Getting inside a tune

For the longest time I had been unhappy with my jazz playing, and most small jazz group approaches in general. My own playing consisted of what I call defensive playing: trying my best to not do anything wrong. I would see all the “right” notes on the guitar, and I aimed for those. If I stayed away from the wrong notes, I was successful, and if it sounded good, then it was a bonus! And, I tired of hearing jazz groups doing the same old generic formula on gigs (including the groups I was playing in): play the head in a sterile sort of way, accompany in a sterile sort of way, attempt to tear it up on the solos, and then play the head again to finish the song.

 

I mentioned my defensive approach to playing. This is opposite of an offensive approach, which is basically you thinking “I can’t wait for people to hear this- it’s gonna blow them away!” That is what people want to hear- that excitement and enthusiasm. And that is what you should want to express- your own excitement and passion for what you are playing. I hear that in all the greats, from Eddie Van Halen and Jaco Pastorius to Mozart. I can’t imagine a young Eddie Van Halen sitting in his room playing guitar, and asking himself if what he plays is right. Instead, he had that Eddie smile, and just knew it was awesome- if it wasn’t, he was going to make it awesome.

 

To get out of that sterile approach to jazz, I changed my approach to learning tunes. What it consists of is simply spending more time learning each tune you are playing. It might even be s stretch to consider it a method. I think that most players learn the melody and chords to a tune as quick as possible, and then devote the majority of their practicing to soloing, but in a very generic sort of way that doesn’t necessarily relate to the actual song. Instead, work on making the tune your own- strive towards putting your own stamp on it.

 

Play-a-long CDs are incredibly valuable resources if you, like most people, don’t have a band available at you every beck and call. Jamey Aebersold is probably the most famous source of these (jazzbooks.com), but you can find many on youtube as well.

 

Another tool that I use in conjunction with play-a-longs is a “slow down” program that allows you to change the tempo of a song without altering the pitch. My favorite is called Transcribe! (seventhstring.com), but there are many to choose from. Most of these will also allow you to change the key along with tuning. Also, they make panning to either side very easy, which is valuable in eliminating the piano or bass on these recordings.

 

The main idea is, once you have the melody memorized, to really dig into it, trying any method you can think of to make it interesting. You might use open strings, harmonics, various articulations, or even effects and volume/tone controls. Or, none of these, and just internalize the melody as much as possible. The idea is to get control of the melody- don’t be limited to one way of playing it. Be able to manipulate it as you feel and have freedom in changing it when you feel like it. This will then translate into your soloing.

 

The same thing can be said about the chords- make them your unique interpretation of the song. Don’t just do the same generic comping- find your way of playing the groove for that song.

 

Inevitably, after playing the same melody straight for about 10 minutes, it will get very boring and feel like you are doing the same thing over and over, not really getting anywhere. You need to break through that boredom wall. Dig deeper into all of your tools that you have in your collection. Often times, I tread the waters of boredom until a happy accident occurs that opens up new ways of playing the melody. Play it in a different octave, try open strings, bends, tapping, volume swells- anything. Don’t be afraid to change the song to a different key, but be aware of the others in your band; certain keys might not be practical for different instruments. That said, comfort in all keys is a valuable skill.

 

I used to feel that working with play-a-longs was a very un-inspirational way of practicing, but after spending time using them this way, I find it gets more fun the longer I do it. I think the bland feeling I had earlier was a result of not really being aware of what the other instruments were doing. You can focus on the drums or the piano and get many rhythmic and melodic ideas. If you are only thinking of your own playing, often times weird syncopations and un-grooving things are happening that you don’t notice.

 

I have been talking about this in a jazz context, but of course this applies to any type of music of an improvisatory nature. If you are playing in a cover band, it might depend upon how much freedom your band allows with the songs. Some bands are impressively accurate with their reproduction of the recorded versions, but many have a more interpretive approach.

 

Once again, the methods I am talking about are very simple- in this case, basically spend more time on the melody and chords. The better you know these, the more it will translate into your soloing. Sometimes we make things way too difficult, and the results are lacking. Our response is to try harder and make them yet more difficult. For a long time I was looking for magic ways of getting better, assuming they hid inside of difficult methods. Instead, there isn’t a magic way to improve, except by putting in the time. I have learned much more from simple concepts than I ever did from complex ones.

 

This blog is directly related to my blog about playing the song. A song should be considered a topic of musical conversation. It is an opportunity for you to express what it means to you, your thoughts about it, and who you are. But, to do that, you need to really know the song. After doing this with a couple of tunes, you will start to see it getting easier to learn new ones.

Your main musical idea

This concept is another very simple one to add to your guitar playing that you can devote as much time as you want to it, varying from day to day. It consists of choosing a lick or melody that becomes something you spend some amount of time on every day- from as little as 5 minutes, to as much as you care to.

 

The main criteria for choosing your lick is that it should be easy and it should be something that you like. Don’t choose something that you can’t already play, and don’t choose something that you think may teach you a lot but you don’t actually like.

