Gypsy Jazz Ornaments

In an earlier article, “Are You Learning Or Just Copying”, I advanced the idea that ornaments are essential elements of any style, and that copying ornaments from records and applying them to new situations is a great way of evoking the feel of a style.

This observation applies especially to jazz in the style of Django Reinhardt, who utilized ornaments called “enclosures” extensively. In a previous article, we analyzed and reapplied a Wes Montgomery ornament. In this article, we’ll give the same treatment to what I call a variant or two as encountered on recordings. (Turn: An ornament consisting of four or five notes that move up and down ‘around’ a given pitch, using that pitch as a tonal center. It is often referred to as an enclosure.). The first turn is a grace note triplet preceding a “target note” (C, in the following example), like in the first measure of this example:

The second measure shows how the turn is more typically extended and resolved (by continuing the chromatic motion for one more step up, and then continuing with whatever the melody needs to do); so the actual turn is really 5 notes: 3 grace notes and 2 eighth notes.

In practice, Grappelli tends to really play the first triplet as grace notes, while Reinhardt is more likely to steal more time from the preceding note.

For instance, in the version of “Nuages” on Django Reinhardt: Verve Jazz Masters 38, Grappelli plays the third and fourth phrases like this:

In this case, the A in the third measure is preceded by three grace notes (not shown): Bb – B – Bb.

Here’s another example of the trill, from the beginning of Night and Day’s head, from the same CD. This time Django is playing:

In this case, the three grace notes have been expanded to take up a full beat (I’m exaggerating, and the true timing is somewhere between these two extremes). But the form remains the same: it’s a turn leading to the G on the fourth beat of the second measure, and then the chromaticism is extended, as the turn continues down to the Gb and back up to the G in the last measure.

Either way, the chromaticism in the turn, totally contemptuous of the key signature, is a large part of what gives it “gypsy” flavor. A more classical turn might keep the same kind of rhythm and shape, but would more likely use notes within the key signature.

So how do you integrate this into your playing?

First of all, a great type of chord progression to use this on would be a gypsy-type version of that old standard, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schein”. This song is, in it’s simplest form, a 3-chord song consisting of just Am, Dm and E7. However, we’ll jazz it up by substituting a progression involving m6 chords for the Am, and adding an F7 at the end of the form just to spruce up the turnaround. Here’s how the chords go in the A section:

| Am6 Bm6 | C6 Bm6 | Am6 Bm6 | C6 Bm6 |

| E7 | E7 | Am |  F7 E7 |

Try improvising over that, starting each phrase with the turn starting on various notes. Which starting notes work the best? (my favorites are E, A and C in that order – the notes of the root chord, even when the other chords are sounding). See what you can come up with! And then try integrating the turn into the middle  of phrases – that’s when the chromaticism really comes alive.

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:

wpe1.jpg (8878 bytes)

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:

wpe2.jpg (12874 bytes)

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:

wpe3.jpg (16608 bytes)

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:

wpe4.jpg (47814 bytes) etc.

(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:

wpe5.jpg (23341 bytes)

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


Example 6:

wpe7.jpg (29813 bytes)etc.

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

Album cover art, Jimmy & Wes The Dynamic DuoThis 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.

Use Octaves To Break Up Streams Of Too Many Notes!

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.

The Thumb

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. (Editor’s note: Django Reinhardt and other flatpickers did or do use octaves. In Django’s case, all the strings are played when you hit an octave, but all the strings are muted except the ones that you want to sound. This gives a more aggressive attack to the octaves.)

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 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.

Road Song Transcription

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. Here’s a link to where the solo begins on YouTube.

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

Are You Learning Or Just Copying?

Spending as much time as I do – enjoyable time, to be sure – transcribing and playing along with the solos by my musical idols of the moment, I sometimes have to stop and question whether I am making the best use of the (unfortunately) limited time I have for practicing.

