A pedal tone is a tone sustained in the bass while the harmony moves in the upper voices.
Pedal tones are a great way to add a sense of movement to a tune and are particularly good for intros. This Quick Tip will give you a few examples of how pedal tones can be used at the start of a tune.
Have a look at this example (click for a larger version):
The note of C in the bass is repeated throughout the four bars while the harmony on top moves up and down diatonic triads. As we are in the key of F major, and C is the fifth degree of the F major scale, we can call this a dominant pedal as the main focus of the harmony is the tension created by the dominant C which will resolve eventually down to the tonic of F.
I have written all the examples as lasting four bars, but you can repeat the vamp as many times as you like, which makes it a really flexible device.
The next example features a slight variation at the end (click for a larger version):
The change of movement at the final chord (Bb/C instead of Gm/C) adds a twist to the sound and strengthens the entry of the melody in the next bar.
If you want the intro to last for more than 4 bars, I would recommend repeating the first 2 bars as many times as necessary and then using the last 2 to bring in the main tune. This can be a great way to signal to your singer or horn player that they should come in.
Despite the different voicings, The underlying harmony is very similar - Gm/C is just another way of notating a C9 chord (no third) and Bb/C is a common voicing for a C sus chord. The slash chords make for an easy way of describing the movement, but the underlying feel of the harmony is very much that of the dominant C7 chord.
You can further emphasise the introduction of the melody in this way (click for a large version):
In this example, Bb/C has been changed to Bbm/C which gives the sound of a C7susb9 chord - a more colourful sound that resolves very smoothly down to the tonic of F.
There are many varieties of dominant pedal introductions and another common technique is to play a turnaround chord sequence over the pedal as shown below (click for a large version):
This intro features what is basically a I-Vi-ii-V sequence over a C pedal. In the variation below, the harmony is the same but the right hand plays a couple of common 'rootless' voicings in the final bar to add variety.
You can take these examples just as they are and use them in your own playing or, if you have a little theory knowledge, you can try and come up with your own variations. I haven't notated the following suggestions, as I don't want to swamp any beginners with too much information. If you are a beginner, feel free to ignore the next bits as I'll explain them in more detail in future articles.
For the slightly more experienced player, you could make all the upper chords dominant chords:
F/C D7/C | G7/C C7 |
You could then use tritone subs on some or all of those dominants for a more colourful sound. I'm fond of this version:
F/C AB7/C | Db7/C C7alt |
You get the idea. There are so many possibilities for pedal intros that
a little experimentation is well worthwhile.
Finally, if you're not a pianist or bass player and you want this kind of sound, just ask the rhythm section to set up the tune on a dominant pedal and they'll do the rest.
I hope you've found this tip useful. I'll revisit some of the concepts I've mentioned like tritone subs and slash chords in future articles, so don't worry if you don't fully understand everything in this post. My hope is that, whatever level you're at, there has been something you can use here. Until next time...