Category Archives: music

Day 1 – Anything Can Go Wrong

It’s been a hard day. Getting out of the airport was tough because our rental van is so high tech that we are literally like the three stooges trying to remove the seats and work the GPS. I ended up navigating Kevin to St Gallen to pick up Serge’s bass the old school way. You know, with a map? We got there late and the shop was closed for lunch but we killed time for a few hours. The Sprenger violin shop is the oldest in Switzerland and it was gorgeous and very cool. They had three basses for Serge to try out.

After getting the bass we headed to Stafa, having deciphered the GPS. But we arrived with only enough time to sound check and to head to the hotel for 30 minutes. At this point we have been awake for well over 24 hours and it’s been showing. We’re all pretty ragged but soon we will play our first show and get our first night of sleep. I’m hopeful that we will be rested for tomorrow’s gig. Now we’re off to dinner and the show…

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Day -1 – Dad, are you sure it’s a good idea to drill a hole in your guitar?

Tomorrow is Thursday. I’ll call it day 0 since our first show is on Friday. I’ve packed and I’m ready to embark on my 7th two week tour of Switzerland. Kevin and I have been doing this since 2004 but it’s always fun and exciting. This time I can tell I’ll miss my kids more than usual. They are older and more interesting and I really enjoy time with them. Kevin, Serge and I played a kick off show to a very friendly Ann Arbor audience a few nights ago. Keith Meisel, who has toured with us four out of six previous trips, sang some killer harmonies. I’m definitely going to miss him on the road.

Just before the Ann Arbor gig I decided to drill a hole in my 1930 Slingerland so I could attach a strap button to the neck heel. Bad idea. I ended up cracking the neck heel and now the Slingerland is in the shop, so for the first time ever I’m flying with a Gibson. It’s a beautiful ES-339, basically a 335 for short people, which I am. I’ll hang out with the kids tomorrow until noon and then it’s off to the airport. For the next two weeks my life will be simple. Drive. Play. Sleep. Repeat.

This is the current set list. I’m curious to see how it changes over the next sixteen nights.

Final Rehearsal

In five days I will embark on a 2 week tour of Switzerland supporting my long time musical collaborator Kevin Meisel. I’ll be blogging the tour here and hopefully I’ll figure out how to post video. The band is Kevin, me, and Serge van der Voo on bass. Today we had our final rehearsal, at a secret location in Ann Arbor. We’ve been rehearsing every Saturday for a few months now, making sure that our arrangements are worked out and that we are truly ready for 15 shows in 16 days! Tomorrow we will perform at Old Town Tavern to kick off the tour. Check back here for details and stories as we make our way across Switzerland!

Kevin and Serge at our final rehearsal.

Shell Voicings

I remember when I started playing jazz it took me forever to find chords. I felt like there were a million possible chords and I would never learn them all. But as it turns out, as with most things in life, there are a few simple principles that, when applied carefully, can make finding chords a lot easier. Today I want to look at what I call shell voicings. I call them shell voicings because that’s what my teacher, Chris Buzzelli, called them. I bet you can find some cool diagrams over on his web site! Shell voicings are constructed with the Root of the chord on the 5th or 6th string and the 3rd (minor, major, or sus4) and 7th (minor, major, or 6) on the middle two strings. These are simple chords, but they are designed so that you can add color tones such as 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths to them easily. We’ll look at that in a later post.

The first thing you must be able to do to get to these chords quickly is to be able to find the root of any chord on the 6th or 5th string. I suggest that you try to stay between the 3rd and 10th fret, and when moving to a new chord, change strings rather than jumping up and down on one string. For example, in the tune attached (All the Things You Are), the first chord is Fmi7. You can find an F on the 5th string at the 8th fret. Each subsequent chord moves up a fourth, and if you keep changing strings, you’ll find a Bb on the 6th string, an Eb on the 5th, an Ab on the 6th, and so on. Remember to only use the bottom two strings to find the roots. This is just like finding power chords, kids! You should be able to pick any (and I do mean any) song and find all of the roots between the 3rd and 10th frets on the bottom two strings.

You may have noticed that chords often move by 4th, and that following this alternating string idea moves you down the neck of the instrument. As a result, once in a while you will need to make a jump up the neck. In the example I wrote out, I put the jumps in places where I felt they made sense, such as when a new phrase or section was beginning. But in actual practice you will learn for yourself where you need or want to jump up, and ultimately you may learn other strategies and concepts for voice leading so that you don’t have to jump up. Shell voicings are just one of many approaches to chord voicings.