 

The lick I chose is a basic major 7th arpeggio type lick that I got from a Ted Greene book. I simply opened the book, played the first lick, liked it, and that was it. It’s not hard or complex. I say I like it, but it’s not something I ever care to use in a song- it’s really just an arpeggio; but for some reason, I like to play it and hear it.

 

What you do with it is up to you. It should be a source of curiosity that makes you dig into music to answer questions you have.

 

When I first began this activity, I would basically play the lick as a warm up, somewhat absentmindedly. But soon, I started to explore it. I first began to play it as perfectly as I could: making the rhythm as smooth and consistent as possible, and making each note as pure as I could. Then, it started to branch off into many other topics.

 

A lick or melody consists of a few basic things: melody, an underlying harmony, rhythm, key, and fretboard location/fingering. You can use your lick to explore any of these avenues. You can even put it into different styles; if it’s a country lick, try it out in a jazz tune, changing it up as needed.

 

By having one idea that you are very familiar with, it makes learning anything easier. For instance, if you are trying to improve your alternate picking, why learn a whole new melody or scale exercise, when you can play your lick that you already know, and simply create a picking exercise out of it that accomplishes what you need. This allows you to focus on what you want to accomplish, opposed to spending time learning the musical elements, and then eventually getting to work on what you originally intended.

 

Of course, if you need to learn the solo to Purple Haze, only playing this lick isn’t going to get you there, but it will help in many other ways.

 

When I first started to spend time with my lick and I realized how much it was teaching me, I thought to myself “If this simple lick has so much to show me, think of what a complicated thing can do!” I decided to switch to Charlie Parker’s “Conformation”. After about 5 minutes I realized that it wasn’t the same. The idea of using a simple melody or lick is that it isn’t difficult. Also, all complicated things can be reduced down to simple concepts, and 99% of the time the focus is on very simple things that everybody can understand with possibly an occasional complicated thing thrown in. This is much like when we speak- most of the words we use are basic ones (the, and, but, etc.), and complicated words are used only when necessary. It is usually easy to spot someone who is attempting to appear smarter than they actually are just from their needless use of big words.

 

This activity isn’t meant to imply that you only play your lick- you can play whatever you want, but you devote some time to your lick each day. Like I said, sometimes I play mine for 5 minutes, other days all I do is play my lick. It becomes a very familiar sound, and kind of like a friend.

 

Some suggestions for what to do with your lick:

Change harmony- if it’s a major lick, make it minor, or dominant.

Play it in different keys.

Change the rhythm.

Rearrange the notes, or add and/or subtract notes.

Play it in as many places on the neck that you can find.

Use open strings or harmonics.

Use it to learn the names of the notes on the fretboard.

Use it for various picking patters

Use it to build speed.

Play it on one string.

 

Don’t think that you actually have to do any of these suggestions- these are just some of the things that I have done. Most importantly, let your lick lead you. Music is all about blazing your own path, and the inspiration for that is your curiosity. My lick has taught me a lot, but if I list everything that I have worked on with it, it gets interpreted as a sort of overwhelming list of things that you might feel you have to learn. Don’t think that way. I have a few books by people such as Ted Greene and Mick Goodrick that are more like encyclopedias. They are incredible and awesome books that have so much information; a lifetime’s worth, actually. I have spent many hours working on them, but when I look back on it, I don’t think I have learned very much from those books. I can imagine that these guys decided to write those books because they were excited about the new concepts they devised or found and wanted to show them to people. I would see the books as a mass of info that I had to learn. I have done similar things in my own teaching, in which I find a new way of making sense of the fretboard that I find exciting, and it quickly grows into mammoth proportions when I finally cover all of the avenues. I think that everyone would benefit from this approach and I want to share it with my students. When I show it to them,all I see is either confusion, or that overwhelmed, hopeless look. The concept that I find exciting and makes me want to dig farther and farther into it, loses something when it is presented to a student. They see it as more stuff to learn. But, if that student could be inspired to dig into a concept themselves, discovering new ways of seeing music and the guitar- that’s where real progress is made. Basically, you want to “write your own book”.

 

This concept is similar to the idea presented in my earlier blog about simplification.

Don’t try to get better by adding more things to your collection of things that you “kind of“ know- instead, learn what you “kind of” know better.

 

By working on a lick like this, you become much closer to mastering it. This sort of approach then bleeds over into all of your other playing. If this lick helps you understand chords better, that becomes apparent in everything else you play.

 

Of course, this concept isn’t guaranteed to help you in every aspect of your playing, but it will help you in many ways. Every little bit counts.

 

There are no real rules here- only guidelines. If you choose a lick, and then a few days, or even a year later are unhappy with your choice, change it. Maybe you want to choose a chord progression instead of a lick. But the basic idea is to have one musical thing that you spend time playing every day and you get to know really well. If you find yourself saying “I need to improve my speed”, use your lick to create an exercise.

 

I once read about a Zen method of learning how to paint which involves painting the same plant every day for a year. That may sound like you would only become good at painting that one plant, but I don’t think so. I would expect that for the first few days or weeks it might be boring, but soon you would start digging deeper and finding new ways to paint that plant. Not only would you technique improve, but your ability to see objects would improve also. This lick is your plant that you explore daily.