listening to this how, I want you to know you’re in the right place if you are a beginner trying to get into jazz, maybe if you’re just trying to see what’s out there, understand what it is, or whether you’re an intermediate player or even an advanced player, there’s something here for everybody and I come out with a show every single week to serve you to help you become a better musician. So subscribe to iTunes, subscribe to your favorite podcast listening service if you haven’t done already. Don’t ever miss a show that’s coming out. I’m going to make a pledge to you today if you come and you’re listening every single week and as long as you’re here, I’m going to be here coming out with free jazz lessons, tips, advice, every single week to serve you more. Okay? So subscribe on iTunes and make sure you’re connected.

All right. So I’m going to get Nick Mainella on for this interview, and just to let you know, he has a really cool Blues course that he’s going to talk about at the end of the show. So stick around for that.
All right. Without further ado, here is Nick Mainella from the 10 Minutes Jazz Lesson Podcast.

All right. Welcoming on the show today is Nick Mainella. He is a saxophonist and he is the host of the 10 Minute Jazz Lesson Podcast. Nick, thanks for being here today.

Nick: Oh, man. Thanks so much for having me, Brent. I’m really excited to talk to you.

Brent: Well, I just love your podcast and I’ve been a fan. I have a feeling that some other people who listen to my podcast listen to yours too, which is super fun and super cool. So I’m glad that … Man, I’m just excited to have you on today and talk. But for those who maybe don’t know you, could you give like the one minute Nick Mainella, what do you actually do?

Nick: Yeah. So basically I’m a saxophonist. I live just north of Boston in the Boston area. Teach a lot of lessons, play a lot of music, and just recently over the past couple of years have been really getting into podcasting. So I run actually two podcasts. The 10 Minute Jazz Lesson Podcast I’ve had going for quite a while now, and then brand new on the podcast scene is saxophone podcast called Everything Saxophone that I just started with my colleague Donna Schwartz.

That ones a little bit more centered around interviewing great saxophonists and talking about the instrument. But yeah, the 10 Minute Jazz Lesson is kind of my passion. I’ve been doing it for a long time, and what we do on that show is just basically pick a topic and we do around a 10 minute lesson on it. Sometimes it spills over because, as you know, some of these topics are pretty deep. It’s just been great. I’ve been able to connect with people all over the world and hopefully spread some knowledge to people that maybe don’t have the traditional means of being near a large city or being able to study with somebody. So that’s kind of what I do and what I’m all about.

Brent: That’s awesome. Yeah, definitely if you haven’t listened to the 10 Minute Jazz Lesson Podcast, definitely go check it out. It’s such a great show and I saw that you’re approaching episode 100, is that right?

Nick: Yeah. Actually so next week will be episode 100. So I’m pretty excited about it.

Brent: Oh, man. Congratulations.

Nick: Thank you. Thank you.

Brent: The time we’re recording this episode 100 might be out. We actually passed, when was it? Was it in February or I forgot. We passed the episode 100 mark recently, which was super fun. Two years of the podcast. So congratulations, man. That’s so great.

Nick: You as well, man.

Brent: Ah, thanks. I just appreciate that you’re out there serving people and spreading the jazz education love. I think we both know that music is a great thing. Jazz is a great music. So it’s great to just have someone who does this as well. So that’s so cool.

Let’s dig a little deeper. Let’s dig a little bit deeper. How did you get started with music? What got you so amped up about it?

Nick: Yeah. It’s kind of a normal story of being a kid and my dad was a saxophone player. Went to Berkeley in the 1970s and then he’s been a public school educator for the past about 35 years. So just growing up around a lot of music. Hearing my dad play the saxophone. Being able to dig through his record collection from a very, very young age was amazing. Just kind of having the sound of some pretty advanced music, again, from a young age I think kind of pushed me towards it. Then when it came time to choose an instrument in school, of course, I wanted to be like my dad so I chose saxophone. I think just having all that music kind of floating around in my head, I took to it pretty quickly. It wasn’t easy because of course playing any instrument isn’t easy, especially playing jazz. But I feel like I had a leg up just from having all that music in my ears.

Then just continue to get more serious about it through middle school, high school. Ended up going to the University of New Hampshire for my undergrad in saxophone performance, and then headed out to Western Michigan University after that to get a master’s in jazz performance. Then after that, just kind of been living the life of a musician trying to kind of cobble together a living as I’m sure you know all the things that go along with that. But have a large studio of private students and just trying to get better at the instrument every single day and juggle all the things that are going on. But it really is all the difficulties that go along with a life in music that really kind of worth it at the end of the day when you kind of look back on what you did that day and really appreciate it.