Now, if you have taken some time to be sure that you really can find roots of chords on your bottom two strings, let’s add the 3rds and 7ths. You may want to refer to the example here. When the root of the chord is on the 5th string, the third of the chord will be on the 4th string, and the seventh will be on the 3rd string. So, if you look at measure two you will see an F on the bottom, an Ab in the middle, and an Eb on top. When the root of the chord is on the low E string, the third and seventh switch positions so that the third is on top (on the 3rd string) and the 7th is in the middle (on the 4th string). This results in nice, simple voice leading in the top two voices. If you look at measures 1-8, you will see that no voice moves more than a step.

It’s a good idea to memorize the following shapes – Maj7, 7, 6, mi(M7), mi7, mi6, 7sus4. Remember that there are two ways to play each shape. Check out this list of each chord in C. Once you have memorized these shapes you may notice a few things. The first is that if you leave out the root (which you should definitely do when playing with a bassist), the only intervals you have to deal with (besides the mi(M7) chord) are fourths, fifths, and tritones. That’s because the interval between the 3rd and 7th of a chord is always either a perfect fifth (Maj7 or mi7), a tritone (7, mi6), or a fourth (6, 7sus4). And since the instrument is tuned in fourths, these shapes are really easy to play. The hard part is not playing them, it’s finding them without the root. The second thing you might notice is that there is no diminished chord listed. That’s because these chords have no 5th. The mi6 voicing serves as a diminished chord. A third thing that you might notice is that you can get better voice leading in the bass by alternating between the root and the fifth. You might want to try this approach if you think you will be doing a lot of traditional rhythm jazz guitar. Just always use the 6th string, so that your voicings are either R, 7, 3 (low to high) or 5, 3, 7.

When practicing these chords, please take the following steps. First find the roots for the chords of a few tunes on the bottom two strings. Next learn to play all the chords in the tunes with three note shell voicings using the best possible voice leading. Last, remove the roots. You’ll be playing simple shapes on the middle two strings but you will be defining each chord well. These small voicings will expand to create some very cool, colorful voicings. And yes, these chords also work on the piano. Good luck! And use your new chord skills to play music that resists the coming totalitarian nightmare. Don’t play cool jazz for uncool fascists.

Let’s Keep it Possible – Writing for Guitar

I wrote a little treatise on how to write for guitar. I’m often given music that is not possible to play on the instrument, and I realize that this is because there are many people who want to write for guitar but are not sure how the guitar works. Rather than complain and curse these well meaning composers and arrangers, I decided to offer some assistance. Am I qualified? Yes. I’ve been playing and reading for a long time now and I am definitely an above average reader and player. Am I the ultimate authority on what you can write for guitar? Hell no. That person is too busy and didn’t have time to write anything, so you’re stuck with my ideas instead. Enjoy!

Notice Moment’s Notice

Check out this Transcription of John Coltrane’s solo on his composition, “Moment’s Notice”. This is a great tune. The melody is very singable and the chord changes, while difficult, make sense. I’ve loved this tune for years but never really learned it well.

Looking at the solo, the first thing that strikes me is how often ‘Trane will use the same melodic material with slight variations. It’s clear that he has worked out some basic ideas for these changes. The second thing I noticed is an increasing use of the sharp five on dominant chords as the solo progresses. This is nearly always part of a descending arpeggio and happens at mm 21 (Bb7), 29 (Eb7), 33 (Bb7), 43 (Bb7 – not part of a descending arpeggio), 57 (Bb7, though he actually starts on an A natural here. Also, not resolving to I), 63 (Ab7), 85 (Ab7), 95 (Bb7, not resolving to I), 98 (Bb7 – he plays the arpeggio after the chord has already resolved to I and follows up with a lick that he also plays a few times earlier in his solo. That lick is also two beats later. Compare mm 21-22, 81-82, and 97-99.), 101 (Ab7), 109 (Bb7), and 115 (Bb7). I hadn’t really picked up on this with casual listening but it became very clear once I got into the transcription process.

Coltrane starts the solo out with a break. He plays down the so-called major bebop scale (a major scale with a chromatic added between 6 and 5 which keeps chord tones on strong beats) and then outlines the I chord. It’s repeated almost note for note at his second break in measures 40-41. The descending Maj7 arpeggio in measure 8 is used again in measures 62, 84, 85 (up a half step) and 100. Actually, he plays the exact same line in mm 99-102 that he played in mm 61-64. The difference is that the later repetition is part of a very long eighth note line. It’s as though he was assemling ideas in his first two choruses and then putting them together in the final chorus.

In measure 13 I think it’s pretty clear that he was still playing over Cmin7 even though the change to Bbmin7 had already arrived. It still sounds great and he makes the modulation quite clear in the second half of the measure with a descending Bbmin7 arpeggio.

