Monday, December 11, 2006

As I've mentioned, I've been going to a bunch of jazz jams lately, and I'm treating the experience as a challenge to master. I've been a "jazz dabbler" for many, many years, and played (and led) a lot of jazz gigs. Yet, when it comes to playing in a "true jazz" atmosphere, with pianists and horn players steeped in the tradition, I feel... well, not like a "baby", but more like an advanced beginner.

For one thing, I have sax and piano envy. These are the instruments that defined and, in most respects, continue to define jazz, and it seems like they can both play faster than the guitar (more about that later, no doubt on a continuing basis). Also, sax players can blow their notes in a way that makes them swell after the initial attack, enabling them to add "distortion", if you will, in an expressive manner that, I'm sorry to say, beggars the best guitar fuzztones I've heard.

As a guitarist, almost all of my "after the note" expressive capability lies in my left hand's ability to bend the notes I'm holding. I can also add volume swells with the volume control, and footcontroller-induced after effects, but these are limited in expressiveness by two factors - (1) the fact that I'm not pushing against any dynamic resistance with these controls is something that I find to be a limitation, and (2) guitar notes can decay quite quickly, even after being compressed. without enlisting feedback (perhaps in the form of an ebow), there's just not enough signal to work with to get a six-second note that builds to an 'explosion", something that's not hard for a skilled sax player.

All that said, the main component of my envy is sheer jazz knowledge. And this is something I can remedy. I believe that it's generally true that jazz sax and piano players statistically have been exposed to much better training through their early years than guitar players. I know that in my specific case, I've had a year or two of jazz-specific lessons here and there, but I'm largely self-taught. But enough whining!

Today, the availability of learning and practice materials is amazing. As of this writing, Napster, for absolutely no money makes probably hundreds of thousands of jazz recordings available on demand. DVDs offering condensed, repeatable, private lessons with great musicians are available for less than the cost of a single private lesson with a local teacher (although, of course, everyone starting out should have a personal teacher to make sure that the physical basics of playing are established properly). Products like my own SlowGold make it easy to transcribe music. So there's no excuse not to work. My own main current project on the understanding front is to work through Mark levine's Jazz Theory book, using Napster to listen to the musical examples from the book (many are written for piano players and can't be played on guitar).

Well, finally, I'm getting around to what I started to write about: a strategy for memorizing jazz tunes for jam sessions. Here are some points relevant to this:

  • My experience tells me that you need to know the chords to maybe 150 tunes to be able to do this.
  • There are some tunes that it is just embarassing not to know - memorize at least the chords to these pronto! I don't have a complete list, but they include Autumn Leaves, Solar, Summertime, All Blues (and most of the simpler blues-based tunes; e.g. Blue Monk), Blue Bossa, Impressions/So What. I'm sure it would be easy to add another half-dozen to this list (do your own adding in the Comments section!)
  • There is a difference between tunes you call and tunes that others call. Although it is ideal to learn both the chords and melodies for all tunes, from a practical standpoint, you generally only need to know the melodies for the tunes that you call. And learning the chords is often much faster (at least for me). So start by learning the melodies to maybe 25 tunes that you can call, and then focus on learning the chords to another 125 songs.
  • You can learn the chords to one new song every day. Chords are easy to learn, especially if you start to recognize common patterns (more on this in a later note). Do this, and you'll have all the songs you basically need under your belt in just a few months. This small amount of work will offer a lifetime of rewards.


posted on 12/11/2006 10:27:36 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [9]
 Sunday, December 03, 2006

For 35 years, I've resisted memorizing tunes...

but a few years ago, when I moved to the NY area, I started to show up at jam sessions with my Real Book (or Pocket Changes) in hand. I soon learned that this practice is looked down upon somewhat in these parts, and I guess there are some good reasons for it.

First of all, it's great to show up at a jam session, say "what tune do you want to play?", and then all jump in without anyone fumbling for books or groping for music stands. It makes everyone look more professional, makes the flow go smoothly, etc.

But, more importantly, memorizing the tune (a) lets you really learn it and get inside it, and (b) learning the melody in particular improves your ear and gives you a readily-available musical vocabulary for quotes.

So, now that I've started going back to a regular weekly jazz jam session (great Wednesday night sessions at the very friendly and comfortable Cornerstage Music & Spirits in Middletown, NY, led by the fabulous bassist Robert Kopec and the great house bands he brings. You have to check it out if you're in the area.), I've finally bitten the bullet and embarked on a program of memorizing a tune each week, both chords and melody. Sometimes I fall short of that goal, but I am making steady progress.

One of the big issues is how do you pick the next tune to memorize? Well, first of all, it's a good idea to make a list of all the tunes that you've nearly memorized, and work on really getting those down. After that, what I do is to try and identify one or two tunes (depending on difficulty) from each week's jam to memorize (I do bring my Real Book to play tunes that other people call that aren't yet in my list).

Next, how do you memorize a tune? This is an extremely important and interesting question, with no really simple answers. I'll be covering some aspects of it as we go on. But practicing it a lot with Band-In-A-Box (see below) is a great place to start.


Before I sign off on this entry, let me recommend the one critical piece of software for practicing jazz tunes: Band-In-A-Box from PG Music. (disclosure: PG Music does distribute some of my own software, so the sales of certain BIAB packages yields a small amount of income to my stream, but this recommendation has nothing to do with that, and everything to do with the way I practice myself). What's really cool about BIAB is that the arrangements are more-than-good-enough for practicing, the speed and looping are easily altered, and there's a vast library of jazz tunes available for free if you join the Band-In-A-Box Files Group over at Yahoo

Remember to subscribe to the RSS feed to get more efficient practice tips as they're available.

posted on 12/3/2006 12:18:20 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [7]

This is my first public writing in quite a while. My most recent effort was the pre-blog electronic newsletter Woodsheddin', a journal of what I hoped would be "best practices for practicing". I was writing the newsletter partly as an effort to promote sales of my software, SlowGold and SlowBlast!, but also just to share the results of the transcription work I was doing and the my observations of the learning processes I was going through as part of my continual musical evolution. Some of you may also know me from my various articles and columns in Guitar Player magazine and other publications.

My contributions to Woodsheddin' were greatly disrupted when my family and I moved across the country from Oregon to NY in early 2001 for various personal reasons. We spent two years in Brooklyn, and are now happily settled in a rural exurb of NYC.

In the past few years, I have often been tempted to reactivate Woodsheddin', but the effort involved in publishing a full-blown "issue" has seemed daunting, with all the other demands on my time (you don't want to know...) Now, it seems that blogging and RSS feeds will allow me to put out such nuggets of wisdom and entertainment as I can manage in smaller, more casual "chunks", and maybe even get some feedback happening. So I'm going to give it a shot. I've accumulated a few bits of extremely condensed wisdom, particularly about jazz guitar and also some general improvising and practice principles, over the last few years, and I'm going to try to convey some of that wisdom, along, with some useful Web-based practice tools and utilities, as I develop them. I always welcome your comments.

Thanks for coming. Remember to click your browser's RSS button to subscribe.

posted on 12/3/2006 10:24:00 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [5]