So yeah, just kind of started with the saxophone and never really looked back. It’s been great. I have no complaints.

Brent: That’s awesome. Yeah. That’s true. There are a lot of struggles that go along with being a professional musician, but there are so many rewards as well. Even if you’re listening and most of you listening are not professional musicians but you love the music and you’re passionate about it. It brings some kind of fulfillment or happiness in your life. Well, that’s the same thing that we feel too. You were just a little more intelligent with your career choice. So just feel good about that.

That’s so great. So your father was really influential then in getting you into the music and that’s really cool. Was there ever … Because not everybody just kind of jumps into jazz like, “Oh, jazz is …” Because it is kind of a music that you have to appreciate, right? You have to enjoy the artistry of it. Was there any big ah-ha moments for you where you were like, “Oh, man. I really love jazz and I really want to pursue at least this music primarily.” Because we all pursue other kinds of music too. But was there a moment like that?

Nick: I think so. I had the good fortune of going to a school with a very good music program. I definitely credit that to a lot of my love for music and ultimately success in a career in music. So when I was in middle school and early high school, I played in the jazz band. The teacher would give us the Blue’s scales and some really basic jazz improvisation language to use. But then when I was towards the end of my freshmen year of high school, we got a student teacher who came in and worked with the ensembles. He is still to this day one of the best jazz tenor saxophone players I’ve ever heard. His name is Bill Jones. He’s a Boston area musician.

He kind of hits me to the fact that like this music is endless. Like it’s bottomless. You can work on this for your entire life and not get to the nexus of playing jazz. So that was like the turning point for me was just seeing somebody as serious as him and then realizing how much work he was doing on the horn every day and how much I liked to hear him play and how much I just liked to hang out with him.

Like the first time you get to hang out with a real live jazz musician who’s really doing it and is that serious about it, it can really change your life. He introduced me to all of my favorite players these days. So I think he was the first guy that hipped me to Cole Train and Joe Henderson.

He was going to New England Conservatory at the time. So it was kind of funny actually because he would give me some stuff in our lessons that was like so far over my head. I look back on it and some of it is still over my head to this day. I think most people would consider that, “Well, what the heck was he doing?” But to me it really, like I said earlier, it was like, “Oh my gosh. This stuff is crazy.

If I can get to even scratch the surface of some of this stuff that he’s giving me, this is going to be an awesome thing.” So that really ignited my passion. I fully credit him to kind of opening my eyes to the bigger world of jazz and I think would’ve happened if he didn’t come to school and turn us on to all this kind of stuff. So big shout out to Bill Jones. Thanks, Bill.

Brent: Yeah, Bill. So yeah. It’s so funny you say that because my big jazz influencer, the guy who really got me hooked, like the first tune he gave me to play was Inner Urge by Joe Henderson.

Nick: Wow. The first one.

Brent: Yeah. I asked him years, “Why did …” I guess he just thought that I would be into that because I was coming from prog rock and I don’t actually think he was thinking about it really. But I’ll tell you something, that’s an insane song right? But I guess just the dedication that I had to have just to try to at all improvise over that without having any knowledge of anything really helped me to persevere with just about everything else in jazz.

Nick: Right.

Brent: By the way, if you’re OCD, this is a nightmare of a music, right?

Nick: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent: Like you were saying, it’s endless. It just keeps going.

Nick: I’ll never forget, I always kind of tell this story, but at the University of New Hampshire I had the good fortune to meet and study a little bit with James Moody.

Brent: Oh my goodness.

Nick: I mean, he was like about to turn 80 when he came out there and we hung out. I’ll never forget he said, “Come by my hotel room tomorrow morning at like 9:00 a.m., and we’ll hang out and go over some stuff.” So I showed up at the hotel room and as I’m walking down the hall, I can hear him playing. I knock on the door, he lets me in, and he’s got like music just out all over the bed. He’s got several saxophone mouthpieces out. It’s clear that he had been practicing for hours already that morning. I mean, you look at a guy like that whose played with everybody. He’s a legend. He knows more about jazz than I probably ever will and he’s still working his butt off at the edge of 80 trying to get better. So that really drove it home to me too. Like, “Okay. Wow. It’s really never ending.”
Well, I think that can actually defeat a lot of people. I think if you make the mental decision to let it inspire you, things are going to go a lot better.

Brent: 100%. It really is a mental decision because that can break people down or it can just be a lifetime of endless discovery and fun.

Nick: Right.

