Grooveyard was written by a West Coast jazz musician named Carl Perkins (not to be confused with the “Blue Suede Shoes” guy). I first heard it done by the great British guitarist Davy Graham, and I tried it in several keys before I found one I liked. Choosing a key for a solo guitar piece is crucial to the success of the arrangement, and it’s important to remember, when considering many jazz tunes which were written in flat keys, that they were written that way to make it easy for horn players. The fact that they were then difficult for guitar players was a side effect. When playing solo guitar, that side effect is often unnecessary, so we choose the most “guitaristic” key for the arrangement. This is one of those great tunes that walks the line between jazz and blues. Played here on a 1938 Gibson L-0 model guitar.
Well, it’s been a while since this blog has been active, but I’m hoping to be a bit more consistent in the future. For starters, I’ll be putting up more tunes, mostly the same ones I put on Facebook every Sunday. Here’s “When Sunny Gets Blue”, todays offering!
When students ask about establishing a practice regime, my rule is always “spend about half your time working, and about half your time playing”. The “work” part actually can be divided into two categories: “head work” and “hand work”. This concept is stolen from the teachings of the late Howard Roberts, a great jazz player and educator. He said that head work will fry your brain and can only be productive for a short time; maybe 15 minutes or so. It can include composing a lick or line, studying a/or transcribing someone else’s solo, arranging a tune, working on a specific fingering for a scale or arpeggio…
Hand work, on the other hand, can be done for long periods, and mostly includes careful repetition to get the results of your head work embedded in your muscle memory. This can be mindful and meditative, or it can be something you do while watching TV, just so long as you remember: “Perfect practice makes perfect”. So that covers the “part-work” segment.
Then there’s the “part play” segment. This may be important for a couple reasons. First, remind yourself why you started playing music in the first place. Wasn’t at least part of it simply about enjoying the experience of playing, whether it was singing and accompanying yourself on a simple folk or pop song, or playing a complicated fingerstyle piece or chord melody arrangement? So, go back there, to that simple fun part, and make sure music doesn’t become just another chore, because you will lose interest. Second, you need to allow yourself to operate from the more intuitive right side of the brain sometimes. Just play stuff you love, or doodle around on a tune you already know, letting yourself be creative without worrying about that internal editor saying, “no, that’s too simple,” or “Stop! That was a bad note!!” This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still be striving to be musical. In fact, when you’re playing familiar material, you’ll be able to devote more attention to the “feel” of the music, which is of huge importance. Just have fun, free associate, doodle. Remember, the average listener will appreciate simple notes played with great feel much more than complex notes played with lousy feel.
One part of the “part play” segment can be practicing improvisation over rhythm tracks or favorite CDs. When I think about improvisation, I always think of the analogy between music and martial arts.
- Practicing your scales and arpeggios is like practicing punches, kicks, etc.
- Learning a piece of music is like learning a kata or form.
- Practicing improv with rhythm tracks is like shadow boxing, or training with a bag.
- Improvising in a jam or a band is like sparring with a classmate or friend.
Steps 1 and 2 may be part of the “part work” regime, and are about perfecting the physical mechanics of what you do. Step 3 is part of the “part play” regime, and is about learning to be fluid and changeable while using good physical mechanics. All three of these steps come under the heading of “homework”.
Step 4 is the goal. Whether musically or martially, the quality of your interaction with others will depend upon whether you’ve done your homework.
And, of course, step 4 is also part of the homework, because it’s where you learn to let all of the other work/play occur while you’re “busy” paying attention to the moment, and “listening” to what’s going on around you.
And if you’re a solo player, and aren’t interested in improvising? Well, then, performing becomes “step 4”, and your goal is to be able to perform the things that developed from your homework while you are inevitably thinking about what the audience is thinking, what you’re thinking about what they’re thinking, etc. etc.
Whatever your goals, this idea of “Part work, Part play” is valuable. And one more thought; one of the great things about guitar is that you don’t need a long warm-up to be productive. Six 10 minute sessions (or even 10 six minute sessions) will produce as much improvement as one hour-long session, so keep your guitar handy. I usually leave mine on the bed during the day (it keeps Django the dog from planting his butt on my pillow) in the hardshell case (properly humidifed if necessary), but with just one shut clasp. That way, I’m just a flick away from making music.
When I started writing this blog, my old friend Danny Gotham offered to write a guest column, since he has a lot of very smart stuff to say about guitar playing but didn’t have the motivation to start his own blog.
I’ve known Danny for 31 years, and consider him one of my “guitar brothers”…We went to different schools together. So here is Danny’s offering on beginning to learn improvisation:
One of the most common requests I get from students is to teach them how to
Here’s some of my basic thinking about this topic.
