Our Fragile Egos

Q: How many guitarists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: 50 – 1 to change the bulb, and 49 to stand around and say, “I can do that”.

A subscriber to Woodsheddin’ recently wrote to me and expressed how he was so awed by some of the guitarists that he admired that it was depressing to him, causing him to despair of ever achieving great heights. It was easy for me to identify with this feeling, because I’ve felt that way myself – more frequently than I care to admit. I think we’ve all been there at one time or another.

I responded that there are few truths that help you understand and accept your place in the musical “pecking order”, such as it is, as follows:

  1. There are always quite a few people who are a lot better than you in some really impressive manner. There are a lot of other people out there. Even when just a small percentage are obviously gifted with immense talent, that adds up to quite a few people. In other words, you can be truly fantastic and still not be in the top 100 talented people or groups – even in a niche genre!
  2. Even if your talent and skills aren’t the scary, mind-boggling type (yet) – as in Jimi Hendrix, Celine Dion, Art Tatum, etc. – your creations can still have artistic value. What does that mean? To me it means that sometimes people really enjoy what I play or sing. Sometimes it just means that I enjoy what I make, although I have to say that appreciation in isolation can feel empty.
    And you might be more unique than you think. Sometimes there are a few tricks you know that most people don’t. In any case, you can always “be you” better than anybody else can (yes, of course it’s a cliché, but that doesn’t make it wrong). Discovering just what this means might be a lifelong search. It might be more about personality, or songwriting, than about technical instrumental wizardry per se. And the world may or may not appear to be vitally interested in the theater of “you”, but you should be.
  3. Commercial success in music isn’t strongly correlated with talent and skill. A considerable level of talent and skill are usually prerequisites for success, but once you’re past the basics, many other factors help determine the outcome: ambition, appearance, resources, contacts, background, age and being in the right place at the right time. For instance (warning: cynicism alert!), if you’re a gorgeous (male or female) singer with incredible pipes, living in LA and aged 17-25, your chances for superstardom might be decent. The rest of us would do well to be happy with other dreams.
  4. Just because you’re not famous, it doesn’t mean you’re not good. Popular music tastes are fashions. Your own tastes are your own tastes, regardless of fashion. Sometimes the two things coincide, you’re in the right place at the right time, and your skills are at the right level to benefit. Then, it’s BINGO. Many of us (such as myself) have tastes that are unlikely ever to coincide with the popular imagination. We just have to appreciate and live with that fact.
  5. Even if you’re not good – or you don’t think you’re good – you can still enjoy the learning process and playing with other people. The satisfaction that you derive from the process of getting together and making music with others can be immense at any level of accomplishment.
  6. When you start out, you can’t expect to be very good. As you play more, you get better. You almost can’t avoid it, as long as you keep playing.
  7. You set your own values. I don’t play to filled arenas, or even large concert halls. But I do play out. And for me, if at least some people can derive a unique kind of joy from my playing – and they do, at least on occasion – that is sufficient.

Mind-Bending Upstroke Exercises

If you’re like me, you’ve never paid that much attention to upstrokes. Like many flatpick-wielding guitarists, I’ve concentrated on alternating picking technique for most of my playing life. And that makes sense – it is certainly the most versatile, general purpose technique that there is. You also probably have a smattering of downstroke-based ascending arpeggios in your repertoire (see example 1). If this is all you’ve done, you’ve ignored perhaps 30% of your picking potential. These exercises will start you on the road towards harnessing that potential.

Example 1:

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What I’ve found, though, as I’ve delved into the guitar techniques of Django Reinhardt and Jim Hall, are systematic exploitations of the technique known as “sweep picking.” This refers to the technique of eliminating the inefficiencies that alternating picking imposes on you when you change strings. The simplest case: if you were to play two notes in succession on adjacent strings, sweep picking would dictate that you sound both notes with the same direction stroke, while alternate picking would make you move that pick a lot more  (example 2).

Example 2:

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Sweep picking is not universally applicable – there are many riffs which don’t lend themselves to this technique – but there are some passages that are virtually impossible to play at full speed without it. The basic principle of sweep picking is to put an odd number of notes on each string – typically 1 or 3, as in example 3. Note that having an even (2) number of notes on the top string facilitates the change of pick direction.

Example 3:

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In order to fully integrate sweep picking into your playing, your upstrokes must become as powerful, controlled and fluid as your downstrokes. Example 4 will go a long way towards making that happen if you are sure to accent the first note of each triplet and play the other two softly, regardless of where the up and down strokes fall.

Example 4 is

  • the key to basic phrasing flexibility
  • much longer than it looks (you need to repeat the pattern about 6 times before the cycle is complete)
  • both devilishly complicated and quite simple
  • not a finger-twister at all, but quite a mind-twister

(Okay, look – maybe it’s easy for you. Then you’re beyond this column. It wasn’t easy for me at first.)

Let’s explain it before playing it. On the surface, the structure is simple: you start out by playing 3 adjacent notes on the 5th string, then move the same pattern up to the 4th, then up to the 3rd, then to the 2nd, “sweeping” the transition from each string to the next with successive downstrokes. You continue this pattern to the 1st string, but only play two notes in order to facilitate a change of direction from ascending to descending. At this point, we start sweeping with upstrokes bridging adjacent strings instead of downstroke. At this point, the accents start to diverge from the note crossings, and you have to mentally track both, emphasizing the first note of each beat (which, in this measure, happens to fall on a downstroke) while being careful to cross strings with un-emphasized upstrokes. This pattern continues down to the 6th string, where two notes are played and the direction reverses again. The G# in measure 3 is usually where I lose it if I’m not paying enough attention – maintaining the correct accents throughout that second ascent, where all the accents occur on upstrokes, can be a challenge. And the challenge continues. Since the string crossings, stroke direction and the emphasis are all moving “out of phase” with one another, this exercise gives you the raw technique that you’ll need to play a wide variety of phrasings using optimal patterns of up-and-down strokes.

