The Art of Playing Jazz Guitar - A True Preparation Primer Part 2

By John Belthoff / In Jazz / Posted Jan 23, 2016

In part 1; we discussed various metronome techniques to advance our awareness, concentration, feeling, and broaden our minds while practicing. This article will go into what we should be practicing and, more importantly, thinking when using those techniques.

Music is made up of three basic elements, Melody, Harmony and Rhythm. All are interrelated and we should not try to isolate them because this will not take us where we want to be. We instead want to understand each of them in a unique way so when eventually combined they make a more poignant whole. Melody was first on my list so let’s start there.

Our melodies will make or break our playing - Period!

When we practice melodies we must remember that for each tune we work on there are probably lyrics for it. If you do not know the lyrics, stop and get a copy. Read them, speak them out loud, sing them and learn them until they become part of you.

Next, listen to the greatest vocalists sing these tunes. Listen to their phrasing, their articulation, how they use their mouths, tongues, teeth, lips, lungs, body posture or whatever they do to produce the sounds. Think about the ways we can incorporate all of those things into our guitar playing.

Unfortunately, the guitar is an instrument that has no air blowing through it so we have to improvise. Also the patterns of scales and chord fingerings we were taught when we started don’t help our creativity. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t learn them but many times practicing only these will leave us stale and stiff.

Case in point, did you ever transcribe a great jazz guitar solo only to realize that the fingerings needed to play it are no were near what we were taught about standard fingerings for guitar scales?

So what do we do?

Start off basic and I mean so basic that we’re probably way ahead of ourselves already. Be aware of the endless possibilities of making each note and then break it down to the point where we are left with only the rudimentary elements of producing a single tone on the guitar. The atomic tone so to speak.

For instance, if we play with only the thumb of our picking hand as opposed to a plectrum we get one type of sound. If we play only down strokes with our thumb we get a different sound again.

Let’s delve into this further as it is important.

If we play with our index finger, middle finger, a plectrum on the pointy end, on the fat corner, on the fat end, upstrokes, down strokes, whatever, we can make all kinds of sounds. In fact, there are so many possibilities we may never get to them all in our lifetime.

Hopefully you see where I am getting at and we haven’t even discussed the fingering hand yet nor have we discussed any particular notes, pitches, dynamics etc…

Don’t let that stop you. Start learning this now and you will be happy you did.

Ok what’s next?

Select 3 notes and work with only them while thinking about the spoken voice and how you would convey three words in a sentence. Think about how by changing the phrasing and articulation of our three words, or notes, we can change the meaning of them entirely. In fact pick an actual 3 word sentence and speak it with your guitar rather than using your voice. This is where we truly start learning melody.

If we were to find someone we don’t know and say to them; “What is your name?” We would get a response. Don’t forget that a non response is also a response. We must realize the actual response we get is dependent on how we phrase and/or articulate our words and realize that we can control this response only if we understand its relationship to our actual question.

I’ll explain. If we were to say those exact words in a teasing, tormenting and antagonistic manner we would get one response. If on the other hand we were to use an openly friendly demeanor we get an entirely different response all together.

By doing this simple thought exercise we realize that using the exact same words spoken in different ways produces vastly different responses.

By observing, understanding, and practicing this behavior we can learn to exploit and utilize this technique to our advantage to allow the full potential in our guitar playing that invokes the response were seeking, whatever that may happen to be.

The human voice is of particular concern to us because our ultimate goal is to emulate what it does with our instrument. We want to be able to communicate with our guitars the way people communicate when they speak to each other - which is not unlike melodies.

As babies, we were only able to make rudimentary noises to communicate. Years later, hopefully, we are able to form intelligent rational thoughts and convey them with our words using articulation and phrasing and word combinations to mean many things. We want to apply this to our guitar playing.

Remember, it took us years to be able speak in this manner and we should approach practicing melody with the same realization and not try to run before we can walk.

We should also remember that even babies can communicate in a very compelling manner without using words at all! So don’t be afraid if this practice routine seems too simple. It’s not the notes you use, it’s what they are actually communicating that is important.

What can we deduce from all of this?

When you start finding yourself practicing or playing those blazing fast cool scalar riffs, stop and think about how many times you hear actual people speak like that.

Now - ask yourself how long you would stay and listen to them if they did.

That’s it for now but look for new articles in the future and remember; have fun, practice hard and always play your heart out!