by Jude Gold & Robben Ford in association with Guitar Player Magazine

“This is the great lesson I learned playing with Miles Davis,” says Robben Ford, who toured with Davis in 1986. “One night after a show, I was hanging out at the hotel bar with the keyboardist, Robert Irving III, and I asked him about these cool chords I’d been hearing him play onstage during vamps and solos. So he went over to the piano and showed me this little harmonic system–this device–that Miles had showed him.”

Guitar Lesson

As is true with most of the music Ford deeply loves—and the music that fills his many solo albums—Davis’ “device” has close ties to the blues. “It’s based upon the pentatonic scale, which, as most guitarists know, has five different tones,” explains Ford, demonstrating a standard E minor pentatonic scale in Ex. 1. “Miles’ system involves harmonizing those five tones—E, G, A, B, and D—in a very simple, but intriguing way. To learn how it works, first play the scale descending from the root—like this [plays Ex. 2]. Notice that I’m playing it entirely on the second string? These will be our guide tones.”

Miles Davis Robben Ford Guitar Lesson

The next step is to harmonize each of these scale tones with two chords, as Ford does in Ex. 3—an easy task, because once you’ve learned the first two grips, you’ve learned them all (the two shapes repeat with each new scale tone). The first triad in any given pair is a simple barre of the fourth, third, and second strings. To get the second shape in each pair, just drop the two lower voices a half-step.

Miles Davis Robben Ford Guitar Lesson

The final step is easy—just apply these mesmerizing clusters in the musical feel of your choosing, using them to create alluring harmonic tapestries. “What you have are interesting colors you can add to just about any groove in E,” offers Ford, “and they don’t have to be played in any particular sequence.” He illustrates his point by using the shapes to improvise the E funk vamp presented in Ex. 4.

Miles Davis Robben Ford Guitar Lesson

“Most of the soloing with Miles was done over one-chord, pedaltone vamps that were very open harmonically. What’s great about this system is that it creates a broad, harmonic landscape to play in, yet it still keeps things organized enough that the band doesn’t lapse into complete tonal anarchy.”

Whether you play them fast or slow, staccato or legato, swinging or with a backbeat, these hypnotic chords will add an enchanting vibe to just about any modal jam in E. Soloing over the clusters is as easy as playing the E minor pentatonic scale, though you can insert plenty of other notes, as well. Why? If you analyze the system, it covers every pitch except G#, the major 3 in our key of E.

“You can branch out into new shapes,” offers Ford, experimenting with the system’s grips in Ex. 5, “but you don’t have to. The beauty of this system is that it’s so simple—which is really the beauty of Miles Davis. He understood the complex, but always leaned toward the simple.”

Miles Davis Robben Ford Guitar Lesson

If you enjoyed this guitar lesson, check out Big Blues & Beyond for similar insights and inspiration.