Contrast the 13th measure of the form (mm 16, 54, 92) with the 29th measure (mm 32, 70, 108). It’s clear that despite the written changes, he is treating the former as a I chord (before launching into the key change up a minor third), whereas in the latter he is treating the measure as a ii-V to the ii chord. It’s an excellent example of how the function of a change can determine what you might do with it.

I love the desending melodic minor scale Coltrane uses over the Abmin6 chords in this tune. Check out mm. 31, 69, 91, and 107. I also appreciate the way he echoes the melody over the last 8 bars of each chorus. And of course there is the double time diminished scale lick right before the third chorus in measure 75. Dom7#5 chords played in descending minor 3rds. Each four note group is half of a diminished scale and the next four note group covers the other half. Well worth learning. Also note that the longest 8th note phrase – 5 bars long – is in his final chorus. And the first note of each measure is G, F#, F, E, Eb, and F. In case you thought that the F# on the Eb chord was some kind of error!

Every time I transcribe I learn something new. Usually I discover that what I thought was complicated is actually really straightforward. And I’ll admit that I don’t have this solo learned at full speed. Yet. That’s what practice is for!

Out of Stitt’s Brain

I’ve recently completed this transcription of Sonny Stitt’s solo on “Out of Nowhere” from his Last Sessions LP. It’s one of the many tunes that I should have known years ago but only recently learned. I transcribed Sonny’s interpretation of the melody as well as his two chorus improvisation. The fingering should allow you to get close to the original phrasing, which is why, for example, in measure 53 there is a sudden jump up from position II to XII.
Rather than analyze the entire solo, here are some highlights that I found particularly interesting. There is a lot to learn from transcribing a solo, from phrasing to feel to interpretation and scale choice.

MM.24- This lick is difficult on guitar but it sounds great and the sudden drop of a fifth is very cool. Also, after this point Stitt begins to mix up the octaves that he uses to play the melody, jumping up and then back down and using melodic fills to move around. Overall his statement of the melody is loose and peppered with short licks in between the important melodic passages. While the original melody covers a ninth, from D below the staff to E an octave up, Sonny’s version covers an octave plus a sixth, from D below middle C up to the B above middle C.
MM.36- The break is what made me want to transcribe this solo. It’s such a great use of the minor pentatonic where many other players would tend to use some sort of D7 lick. The repetition of the Bb contrasts with the B on beat one of the form, when Stitt outlines the G triad from the third up.
MM.40- It’s clear from looking at the lines in measures 40-41, 56-57, 72-73, and 88-89 that Stitt is thinking of the ii-V in Ab as a Bbmin7 chord. He never really outlines the Eb7, completely avoiding the third (G, the tonic of the overall key) in every case. Also, the way that he transitions back to the tonic key with double chromatic enclosures in measures 41, 57, and 89 is ingenious. In all cases he uses two notes that are diatonic to the Ab scale to enclose a chord tone from G. What a great way to employ chromaticism diatonically!
MM42- I always learn something new when I transcribe. I never would have thought to treat the G chord in measure 5 of the first eight as a G7, especially considering the F# in the melody, but that’s exactly what Stitt does and it sounds great.
MM.50- Thanks to my student Ben Collins for showing me that you can slow a Youtube video down to half speed! He also helped to transcribe this lick when my ear was failing me. Mastering the double time licks in this solo is not easy. You will need to pay close attention to your right hand technique and decide for yourself where you want to slur. I like to slur as little as possible to maintain clarity. Note that the lick in measure 52 starts out the same as the one in measure 50 except it is down a half step, missing the first note, and is not in double time. I put the octave slide here in measure 53 to reflect the way that Sonny does it on the tenor.

MM.66- Although the changes here are iii – biii dim – ii – V, which is a very common chord progression in standard tunes, Sonny outlines a iii – bIII – ii – bII and quotes a bit of the Charlie Parker tune “Ornithology”. Both sets of changes get you back to the tonic efffectively.

MM.70- Guitarists know that playing the same note on two different strings yields a different tone. Saxophonists also have alternate fingerings for certain notes and Stitt bounces back and forth between two different B notes here. If you refuse to use open strings then catch this on the G and D strings.
MM92- This is another difficult lick. I found that in order to smoothly execute the sixteenth note Bmin arpeggios I had to play them all as an upstroke sweep. You might try down-up-up-up, but that didn’t work for me.

MM100- For some reason I didn’t learn how to effectively wrap up a solo until way after college. I guess it was when I started recording and realized that all of my solos just stopped without any resolution. Sonny Stitt uses a nice major pentatonic (mostly) lick to close out two choruses of great improvising.

When learning this solo, remember that you are copying someone else’s phrasing and feel. Work on playing along with the recording. If you just try to learn the licks off the page without listening to the record, you are completely missing the point. Good luck, have fun, and when you’re done, find another solo to transcribe on your own! It’s enjoyable and educational!