To begin with, there is always the question of whether I should be writing instead of learning. The answer to that may well be “yes”, but I don’t seem to be in a writing mood these days – being a software developer and editor of Woodsheddin’ rarely leaves me with enough concentration for writing. But learning solos and licks is something I can do whenever I have a spare hour.

OK, but what do you do with those licks? Well, to be sure, I use them literally in performance as I play “Night and Day” a la Django or “Road Song” a la Wes. And you get several pure benefits just from doing the work of transcribing and practicing up to speed. The act of transcription extends your musical vocabulary. I often come away with a sense of “I didn’t know you could get away with that” after transcribing some killer-sounding passage that completely violates whatever harmonic logic I’ve absorbed through the years. It’s a liberating feeling, like being given permission to go beyond the world of formal rules about what’s right and wrong, and to play in the world of pure imagination. Even if emulating someone playing from that place doesn’t get you there, it reminds you that the place and the feeling exist.

Emulation is also great for your chops. Getting your fingers to move in patterns that are unfamiliar, often at challenging speeds, expands your physical capabilities and breaks you out of ruts. If your muscles evolve to where they are comfortable moving like Wes Montgomery (or Art Tatum or John Coltrane or Jimi Hendrix), then your spontaneous improvising is likely to drift in those directions on occasion. A gradual process of integrating new sounds and new approaches with your own playing style is bound to occur if you just play the new riffs enough and naturally listen more carefully to everything as you get deeper into one thing.

This article is about what we can do to consciously accelerate that kind of integration.

Mainly the process involves actually thinking about what I’m doing and, in a practice situation, extracting the essence of a riff (i.e., answering the question, “just what is it about this passage that appeals to me so much?”), and applying it in a new context. Well, gosh, this is suspiciously like work. And, in fact, it is work, but the rewards are substantial and lasting.

Let’s look at two examples for now: two little fragments of riffs, one from Wes and one from Django (also used by violinist Stephane Grappelli).

Interestingly enough, both of the examples that I am drawn to look at are essentially ornaments – ways of hitting a particular note that involve “beating around the bush” a little bit by trilling or slurring the adjoining notes before settling into the target. As all classical players know, ornaments are key elements of various musical styles. The way you play the ornament around a single note can determine whether you’re playing in a Renaissance, Baroque or Classical style – or, in our case, whether you sound like a bluesman or a gypsy.

Look at the first ornament, taken from the first turnaround of Wes’ Montgomery’s solo on Road Song, from the CD Jimmy & Wes, The Dynamic Duo (click here for more about the CD and the solo), shown here (the song is in Gm):

I was drawn to thinking about this element simply because it feels so good to play. If you’re playing in a jazz context, throwing this riff in just says “blues”. So, the question is, where does it work best? When should you use it?

Being the brute-force kind of experimenter guy that I am, I figured the best way to approach this would be to put a major and minor blues progression onto tape (well, actually I used an Echoplex, but that’s just ’cause it was convenient), to play phrases involving the ornament on top of it, and to see what works. And I made it even simpler for myself: I just played the first five notes (together with the grace note at the start). The phrase eventually, as I tried to apply it, got even shorter, until I was using just the first three notes (plus the grace note).

What I learned is simple: this sounds great practically in any part of a blues progression, major or minor, as long as you start on the fourth degree of the scale. So, in a Gm progression, start the trill on a C. In E, start in on A.

Oh yeah, there’s one other thing to keep in mind – although it’s great, during practice, to play the ornament a zillion times, wherever it fits (or even where it doesn’t fit), you should use it far more sparingly when actually performing. If you sneak it in a few times (or even just once!) in an evening, it can add a bit of spice without becoming a cliche.

By the way, another key stylistic element of Wes’ playing that I discovered while transcribing and analyzing is the fact that he almost always uses a half-note interval when sliding into an octave from below – almost never a whole step or other interval. And he does quite a bit of this sliding.