Brent: So great point you make there. That’s cool that you got to study a bit with James Moody. So I’m excited to have you on to talk a little bit about the Blues today, which is actually something on this show that we’ve never really just honed in on and really just unpacked, but at the end of the day, the Blues is so important when it comes to jazz music and understanding, knowing the Blues, getting deep inside of it can make a huge impact. So I though it’d be great to start by asking you, why is the Blues so important in jazz?

Nick: Yeah. For several reasons. I think the first is that if you trace the lineage of this music back to its roots, the blues is present in all forms. So if you think about the culture that brought about this music, it came originally from field songs and then that kind of morphed into the blues and the blues kind of morphed into something a little bit more swinging that was eventually called jazz.

But it’s been ever-present throughout. So I think the fact that we still play the blues, I would imagine that almost any gig that you go to you’re going to hear at least one blues being played. It’s just kind of something that we do as jazz musicians. Not only is a super fun form to play over, it’s a great place to get started because it’s a relatively simple form. It’s not Inner Urge, you know what I mean? It’s something that’s a little bit easier to and less intimidating to get into. It also contains a lot of the devices that are going to be used I more complicated tunes but it presents itself in a more accessible way.

Also, the really nice thing about the blues is that you can play it in a lot of different ways. So you can play it in a very, very simple form at a slow tempo or you can start adding a lot of changes to it and actually making it a lot more difficult. You can do a lot more substitutions over the blues. So just kind of a nice base of operations for a lot of the music that you’re going to start studying after the blues.

So I’m a firm believer. In fact, most of my students the first thing we work on is the blues. I know that’s the case in a lot of schools like the first thing you ever improvise over is a blues because it’s something where a teacher can give you just one scale and say, “Go.” That’s really nice with younger kids, but you can also get really, really deep with the blues, which is why I really appreciate it because it has that dichogamy.

Brent: I think the blues too is really accessible, right? Because I mean, even further than it just being a big deal in jazz, if you think about it, most popular music has roots in the blues. Like rock has … I mean, everything has evolved, right?

Nick: Exactly.

Brent: Like it all has roots there. This African American music that started that it’s just branched out into all these different styles that have just morphed and taken influence from multiple different places. But that’s also even outside of jazz, it’s super important.

Well, you mentioned a second ago that there’s a lot of different ways you can play the blues and styles and ways, and so before our interview here, I was asking the Learned Jazz Standards community Facebook group if they had any questions for you, and so here’s a great one from Louis. He says, “What is the difference between a major and a minor blues?” Maybe we can start talking about that because those are two different styles right there.

Nick: For sure. So obviously the main different and I’m sure most of the people know this out there but major and minor are two very different things. Right? So it’s going to give you completely different sounds whether you’re playing cords that have a major third or whether you’re playing chords that have a minor chord. So on the surface level, that’s obviously the main difference, but that’s also said in the name. The major blues, the minor blues.

Another difference would be is that the minor blues is actually a little bit less complicated in my opinion. So typically when we’re playing in major blues, like if we take the first four measures, for example, most jazz musicians are going to play the one chord in the first measure, then they’re going to play the four chord in the second measure, and then go back to the one chord for the remainder of that first four bars. In the minor blues, we actually just hang out on the one chord for the first four bars. So that’s a huge difference. That’s where the minor blues is actually maybe a little bit more accessible, but I tend to start everybody on the major blues but that’s neither here nor there.

Another big difference would be the turnaround. Traditionally, in a major blues we have a two-five-one turnaround, which is probably the most common chord progression in jazz. In minor blues it’s a little different. Typically what we see is a flat six to five turnaround in the minor blues. But there are hundreds of minor blue’s out there and they all do different things. But I’m thinking of a simple minor blues like maybe Mister PC by John Cole Train. It’s the one chord for four bars then we jump to the four chord in bar five, back to the one chord in bar seven, like a traditional blues, and then he does that flat six to five turnaround.

Brent: Yeah.

Nick: So those would be the main differences that pop into my mind when I think about the difference between major and minor blues.

Brent: By the way, the flat six, right? It’s that really chromatic base that never goes from … Like if we’re in the key of C, it’s A flat to G.

Nick: Exactly.

Brent: G’s the five chord and then C minor seven or C minor six, whatever, is the one chord. Is that a substitute? Where’s that come from? Is that a substitute from the two chord or what is that?

Nick: Yeah. It is definitely. Well, in my mind, I feel like it’s a substitute for the two chord. Just doing that chromatic motion going down to the five chord. It just provides for a totally different sound.

