The Blues & Rock Player’s Guide to the ‘Rhythm’ Changes
By Dave Eichenberger
If you have studied various forms of music, you most likely have figured out that most songs are a combination of several patterns arranged in a particular order. If you are a blues guitarist, you understand a basic blues I-IV-V progression. Playing a blues tune, you naturally hear how the chords change, and most times, once you get the pattern, it is the same way though the whole song. In a rock tune, there are intros, verses, and choruses. Once you play the verse pattern one time, it is usually the same every time another verse occurs. As we get better playing tunes, and even writing them, we start to realize that repetition is our friend. This article is about a very specific repeating pattern, known in jazz circles as the ‘Rhythm’ changes.
I repeat myself when under stress, I repeat…
The so-called rhythm changes take their name from the famous George Gershwin tune ‘I’ve Got Rhythm,’ which formed the basis of many jazz tunes that came afterwards. Much like the I-IV-V defines thousands of blues songs, the Rhythm changes are just a slightly more complex set of changes. Yes, they are still a pattern, and yes, once you know it, there can be tons of variations. Over the years, the chord progression got more streamlined, which is certainly welcomed when we use them as a basis of improvisation. Here I will strip this down into a few easily digestible chords that won’t bend your ear too much. Remember that jazz does not have to be complex, although you can feel free to substitute chords freely. Just like blues and rock, you can make the music as simple or as complicated as you like. Both ways are fun, so let’s dive in!
When talking about a song’s form, it makes it easy to assign each section of a song a letter. A pop song which has verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus can be assigned the letters ABABCB. Think of it like this:
Verse (A)/chorus (B)/verse (A)/chorus (B)/bridge (C)/chorus (B)
Once you learn the A section, you have all of the A sections. Well, the Rhythm changes are even simpler than that. Here, you have a song form that is just two parts, arranged like AABA. That is, two sections of the song: the A part and the B part. In the Rhythm changes, each section gets four chords.
The A Section
We will be playing this in the guitar unfriendly key of Bb, which eliminates most open chords and forces us to learn a few new shapes. It is the original key, and reminds us to not be so guitar-centric all the time. I chose to use a sweeter-sounding (and easier-playing) major 7th (Bbmaj7) chord for the I. We then make a large hop to the VI7b9 (G7b9) and down to the II (Cm7) chord. For the V chord, I chose a funky V7b9 (F7b9) chord. So we have 4 chords in 2 measures, played twice. For the third time around, there is a cool Imaj7 to I7 (Bbmaj7 to Bb7), which sets up the IVmaj7 (Ebmaj7) and the surprising IVm (Ebm7) chord.
After that, I have a sweet, standard two-bar cadence I-V-I (Bbmaj7 to F7b9 and back) and we are on to the B section. Check out the clip and the music, yo. If you can’t switch the chords swiftly (the Rhythm changes are usually played on faster tunes), work on chords in pairs, then sew them together.
The B Section
Now things get easy. The B section is nothing more than 4 dominant chords, played for two bars each. I mix up 7th and 9th chords to make it easier, as these chords are used all the time in blues. For you theory students, you may notice that this moves backwards through the Circle of Fifths. Notice that each chord does what dominant chords do: they set your ear up for the next chord. Here, we end with an F7 chord, which brings you back to the first chord in the A section again. Repeat the A section one final time, and then start over. It is a more complex pattern than we might be used to, but it is still a pattern.
Tone Tip: I recorded these examples using an Alnico II Pro neck pickup into a Fractal AX8 Amp Modeler, using a Fender Twin Reverb model. Use a relatively clean tone, as overdrive creates some nasty crossover distortion as upper and lower harmonics of more complex chords get distorted.
Who Can Ask for Anything More?
When we learn a song or style we are not familiar with, we just have to first have to understand the patterns. Pattern recognition allows us to learn songs quickly, and that most songs (at least in many genres) have about 45 seconds of new material, and the rest is just repeat, repeat, repeat.
Like many chord progressions I learn, I use them as a basis for improvisation. Learning to improvise over this chord progression (and implementing its many opportunities for chord substitution) will keep our playing in the present, instead of memorizing licks and patterns we have worked on and perfected previously. Record yourself (or loop) this chord progression, and improvise playing over the changes. Tone-wise, anything is game, since you’ll mostly be focusing on single notes. Listen for the key changes, and nail those chord tones until you can visualize them popping up all over the fingerboard. Soon, you will have Rhythm, too.
Have you ever learned any jazz songs? Do you have favorite chord progressions to play?