First of all, improvisation requires a particular attitude, or mindset. I
believe that the true improviser has to be somewhat fearless–they have to
be willing to jump in to the deep end, and believe that they can swim. That
doesn’t mean that one can play with no rules. There are parameters that must
be observed, regardless of the setting for any improvisation. If a player
has no idea about these parameters, that fearlessness becomes recklessness,
and the music will crash and burn.
I get a great number of students who take this approach to improvisation:
they begin by buying one of the hundreds of books out there—something like
“10,987 scales for all purposes” or something like that—and proceed to learn
their scales, one by one.
Here’s my suggestion. If you want to learn how to improvise, you need only one scale to begin with—and that is the pentatonic. Of course, you will
eventually need to know much more than the pentatonic, but what is essential
when learning how to improvise is not how many scales you know, but what
you do with the ones (one) that you do know.
I use an analogy regularly when I instruct on this subject: think of a scale
as a vocabulary for a new language you are learning to speak. After you have
required enough basic vocabulary, what happens with it? Do you:
A. spill out your entire vocabulary every time you speak in that language?,
B. you use just a few words, and create sentences.
The best advice I have ever heard about improvisation came from Herb Ellis.
He was the guitarist in the great Oscar Peterson trios of the 1950s. Herb
was the first jazz guitarist I listened to. As the years have gone by, I
have heard many players with richer ideas and better technique, but in my
book, no one ever will swing like him—his playing is so full of life, and
it has an irrepressible joy that is unique.
I used to notice that when Herb played, he would move his mouth—but wasn’t
really singing–as he improvised. I could never figure out what he was
doing, until in the late 1970s, when I watched him conduct a class for a
roomful of young guitarists. Someone asked him about his choice of scales
and modes, etc. “Do you use the augminished Hungarian? The Neopolitan mode?
With the raised 9th and the drunk 5th?”
I can’t remember the exact wording of the question, or his exact words in
reponse, but essentially, he simply said this:
“Play like you are singing.”
It suddenly clicked. When I was watching Herb move his mouth while he was
playing, he was “singing” through his guitar. Here’s a very simple way to
determine if your improvising is getting anywhere. Sing—or at least, imagine
yourself singing—what you have just played. Go back to my analogy. Are you
running your mouth, or are you making sentences? If we go with that a bit
further, substitute the words “a scale” for “the words” you have learned to
speak in the new language. Now, are you merely running up and down the
scale, or are you creating phrases? If you are doing the former, you
aren’t really doing anything except playing notes in a scale. If you are
doing the latter, then you are creating musical “sentences”—in other words–
singing. That is the first step—and the most important—to becoming an
So, in earlier videos both here and on Youtube, we’ve now covered Maj7, Dom7, Min7, Maj6, Min6, 9th, 11th, and 13th chords. So, what’s left? Altered Chords, that’s what!! So here’s a video that explains how they’re formed, and a bit about how they’re used as substitutes for Dom7 chords, usually in the position of a “V” chord.
My first blog post here was a reminder of the original “240 chords in 6 minutes” video that I put on Youtube. It was the first of three videos on chord structure which teach a system of increasing chord repertoire to 1200 possible chords in 4 note harmony. The video here is the “next step”, which folks have asked about: “How do you make the more complex chords?”
Those would be ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths. On the guitar, we have logistical issues which arbit for a minimalistic approach, eliminating some notes while adding others, usually trying to preserve the 3rd and 7th, which are the notes which help distinguish between major, minor, and dominant chords.
The general rule is that a ninth, eleventh, or thirteenth chord can be substituted for a seventh chord, although the context helps dictate when this is not appropriate, and sometimes an “altered” chord (the subject of an upcoming blog video) is preferred. For now, just consider this exercise as part of building a chord repertoire.
Here’s a video of “Unchained Melody”, one of the prettiest tunes of my youth, and a short lesson on how it’s played in “Drop D” tuning. (This 3 minute lesson is a much-shortened version of what you’d get in a 10 minute “quick-take” lesson.)
“Drop D” tuning is a great way to begin to explore “alternate” tunings on the guitar. Standard tuning was designed to give total chromatic accessibility on the instrument. This means that, within any 5 fret area, you can reach every note of the chromatic scale. Alternate tunings often sacrifice a bit of that in order to get interesting modal sounds. In essence, the guitar can be tuned to an open chord (it would often be major, minor, or, as in the case of the popular “DADGAD” tuning, a suspended 4th tuning) so that, in the overtones and the open strings, you hear a particular underlying tonal coloration.