So if you listen to a lot of the greats play over a minor blues as opposed to a major blues, what you’ll hear over the turnaround is a lot sequencing, right? So sequencing meaning play something in one key and then you play it in another key, right? So I tend to hear a lot more of that when I listen to the minor blues, and I think that’s actually a really fantastic way to maybe work on the turnaround over a minor blues is pick something to play over that flat six dominate chord and then play the exact same thing over the five chord and then resolve that in some way, right?

So for example, I’ve got my horn right next to me so I could actually. Let’s play something. So if we’re in the key of … I tend to find that the most common key of minor blues is concert C minor. So then you’re looking at an A flat seven chord going down to a G seven chord. So you could play something as simple as maybe arpeggiating both chords. So in bar nine, we’ll play. Right? So I’m just going down five, three, one, seven on that flat six chord, and then I’m going to do the exact same thing over the five chord. So … There’s endless possibilities of stuff that you could with that, but that’s maybe a good way to get started.

Brent: But the great thing is you can hear those changes when you played it.

Nick: Right.

Brent: Oh, the power of chord tones. It’s amazing.

Nick: Exactly. It is. It’s truly awesome.

Brent: Now, one more question on this, just for those who are like major/minor blues. Now, it can be confusing for people, we call it the major blues because a lot of people think, “Well, wouldn’t the one chord be a major chord?” But it’s not, right? It’s a dominate seventh chord. Any insights on why that is, where that comes from?

Nick: Well, let me start by saying like I still consider a dominate chord a major chord.

Brent: Okay.

Nick: It just doesn’t have a major seven, right? So what defines major is the third, right?

Brent: Right.

Nick: So I think it’s okay to call it the major blues, but yeah, there is some clarification needed, right? We’re not dealing with major seven chords. We’re dealing with dominate seventh chords. But we still do have that major third and I think that’s the real point of contention there. I don’t know. I mean, so I guess the reason why a dominate seventh chord is used in the blues is because it has a little bit more tension to it. If you think about the genre of the blues, it’s not happy music, right? It’s called the blues for a reason. I mean, the blues can be a really joyful and fun to listen to, but just that little bit of added tension with the flat seventh, it really … I don’t think they would’ve called it the blues if we were using all major seven chords.

Brent: Dude, I totally put you on the spot there, man, because I didn’t know. So I was asking you.

Nick: Right.

Brent: That was more for me. I was like, “Just the blues, man. You just played a dominate seventh chord.” Yeah. That’s awesome. Well, thanks for bearing with it. That was an impossible question to answer. But yeah, anyways, that’s a good thing to understand. Now, since we’re on the topic of chord changes, another question from somebody in the Facebook community group and I’m so sorry. I’m going to butcher your name. Americans cannot pronounce anything else other than American names. So please, accept my apologies. His question is, “How do you know which version of the chord changes to play since there’s so many variations? Just by listening to each other, talking in advance?” So that’s actually a great question because there are different variations on the blues. There’s actually a lot of different variations on the blues.

Maybe could you talk about what would you consider like a most basic like blues like right at the core? What are the chord changes that you would consider?

Nick: Yeah. So at its most basic form, you have basically four chords. You have the one chord, the four chord, the two chord, and the five chord. Those are going to be your basic building blocks for every single thing that comes after it. The person who asked that question is totally right. This might seem daunting to somebody who’s not a super experienced jazz musician is like, “Okay. Well, we’re playing and how do we know what each other are going to do, and how do we connect on that?” The answer really is is that when you think about jazz, you have to listen to the other people that are playing, right? I mean, it’s a music of listening and reacting.

So let’ say that you’re playing with a group and everybody in the group is sort of amateur, right? So you’re just getting started, you’re playing with your friends. This is maybe your first foray into jazz music. I don’t think you’re going to have much trouble. You could go with the most basic form of the blues, and just really work on mastering that first. So before you start adding a whole bunch of changes, make sure that you can really sound great just on the basic changes.

Let me do a little bit of an overview of what I would consider basic changes. So we already kind of talked about the first four bars. We’ve got the one chord and then in second bar we go to the four chord, back to the one chord, and that’s your first four measures. Second four measures, pretty simple, go to the four chord for bars five and six, go back to the one chord for bars seven and eight, and then the last four bars are pretty simple as well. Usually what I do bar nine, a two chord, bar 10, a five chord, and then back to the one chord in bar 11. Then usually what I’ll do is I’ll use a five chord in the last measure of the blues to sort of get me back into the top, right?

Brent: Right.

Nick: I think that that’s the blues at its kind of most basic form. Now, of course, there are actually more basic ways to play it, but I think if you want to play “the jazz blues” I think that that’s going to be your most basic form.

