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 (, 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! (, 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.

The Secret To a Great Solo

The idea for this blog entry comes from a video I saw of Wynton Marsalis (probably my favorite musician of all time) giving a speech. In it, Wynton related a story in which he asked the great jazz baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan: “What is the secret to a great solo?”

After some thought, Gerry responded, : “I don’t know the secret to a great solo; but I do know the secret to a bad solo: right before you play a solo, tell yourself ‘I’m going to play a great solo’ ”.

I find that hilarious and yet totally true. Instead of just applying to solos, this could be said of a song, a whole gig, an audition, or a recording session. It could also apply to many non-musical activities, such as sports, or even dating.

The idea is to approach any situation, as Taoists say, like an uncarved block: no expectations, staying simple, and not trying to impress anyone. You should approach a solo with an open mind, and only intending to play the music. Any attempt to kick-ass or impress usually results in the opposite. Whenever I fall victim to trying too hard, it feels like I am trying to shove 1000 lbs. of awesomeness through a pin-hole; it all gets squashed into an unattractive amorphous blob.

It seems like the most magical things happen spontaneously. I notice this most often when it comes to humor: the funniest things I’ve said have not been planned- they just come out. Because what I said was so effective, I remember it so I can say it again some other time. But, usually what happens is I try to force it, and it is always falls flat. I may get some laughs, but it feels artificial compared to the time it happened spontaneously.

The best musical moments are also totally unplanned and almost feel like a gift. You’re not expecting it, but all of a sudden something happens, the perfect lick comes out of your fingers, and it’s incredible- where it came from, nobody knows. And, trying to do it again is a total disaster. When an awesome musical moment happens, let it go. If it is supposed to happen again it will, but it is not for you to decide. I don’t mean to avoid playing that lick, just let it come out on its own.

To allow things like this to occur, it is best to get out of the way. Trying is interference- an open, clear mind is the most unobstructed conduit for good things to travel on. This isn’t always easy, especially when the event is perceived as important.

Dating is another example: you finally score a date with that person you think is so incredibly perfect, and you really want it to work, but instead you become a complete idiot and ruin the whole evening. For some unfathomable reason, you get another chance. You look to your friends for help, telling them about the crippling nerves that this person brings out in you, and their response is always “Just be yourself.” In this situation, being yourself can be the most difficult thing. Of course, being ourselves is what we should be best at, way more so than being somebody else.

In music, this most commonly happens in situations such as auditions, an important gig in which industry big-wigs are attending, or in the studio: anything in which we might feel the need to impress someone. All of these situations tend to bring out the worst in our playing due to trying too hard. Instead, just focus on playing the music, allowing for unexpected things, but not forcing them. Keep your ears open, listening not only to yourself, but the whole band. Almost hear it as an outsider, a member of the audience.

Be aware.

Just be yourself.


Simplicity, along with eliminating clutter, is a theme that will be reoccurring throughout these blogs.

It is very easy to get overwhelmed with the incredible amount of information that is easily accessible in today’s society. Any song, concert, album, book, etc. is available to us with only a click of the mouse. You want to learn from Danny Gatton? Well, go to youtube and watch his lesson videos. This is incredible, and when I was younger, I would’ve given anything to have had access to the information (for free!) that is available to us today. But, this vast amount of material can lead to feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, and panic. We think that we have to know ALL of this in order to be a real musician.

Remember, Danny Gatton didn’t have the internet and youtube. He learned by picking his favorite things off of records, from other people, or any other means he had available, and playing it over and over until it became internalized. Instead of learning a billion licks, he started with one, played it until he was satisfied with it, and then mutated it, made it fit in many different contexts, and turned it into something that became his. This one lick spawned many different ideas. And then he did it again with another musical idea. Over time, he amassed a repertoire of musical ideas that was representative of him, and he knew how to use them masterfully.

Robben Ford, in this video ( expresses this beautifully. He basically says learn a few things that you really love, and once you internalize them, start applying them. That is an important concept- application. Don’t learn a lick, chord, or idea and leave it at that. Learn how to use it in as many different applications as possible. Learn a blues lick, and then see how you can put it in a jazz or country tune. Take it apart; rearrange it, thereby making it your own. Each lick has an infinite amount of possibilities if you deconstruct it and reconstruct it. Combine it with other licks. If you learn a cool jazz chord, see how you can put it in a blues or rock tune. Again, Danny Gatton was a master of this. He never had categories for his music; any style of lick could be used in any other style of music. That’s what made him sound like himself. Stevie Ray Vaughn was another player who was great at making his repertoire of ideas fit in any situation.

Every great musician, from Charlie Parker to Jimi Hendrix, had their handful of musical ideas that they had mastered and could apply to whatever context they found themselves playing in. And if they are a true master, this never gets boring to listen to. Think of Albert King, who had that much copied “Albert King” lick- I never get tired of hearing him play it. To me, that represents Albert. Charlie Parker is similar, although his handful of musical tools is more sophisticated, with repeated listening you start to hear his “repeated” ideas, and it never gets old.

It is worth mentioning that these licks/ideas/concepts that you decide to learn and internalize should be stuff that you really like. Don’t choose things that you think you should know or that you think will impress people- choose things that really speak to you. That will be the most direct path towards self-expression.

Do not feel as though you need to compensate for your own, most likely, misperceived lack of ability by accumulating more info. This is a common mistake guitarist make when they are unhappy with their playing- “I’m not good enough- I need to learn more stuff!” Information, i.e. licks, scales, chords, songs, does not translate to comprehension, or in this case, internalization. Or even music. Accumulation of this sort leads to mental clutter and confusion. If you have already accumulated a large amount of material, it might be time to do some housecleaning. Think about the things you play and sort through them, asking which ones you really identify with, and which ones that may be just taking up space. Get rid of those cluttering ideas- they are always available later if you change your mind. Devote your energies to the important ones. Really master them, change them, deconstruct them, add notes, take away notes, play them in a different context. The possibilities are endless. Also, just find the enjoyment in playing things you love.

An important thing to remember is that you have your whole life ahead of you to learn guitar. There is no need to be in a hurry; the only thing being in a hurry does is take the fun away from whatever you are doing. More than anything, music is supposed to be fun.