It seems complicated. And yet, once you grasp the pattern, it’s really easy to remember and play any time, during any warmup.

Example 4:

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(continue pattern until exhausted)

Example 5 is a straightforward arpeggio exercise that uses both up and down strokes. Example 6 is a 4-string variation.

Example 5:

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run it up and down the fretboard, translate the shape to all other sets of 3 adjacent strings.

 

Example 6:

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When you’ve mastered these exercises at swift speeds, you’ll have all the technique essentials to play blazing-fast swept licks.

Wes Montgomery – The King of Octaves

This has been the summer of Wes Montgomery for me and my guitar style. I recently was reminded of his great album with B3 master Jimmy Smith, Jimmy & Wes The Dynamic Duo. It inspired me to go order this CD, which I’d heard on vinyl years ago but never bought before.

I picked up my guitar this morning, and, undecided about what to work on, I put the CD in the computer, fired up SlowGold, and decided I’d work on the head of Road Song, here called O.G.D. (apparently the recording engineer’s abbreviation for “Organ, Guitar, Drums”), for an upcoming gig. It’s a great, memorable, foot-tapping line, and played entirely in octaves, so it affords some good practice.

Octave playing can be one of the most powerful techniques in the arsenal of any guitar (or, I imagine, keyboard) player. Its main virtues are that it both enhances the tone and restrains the speed of melodic passages.

Yes, you read me right. I believe that restraining the speed of melodic passages is often a virtue. Now, I certainly have nothing against lightning-fast playing, but it’s just one of many types of playing that you can employ. And, you know, impressing other guitar players is not the same thing as pleasing an audience – in my experience, audiences usually react more positively to slow or medium-tempo melodic concepts than they do to virtuosic displays (although you’ve gotta give ’em the occasional fireworks just to show ’em you can, eh?)

Which brings us around to Wes Montgomery. Wes got kind of a “sellout” reputation in the late 60s for making the best-selling records of his career (A Day in the Life and others) with strings and other sweeteners. And, it’s true, those records are not be among his most satisfying from a jazz fan’s standpoint. But he had a right (a legitimate artistic right, not just a legal right or commercially-justified right) to address the desires of a different audience, and that doesn’t in any way diminish his other work.

At any rate, it was The Thumb that made Wes Montgomery famous in the first place. But what was so great about The Thumb? Surely, it was not just the technical prowess involved, but the fact that it made such sweet and melodic statements.

One way any non-wind player can improve the melodicism of his/her playing is to sing along (softly, most probably) while soloing. This will force your solos to mimic phrasings that suit the ultimate instrument, the human voice. It is a remarkably effective means to better phrasing that is often missed.

But when you slow down your playing from superhuman to human tempos, single-line guitar can sound thin. That’s why octaves are so cool. You can fatten up your sound in a very pleasing way, while still keeping your focus on melody (you can fatten up your sound with other intervals, of course, but they’ll tend to move you in a more harmonic thinking pattern rather than a melodic. Nothing wrong with that – it’s just different).

Of course, what’s critical in octaves is learning to move your thumb correctly, in order to get the right tone. You can try it with a pick, and that does work for some things, but the traditional tone comes only from flesh on metal.

When I started trying to play octaves, I approached them as a classical guitarist would, either by stroking two strings with the side of my thumb, or by using the thumb and another finger to play the octave. This second approach is pretty non-traditional in the jazz world, but I find it works really well in some cases when the mix seems to demand more clarity and less attitude from my octaves. On the other hand, stroking the strings with the side of the thumb doesn’t seem to work at all well.

Some months ago, though, I happened upon a clue (in an issue of Guitar Player), which was to try and see a video of Wes Montgomery to check out the way he played with the flat of his thumb. After quite a bit of hunting I was able to locate a copy of Legends of Jazz Guitar Vol 01 at amazon.com. This has several great cuts of Wes, intermixed with Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, and Herb Ellis (the video manufacturers cleverly spread their rare Wes material over 3 tapes to entice you to buy all three).

Watching the way Wes Montgomery uses his thumb has liberated mine, but I’ve had to move from emulation to experimentation in order to advance. I don’t hold my hand exactly the way he does because my hand is different than his. Sometimes I curl a couple of fingers under the first string as an anchor, while sometimes I splay all my fingers and fling my thumb up and down with wrist action. I try many different angles of attack – it’s all fair game.

Click on the link below for a transcriptions of the start of Wes Montgomery’s solo on the famous “Road Song”, as it appears on The Dynamic Duo. This cut was an alternate take, not released on the original vinyl version of this record. The take that this is an alternate of appears on a different album: The Further Adventures of Jimmy And Wes. Are you confused yet? Well there’s more. The originally-released, (non-alternate) take also appears on Impressions: The Verve Jazz Sides, a 2-disk collection of some of his most burning material.

At any rate, it’s really instructive to listen to BOTH solos, to hear what the differences and similarities are. The “non-alternate” take seems to have protean (earlier and simpler) versions of some of the licks transcribed here.

Here’s a transcription of the first two A sections of Wes Montgomery’s solo on Road Song
Notation with commentary
Tab