Brent: Right.

Nick: Then as far as adding other chords, like I said, wait until you can totally kill it just using that basic form before you look into other like secondary dominate things like putting the six chord in bar eight or playing a turnaround in the last two bars or something that’s really going to I always say burn a lot of brain cells, right? Make sure that you’re really getting it done with the most basic form.

Then let’s say that you are still at kind of a basic level, but you’re playing with a rhythm section that’s just like fantastic. Professional musicians amazing. You don’t need to worry at all about what they’re going to do because if you’re playing with an amazing rhythm section, they’re going to be listening to what you’re doing, right?

Brent: Right. Totally.

Nick: Now, on the flip side, if you’re a rhythm section player, one of the things that you should really work on is like really honing in on the soloist and trying to really develop your ears to react to what the soloist is doing. That’s what all the best rhythm sections do. At first, that’s going to be really, really difficult, but I promise you that a soloist is not going to get super mad at you if they’re like, “Man, I was trying to play a tri-tone substitution and you didn’t get it.” That’s not going to happen.

Brent: No.

Nick: But if you hear something, let’s say that you’re a pianist and you’re playing with a horn player. You can hear that the horn player really likes to do something in bar 10 every time start to just think about and decipher maybe what that sound is. So you can think, “Well, is it desiccant? Okay. Well, that leads me to maybe a certain set of sounds that it could be. Are they playing in just a different key entirely?” Okay. Well, that might be a little harder to figure out, but at least you sort of narrowed it down to some of the devices that the soloist is using. But I guess at it’s core is you just have to listen. You have to listen and react to what’s going on around you, and that can be one of the most intimidating things about jazz, but it can also be one of the most rewarding things about jazz.

Brent: Absolutely. Listening is everything because it is a very social music. Like all music is social, but I mean, jazz is really social. I’ll add a little bit more just to get to … Also, had to the heart of that question there is if you want to know which chord changes you should play, it’s about listening but you have to also be educated too. You have to understand what are those basic changes? I think also a great way to do that is just to go out and learn a bunch of different blues heads or different blues chord changes. Like go out and learn just a basic rock and roll blues that’s like one, four, five. Then go out and check out a bunch of different jazz blues like check out Sando, check out Tenor Madness, check out Freddy Freeloader, which it actually has a little backdoor dominant at the end of the form that leads back into the one chord.

So if you hip yourself to all these different chord changes and listen to all the stuff, then it’s not a matter of which are the right changes, which are the wrong changes. It’s the options that you kind of develop a repertoire of options that you have. The more you understand harmony, which is why it’s so important to study harmony, then it’s not a big deal, right? It’s just a matter of knowing, being educated, and then opening your ears. If everybody can tap into that, some incredible musical moments can start to come out.
That beings said, another question for you, Nick. This is from Stephan from the community group. He’s asking are there like a certain number of important jazz blues tunes that we should know? Do you have any like heads that you would suggest for people to start working on?

Nick: Yeah. You mentioned a couple of them, Sandu, Tenor Madness is a great one. I kind of separate my blues into two categories. So I would think of a riff based blues like a Tenor Madness or Sunny Moon For Two, another great Sunny Rolands blues. These are based on a riff that gets repeated. That’s one of the coolest things about the blues is that if you come up with a riff that works over the first four bars, it will kind of work over the other measures in the blues. Like if you listen to Sunny Moon For Two, it’s literally just the same thing three times in a row. But it’s one of the most swinging blues that I’ve ever heard in my life. Then you get a blues like Sandu, which is a little bit more of what I call a through composed blues, or if you start listening to Charlie Parker, he wrote what I would consider to be like a bebop blues, right?

So I like to separate them in categories, and I have lists of tunes that I know and I will separate the blues tunes into those different categories. So some riff based blues that I really like, Tenor Madness, Sunny Moon For Two, Blues In the Closet, have you ever heard that one?

Brent: Yeah. Yeah. Totally.

Nick: The Blues By Five, that’s a really, really great blues that I think everybody should know. Some of the bebop blues that I really like, so like Opravav or Bloom Ditto. Some of the other ones are escaping me a little bit.

Brent: Well, there’s Blues For Alice, which has those like I guess they call them bird changes, which are sort of departs … It’s still based on the blues but that’s where you really start adding all these different harmonic movement stuff to it.

Nick: For sure. So when I think about the blues, Blues For Alice is kind of the most complicated one out there.

Brent: Yeah. Absolutely.

Nick: Something to work towards, you know what I mean?