While “Drop D” tuning is just a slight step in that direction, it offers a rich, low D bass, which, used in combination with the other bass strings, frees up the left hand for more facility and ease. While doing this, it allows the player to retain most of the chord and scale shapes from standard tuning, making adjustments only on the low string. The video lesson pretty much speaks for itself, and I hope you enjoy the video performance as well. Here’s the performance:
And here’s the video lesson:
“Occam’s Razor” is a philosophical thesis which says, in essence, that, given several potential solutions to a problem, the simplest one is usually the best. (Apologies to you philosophers out there, as I know some of you have a more complicated way of saying that…)
It has also become a sort of folk adage that shows up in modern culture. TV detectives use it to explain why the spouse is the prime suspect in a murder, for example… and it has corollaries, sort of like Murphy’s Law.
I was thinking about the concept today while involved in a discussion on Flatpick-L, the internet flatpicking guitar list. What I was thinking was that the best guitar players and teachers have usually found a way of simplifying the concepts which help them and their students make music.
Some examples from jazz giants:
- Jimmy Bruno recommends keeping it simple when first learning by ignoring extended chords (9ths, 11ths, etc.), and just dividing chords into 3 main families; major, minor, and dominant.
- Pat Martino recommends envisioning all solos as extensions of minor scales, even while playing over major or dominant chords.
- The late Joe Pass said that, when considering a ii-V-I progression, whichever line worked with a V chord would also work over the ii chord….and, by the way, it would also work over the I chord.
I think that these ideas are also in resonance with a concept called the House Of Memory. (I read this concept in a novel one time, but, ironically, I can’t remember which novel it was…) Anyhow, the House Of Memory says that you can remember a lot more information if you organize it in a hierarchy. You imagine a house, and you put a certain number of memories in each room. The house becomes the framework. Rather than trying to remember 100 facts, you remember ten rooms, each of which contains 10 facts. The idea is that the brain can hold more info this way.
Music works the same way. Instead of the House Of Memory, you can have a framework of music. Like Jimmy Bruno’s framework, you can have 3 simple chord families. At first, maybe your only G dominant chord is a G7. Later, it could become a G9, a G+5, a G7b5, a G11, a G13, and several others. Or like Pat Martino’s minor scale concept; there are many minor scales…melodic minor, harmonic minor, natural minor, and others. Maybe you can start with the Dorian mode, which has a recipe of 1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7-8. After awhile, learn a second minor scale (harmonic minor, for example) and study how they differ, and which chords fit with each one. Then you can go on from there.
Anyhow, I hope you get the idea. See if you can identify a simple way of conceiving music. It may not agree with anyone else’s view, but we’re all wired differently, and all it has to do is help you make better music. You may develop your own vision, or connect with someone else’s way of simplifying music. After all, Pat Martino’s view is different from Joe Pass’s view, which is different from Jimmy Bruno’s view…that’s why they call it “Theory”…
Watch this video. Pete is a great guitarist at the top of his game. This “impossible” arrangement of “Superstition” is not only made possible, but still sounds musical. Plus, he does a great lead-in.
Pete is also, currently, in a hospital in Houston TX recovering from artificial heart surgery relating to a lifelong history of heart problems. You can read about it here:
Note that, in the journal which Pete’s wife Erin writes on the Caring Bridge site, she says:
“Many of you have asked about fundraising opportunities. A special fund has been set up for Pete Huttlinger’s medical and financial needs. At this point, donations can be sent to:
791 Rhonda Lane
Nashville, TN 37205
Please know how greatly it is appreciated.”
I know Pete sort of passingly…we say “Hi, howzit going?” at Winfield or CAAS. We’re not bosom buddies, but I’m glad he’s in this world, and hope he manages to stay around for a good long time. My thoughts are with Pete and Erin. I hope yours are as well.
This was the video that started my adventure in internet guitar teaching. It was made on a whim, using a system of chords that’s been around for a long time. I learned it from a great Philly area jazz guitarist named Joseph Federico, and he learned it from his teacher, Dennis Sandole, the “godfather” of Philly jazz guitar teachers.
The unspoken subtext here is that it may only take 6 minutes to watch the video, but it’ll almost certainly take a couple years to really digest its contents.
One of the hardest things about learning the guitar is letting go of expectations: “I should be learning faster” is a common one. I’ve found that the most productive stance to take involves just practicing consistently, and doing your very best without any thought of where you expect it to get you, or when. Just make this exercise part of your daily routine for awhile. Once you’ve practiced it a couple dozen times, it’ll only take a couple minutes to walk through it. Try to make the chords sound clearly, one strum per chord. When you’re first learning the chord positions, use the pause button and time line on your Youtube viewer to accurately see and hear the chords.
If you have a real problem area, then isolate it down to two positions, and go back and forth between them. Try to avoid the pitfall of concentrating on the things you do well and ignoring the things that you do badly.
As you get a handle on several comfortable chord positions, try to find sheet music for one or two tunes you like, then teach yourself to play rhythm chords using the positions in the exercise. As you get comfortable, you can go on to my other two chord videos, for which I’ll provide links soon.