a guitarist's occasional blog
As a singer/songwriter solo act, I haven't spent enough time playing jazz standards like the ones found in The Real Book published by Hal Leonard. This is some of the greatest music in the world! I would be very happy to someday be the old dude comping chords and taking the occasional solo in a small jazz combo. There is no time like the present to get to work. Old dogs should always be willing to learn new tricks.
If you take any interest in jazz theory, one of the very first things you are going to run into is the ii-V7-I chord sequence. This is the basis for a huge volume of songwriting, and it's maybe the biggest thing to address to get started in jazz improvisation.
I'm not going to go into basic music theory here. For this lesson, I'm going to assume you have a basic knowledge of key, scales, chords, and arpeggios. If you want to dive in for some review, see if you can find the out-of-print Mel Bay Presents collection of Arnie Berle's "Fretboard Basics" columns from Guitar Player Magazine. That is a useful book!
If you take a look at the free ii-V7-I jazz guitar lesson, you'll see what amounts to a basic jazz warm-up for playing over a four-measure pattern in the Key Of C.
Measures 1-16 show you four ways to strum the Dm7, G7, and Cmaj7 chords. Notice that there are no open strings used. The point isn't that open strings can't be used in jazz. Open strings can sound cool! But these are all shapes that can be moved up and down the fingerboard. Once you have mastered them in C, you'll need to get comfortable with these same chord shapes in all the other keys. For now, just hold each chord for four beats. Try to play cleanly and in good time using a metronome.
Measures 17-24 will give you practice playing the notes of a C Major scale around each chord. Playing scales is sometimes described as a horizontal approach. Note that there are no big vertical jumps. Measures 25-32 take a vertical approach. Each four-measure line shows you how to play chord tones in thirds. Basically you leapfrog over every other note in the scale. A vertical approach allows the improviser to go from low to high (or vice versa) much faster than a horizontal or scalar approach. Both approaches can be valid and musical. The notes you play here are the raw materials for improvising.
Measures 33-36 and 37-40 are two examples of bebop-style phrases. Both vertical and horizontal approaches are combined to make them interesting and musical. The key to getting these is to play in the seventh position. Assign your first finger to seventh fret, second to eighth fret, third to ninth, and pinky to tenth. You shouldn't need to move your hand to reach any notes this way, but you can experiment with slurs (hammer-ons and pull-offs) to make the phrase sound good.
You'll notice that there are some sharp and flat notes in these phrases. These are called accidentals, and they are one of the things that make jazz sound like jazz. Again, I won't get into music theory (bebop scales!) part of choosing these notes, but I wanted to include them for the sake of playing and hearing real jazz-style lines as a part of this practice session.
I have two suggestions for practicing these exercises. The first thing you could do is play the chord progression into a looping pedal and practice along with your own accompaniment. Just make sure you keep a solid, steady tempo. The second thing I recommend — the thing I'm doing myself — is to get volume 3 of the Jamey Aebersold Jazz series and use the recordings provided. The entire book is about the ii-V7-I progression, and it comes with two CDs to play along with. It is an excellent resource, and my exercises will work over some of those recordings.
Once you have these exercises down in the key of C, you'll need to transpose them to every other key. Good luck! I'm practicing these same exercises myself.
I'll keep this one short. I had a student who was having a little bit of trouble crossing strings with his pick. I think a lot of people get comfortable playing on one string and then have a clumsy time trying to get their pick over to play a note on a different string.
As a singer/songwriter, precision isn't always my top priority. At times, I'm guilty of using my guitar almost more like a drum (think like Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen) when I'm pounding out a song accompaniment. But over the past few years I have begun flatpicking more fiddle tunes, and I found my own picking skills lacking.
I created this short flatpicking guitar exercise for my student and for myself. The key is to go slowly and steadily, and to play without making any mistakes. Use a metronome. The goal is pick control and accuracy. Playing sloppily at a fast tempo is - quite frankly - a waste of time.
Practice this with downstrokes, upstrokes, and alternate (down/up) pick strokes. All three ways will benefit your technique. After you've got it at a decent tempo, go find some music to Led Zeppelin's "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" to work on. This exercise will have served you well.
Chuck Cheesman writes hopeful, loving, and sometimes funny songs for people of all ages.
All materials ©℗ Chuck Cheesman
Banner photo by Gina Dazzo