Brent: Totally. Totally.

Nick: But I think with a short list of blues melodies you could really go out to almost any jam session is kind of easy for the rhythm section. They just need to know kind of what key you’re in, and then hopefully they have an idea of how the head goes so that they can support you in the way that they should be. But just learn a handful of them. It’s not like you need to know 100 blues heads before you can really put yourself out there. Maybe some of those tunes that we just mentioned. Another great one is Blue Monk, that’s one that I hear called all the time at jam sessions. I think of that one is kind of halfway in between like a riff blues and a through-composed blues. So those are some of my favorite blues tunes and some of the first ones that come to mind when I think about tunes that get called at jam sessions.

Brent: Here’s a little hack for everybody that I just thought of. If you are playing a jam session or a gig and you start to get this overwhelmingly, terrifying feeling that someone’s going to call the song you don’t know, just be like, “Hey, guys. We haven’t played a blues in a while. Let’s play a blues.” Then you’ll get by one song.

Nick: Yeah. That’s a really, really good piece of advice. Then you can say, “Oh, man. I got a go. I got to get out of here.”

Brent: Oh, shoot. Oh, gosh. I have to get up early for an appointment tomorrow. Yeah. Okay. There you go. All right. That was just a little bit of humor. Do I have enough humor on this podcast? I don’t know. Maybe not. Too serious.

Nick: That’s the essential part of jazz too, right? Humor.

Brent: It so is. If you don’t have humor, then it just gets way to serious.

Nick: Exactly.

Brent: Okay. So here’s a couple more questions. So we talked a lot about chord changes. We talked a lot about forms. All this really important stuff that you have to know tunes, you have to be able to listen. The difference between a major and a minor blues. All this really fundamental, pivotal stuff. But there are some people that are wondering, “But how do I improvise over this stuff?” Which is a huge question and we cover this a lot on my podcast, and you cover it a lot on your podcast. This is that never ending journey that you were talking about earlier.

Nick: Right.

Brent: But let’s talk about it a little bit. John asks from the community group, “What are some options for sewing over a typical blues progression? Major pentatonic scale, minor pentatonic scale.” So he’s asking a lot about scales. So maybe we’ll talk a little bit about that. If you really are starting from square one, are there some … I like to call scales pitch collections that you can use to drawn tones from. Then Mark also asks from the group, “How can you avoid getting stuck in just using the blues scales or arpeggios and stuff like that?” So that’s a different side of the question. So let’s talk about a basic are there some scales or some maybe not scales but over arching ideas of approaching it for somebody who’s just starting out.

Nick: Yeah. For sure. I’m a huge fan of chord tones. The reason why I am is just because it’s a simple accessible thing that when we first start playing jazz tunes and improvising, I really truly believe in limiting your options, right? Because there’s so many options out there that you can get lost in it. You’ll never actually formulate a concrete idea of a melody, and what you’ll end up sounding like is just you’re just noodling on scales, for a lack of a better term. I think that that’s a huge issue with like education is that some teachers will just give you, “Okay. Here’s the list of scales. Go.” You’re left wondering, “Man, I sound like crap.” You know what I mean? Like, “I have the knowledge in front of me. I have the scales. Why can’t I sound like Cole Train?” It’s really not your fault. That’s a lot of options for you. Of course you’re going to flounder if you have too many options.

If I say, “Hey, let’s go grab some food,” and I give you a list of 200 restaurants, you’re going to be really, really overwhelmed and it’s going to be really tough to make a decision on which restaurant you want to go to. So I feel like this is the way it works when you’re improvising as well. So that’s why I’m a huge fan of chord tones. So now you narrow yourself down to four options over every chord. The nice thing about chord tones is that they all sound really good. So you’re doing two things. You’re narrowing down your options and you’re narrowing them down to only the best sounding notes over the chord, right?

Brent: Absolutely.

Nick: This is a fantastic way to start because less overwhelming and if you’re thinking less about note choices, maybe you can think a little bit more about rhythm, which is obviously huge. Like rhythm is way more important than note choice. If you look back at all the great jazz musicians throughout history, I truly believe that they will all say that it’s all about rhythm.

So you got your chord tones and a lot of people will say to me, “Well, with four notes over every chord, my solos going to be boring.” But there’s literally nothing that can be less true than a solo just using chord tones being boring. You can play some fantastic solos just using chord tones if you’re really good at it, right?

Brent: Absolutely. If you listen to … Sorry to interrupt you, Nick.

Nick: No, it’s all right.

Brent: If you listen to Miles Davis’ solo on Freddie Freeloader is a great example of he uses very few notes, but it just sounds so great, right?

Nick: Yep.

Brent: So there you go.

Nick: It’s really so I think a lot of people what happens to them is they don’t go deep enough on the chord tones. Then yeah, your solos going to be boring because maybe you’re starting from the root every single time. Maybe you’re ignoring a certain intervallic relationship that’s present in the chord tones, but you just haven’t practiced them enough to discover that relationship. So you’re just playing up and down the arpeggio every single time. Yeah, of course, that’s going to be boring. So my true belief and kind of the angle that I approach improvising from is pick a simple concept and go really, really deep on it. So take chord tones and figure out how to flip them in every single way possible. Can you go through the blues and start every chord tone sequence on the root? Can you do on the third? Can you do it on the fifth? Can you do it on the seventh? Can you do it ascending and descending? Can you discover some of those relationships that come from inverting the chord tones and playing them up and down.

So like for instance, I’m going to play one chorus of the blues just using chord tones and let’s see if I can come up with something that’s interesting. Hopefully I can. I’m kind of putting myself on the spot here.

Brent: You got this. You got this.

Nick: So if I play an F blues only using chord tones, let’s see what happens.

I don’t know. It’s not the most interesting thing in the world, but I think …

Brent: It sounded killer to me. I mean, just that was … I mean, that just sounded like a good solo just you were doing just that.

Nick: Yeah. I’ll do that on stage, you know what I mean? I’m not afraid to maybe I make a decision before I start a solo, like all right I’m just going to play with chord tones and let’s see what I can do here. So one thing I think that’s overlooked on the chord tones a lot like I was talking about intervallic relationships. So a lot of people would just play one, three, five, seven, and then maybe they’ll play seven, five, three, one. But what you’re missing out on if you’re just doing that is there’s actually a whole separate relationship between seven and one, right?

Brent: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nick: So if you’re sick of just hearing the relationships of thirds, well, if you invert your chord tones so maybe now you’re playing three, five, seven, one. Now you have the presence of a whole step, which can really open up a lot of possibilities. So things like that. I think that’s why I like to start people with just the chord tones, and I truly believe that’s a great way for everybody to start.

Brent: Awesome. I love that. I love everything you just said. I mean, I think everybody listening today … I mean, that’s all the value you need right there. You can go and you can put this into practice. You can get there in the shed and just start doing some of the things that Nick just mentioned. So very value-packed there.

Now, for those, to get back to Mark’s question from the community group. For those who want to go further than playing the chord tones, what are maybe …. What’s maybe something that they could do to start taking it a little further for improvising?

Nick: Yeah. So I think another beautiful thing about the chord tone approach is that rather than thinking about scales as scales, you can almost think about scales as connecting chord tones.

Brent: Oh, yes. Oh, right. That is totally the right philosophy. I love that.

Nick: Yeah. Then all of a sudden scales become a lot less overwhelming. Right? So if you think about it in terms of like … So I’ll break up my scales. So maybe after I’m done practicing my chord tones stuff, I’ll explore the relationship of a scale segment. So maybe one, two, three, right? I’ll go through the blues and I’ll play just a bunch of stuff just using one, two, three on every chord. So now I’m not thinking about … It’s tough to put into worlds sometimes the way that you think about things when you’re improvising. But I’m thinking about it less as a scale and more as I’m just connecting one and three. Right? Then I’ll go and do three, four, five. So now I’m connecting three and five. Then maybe I’ll graduate to a larger segment. So maybe now I’m connecting one and five, right? The three just happens to be in the middle there. I think that my …
I was your typical case of like middle school jazz band. We’re playing something that’s not a blues, and the director just hands you a sheet full of scales. That’s what my solo sounded like was just scales. I think a real turning point in my playing was when I started to think about scale tones as connecting chord tones. So I’m definitely a huge, huge believer in that. I’m like firsthand example, I guess, that it works and if you’re having trouble with scales, some people don’t have trouble with it. Some people just understand it. They understand how the texture works, and they sound great right off the bat. I’m definitely not one of those people. So I had to figure out a way to think about it differently.

Brent: Yeah. I love that. I think everybody should write that down somewhere that start with chord tones and then think of scales as connecting that. You’re talking about all those patterns, one, two, five. You could start … I mean, there’s so many different possibilities.

Nick: Right.

Brent: Taking that simplistic approach just to start with and then you can start filling in the gaps. You can start with add chromaticism.

Nick: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent: Oh, man. Such great stuff.
So, Nick, you obviously know a thing or two about improvising, about the blues, about how to completely just crush the blues, and that is exactly why you have, of course, called 60 Days to Crushing The Blues and I just feel like there are more people that want to go further with you. So can you tell us a bit about this course?

Nick: Yeah. So it’s a video course. So it comes with basically a whole bunch of videos that go along with every single week of demonstrating some of the material and just trying to explain it in a way which I feel like I couldn’t write down. So when I was trying to figure out how I wanted to present this course, I thought of just writing an ebook or something like that, and then I figured, “Well, we have this ability to do video nowadays. So why don’t I do a video course with like PDFs that accompany it?” Because one of my favorite things about teaching is like being in the same room as a person and kind of having a conversation, and just for me personally I feel like I can get my ideas across a lot better when I’m just speaking.

So there’s videos. Jam packed with videos. There’s a ton of PDFs. One that goes along with each week, and I tried to set up it almost like I would if you were a student of mine. So basically I’m just giving you assignments every week. The first week is the most basic form of the blues, some exercises that we can do over to start familiarizing ourself with it, and then it progressively works its way into more of a bebop blues. So I forget which week it is, but I’ll present the six chord to you in measure eight. We’ll spend a week just talking about all right, what is this six chord, why does it sound good, how do we use it, why is it even there? Some of the theory behind the secondary dominate stuff and those kinds of things. Then I’ll give you a bunch of material to work on to hopefully start to assimilate some of that more advanced stuff into your playing.

I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from it because, like I said, the blues can really open you up to a lot of the other mysterious jazz forms that after you spend let’s say 60 days with the blues, and just the blues. Now you look at a tune that previously had been like looks like hieroglyphics to you and all of a sudden you’re like, “Ah. Okay. Well, now I recognize that progression. That’s just blah, blah, blah. This thing that we covered in the blues.” Or you start to recognize the relationships between chords. “Ah. That just goes up to the four chord, just like the blues does,” or, “Oh, hey. That’s a two, five, one or a turnaround.” Or whatever.

So I think that this 60 days that you can really dedicate to this course is not just time that you’re dedicating towards the blues. It’s really going to show up in a lot of different situations. I’m just really excited and obviously you can tell I’m passionate about just this is the place to start. So if you’re looking for a good starting place, I think the course would be a good way to go, and I like the fact that it’s self guided. So yeah, it’s called 60 Days to Crushing The Blues, but if you need 180 days to get through all the material because you don’t have a ton of time, that’s the real beauty of it.

Brent: Awesome.

Nick: You can go at your own pace. You can spend … Let’s say you get to week four and you’re like, “Oh, okay. This is harder than I thought.” Great, spend a month on it and that’s totally fine. You do not need to get through it in 60 days.

Brent: Right. Right. That’s awesome. So that sounds like a great course. So for those who want to check that out, where can they find that?

Nick: Yeah. So if you go to our website 10minutejazzlesson.com and it’s the number 10minutejazzlesson.com, and click on the store tab, you can find that and a couple of other courses that we have and all the stuff that’s going at the 10 Minute Jazz Lesson too, which I think a lot of you will find very useful. We put out a PDF with every single episode. So I’ve talked to a lot of listeners that over the years have filled binders with these PDFs.

Brent: That’s so cool.

Nick: They say, “Well, I can’t get to everything every week,” but then you have everything, which has been one of the best pieces of feedback I’ve gotten from everything that’s going on over at that website.

Brent: So cool. Well, Nick, I want to thank you so much for just absolutely adding a tone of value for my audience today. Really appreciate it. I think we might have you back again sometime in the future.

Nick: Awesome, man. I would love that. Thanks so much for having me.

Brent: All right. That’s all for today’s show. Thank you so much for listening, and another special thanks to our guest, Nick Mainella for just laying it down. Make sure you check out the 10 Minute Jazz Podcast and of course, his course. Listen, hey, I’ve enjoyed having you today. Thanks for sticking in through the end. It’s a long interview, but a value packed one. So I really appreciate you for listening. I do what I do because of you. So thank you.

If you did get some value out of today’s show, I always ask to leave a rating and a review on iTunes. Give us some positive feedback. It helps other people find the show and know that it’s a show worth listening to. It’s just a free way, simple way, fast way to give back. So thank you so much for taking that time.

All right. Next week we are going to be having episode 111. I’m looking forward to seeing you back then.

30 Days to Better Jazz Playing


  1. Hi Brent,

    thank you for your amazing work, it helps me a lot!

    Maybe I just don't get it, but for what purpose did you use misspelled jazz-standards titles "Opravav or Bloom Ditto" instead of real ones?

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